Dougherty: Packers can best help Aaron Rodgers by leaning more on their running game
GREEN BAY - Last year the Green Bay Packers led the NFL in scoring.
This year through 12 games they’re in the middle of the pack at No. 15.
Things were bound to be different because teams are never quite the same year to year, even when the key principals return, as they did for the Packers this season. But those numbers say that coach Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Aaron Rodgers still haven’t hit on the identity of their offense in 2021.
The new dynamic this season is that although Davante Adams is having another big year at receiver, the strength of the weapons around Rodgers has shifted to the backfield. In Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, the Packers have as good a running back duo as any in the league. And LaFleur and Hackett still appear to be searching for how to get the most out of them while getting the most from Rodgers, too.
“The bottom line is you have to find a way to win the game, whether it’s throwing it 40 times or running it 40 times.,” LaFleur said this past week. “But certainly when you have two backs like that, that can do it either in the run game or the pass game, you want to get both those guys the necessary amount of touches. So I think that’s a challenge we face each and every week, just trying to get those guys involved in both phases of the game.”
LaFleur and Hackett had their bye last week to re-evaluate their body of work to this point. Jones and Dillon undoubtedly were a big subject. Hackett, for instance, talked this week about needing to run the ball more in the red zone, where the Packers have struggled (No. 24 in the league with a 55.3 touchdown percentage).
But really, that applies to the offense overall. LaFleur talked of touches, not just runs, and a lot of coaches in the league look at throwing to their backs as an extension of the run game. Either way, while it might seem counterintuitive, the way to get the most out of Rodgers is by giving the ball to his backs more.
That doesn’t mean running the ball the first play or two of every series or fresh set of downs. And it doesn’t mean running the ball more than passing it every week, or even most weeks.
But through 12 games the Packers rank No. 17 in run percentage (43.1), and that feels light for a team that features Jones and Dillon in the backfield, and that lost one of its best receiving weapons, tight end Robert Tonyan, to a torn ACL a few weeks ago.
There’s also the advantage running has in today’s NFL, where defenses are built to stop the pass. They have smaller, quicker players to rush the passer and cover at linebacker, and more defensive backs on the field to defend spread offenses.
It’s easier to run the ball against those kinds of players, and it’s part of the NFL’s cyclical nature that the run is making something of a comeback: Last year, only six teams ran the ball 45 percent or more of their snaps. This season it’s 10. The NFL is of course a quarterback game, but the run is having a mini-revival.
Another measure of a team’s commitment to the run – or, from another angle, its willingness to open up the passing game on early downs – is a stat Mike Sando of The Athletic came up with called the Cook Index. (The name is a reference to the calls to let Russell Wilson “cook,” or throw the ball more early in games.). It measures how often teams pass on first and second down in the first 28 minutes of a game – that is, before circumstances might dictate more passing, beginning with the two-minute offense at the end of the half.
According to Sando, the Packers pass on 54.2 percent of those downs, which ranks 11th-highest in the league. There doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation to where teams rank on that list and how good they are on offense. Four of the top 10 scoring teams also rank in the top 10 of the Cook Index. So it comes down to what’s best for each team.
Considering the Packers’ talent at running back, it seems like that number should be lower – 50 percent would put them in the bottom third of the league (or top third for running on those downs).
LaFleur and Hackett surely don’t want to take the ball out of Rodgers’ hands. But their charge is to make the best use of the talent they have, and the Packers have more talent at running back than receiver. Both backs need touches to get the most out of them – Jones because he’s capable of ripping off a big gain on any play, you just never know which one, and Dillon because at 247 pounds he can wear down a defense over the course of a game.
Now, it’s not like the Packers’ offense has been a big problem. The team is 9-3 and its average points improves from 23.5 to 27 if you throw out the opening-day fiasco against New Orleans and the game Rodgers missed because of COVID-19. .
But that still leaves plenty of room for improvement for a team that needs it to win the Super Bowl. And LaFleur’s best hope for that improvement rests in his talented backfield.