Were I to have told you before the Divisional Round games were played that one team would rush for 188 yards that weekend, I suspect it would have probably taken you at least three (and possibly four) guesses to name that team.
You first guess would almost certainly be the Baltimore Ravens. Their season average, after all, was 191.9 yards. They didn’t quite come to that level, topping out at 150 yards in their loss to Buffalo. The next guess would have probably been Cleveland – the number 3 running team in football running against a suspect KC run defense. The Browns certainly might have gotten there if they hadn’t ignored their running game through the first 30 minutes. Even so, Cleveland managed 112.
Failing the first two guesses, you might still have thought of the Rams next. They ran for 164 yards in their win over Seattle the previous week, and, with their quarterback about two weeks removed from surgery on his throwing thumb – and with the Rams playing without their leading receiver – you would think that Los Angeles would be a strong candidate for a run-centric game. But the Rams would fall well short as well – they finished with 96.
So, who could it be? Buffalo and Tampa Bay don’t run the ball. Kansas City sometimes does, but with Patrick Mahomes working against that suspect Cleveland pass defense, why would they? New Orleans has a strong running attack, but they were also going up against the top run defense in the league, so 188 rushing yards would be a lot to ask.
That would leave only the Green Bay Packers, but they were also lining up against a top run defense (the Rams ranked third against the run, allowing but 91.3 rushing yards a game).
Nonetheless, when the two minute warning hit, there were the Green Bay Packers with 192 rushing yards rolled up against that Ram defense. They gave back four of those yards on three Aaron Rodgers kneel-downs that killed off the last of the clock and left them with 188 rushing yards for the day. The Green Bay Packers were your rushing leaders for Divisional Round Weekend.
In the hoopla surrounding Rodgers and Davante Adams, people often forget that the Packers are about as balanced an offense as there is in the NFL. Along with their ninth-ranked passing game (ranking by yards), Green Bay can deploy an eighth-ranked running game. During the season, in fact, they had six different games where they ran for more than 140 yards, surpassing 200 rushing yards twice. From Weeks 12 through 16, Green Bay averaged 176 rushing yards a game at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry.
By season’s end, primary ball-carrier Aaron Jones finished with 1104 yards (the fourth most in football) and a 5.5 yard average (the fifth best average in the game).
So, yes, the Green Bay Packers. Last year’s club finished fifteenth in the league in rushing – and, not coincidentally, fifteenth in scoring – and subsequently lost to San Francisco in the Conference Championship Game – a game they were out-rushed in by a 285-62 margin. In 2019 Rodgers’ numbers were very good (he threw for 26 touchdowns and had a 95.4 passer rating), but he was also sacked 36 times.
This year, the elevation of the running game has raised the level of the entire offense. With 509 points scored, Green Bay led all of the NFL. Rodgers’ numbers in the passing game also soared – he threw 48 touchdowns this year with a 121.5 passer rating – both of those league leading numbers (two of an easy half-dozen categories that Rodgers led the league in). He was also sacked just 20 times. In what is increasingly a pass-happy league, a good dose of balance can make all the difference.
The difference has come as a result of just a few changes.
First of all, the 2020 edition is characterized by a stronger commitment to balance and a renewed interest in the running game. Seeing first-hand how devastating a dominant running game can be, the Packers have upped their focus.
Last year’s team ran the ball 25.7 times a game. This year that number is marginally up to 27.7 rushes a game. But even as they are running slightly more, they are spreading the carries around, keeping their backs fresher. Jones carried the ball 236 times in 2019. He handled just 201 carries this year. Jamaal Williams’ workload has picked up, from 107 rushes last year to 119 in 2020, and rookie AJ Dillon has been added to the mix – he carried the ball 46 times (averaging 5.3 yards a carry).
The run commitment here hasn’t just been about running more. It’s been about running better.
The Emergence of Jenkins
In 2019, left guard Elgton Jenkins was just a rookie. He was an impressive rookie (being named to the NFL all-rookie team), but he was just a rookie offensive lineman. Now a “seasoned veteran” in his second year, Jenkins is beginning to impact games at a high level.
Saturday against the Rams, when All-World defensive lineman Aaron Donald lined up to his side, Jenkins handled him one-on-one – and dominated the matchup. The ceiling is very high for this young man.
The Emergence of Patrick
Over the offseason, right tackle Bryan Bulaga took his nine years and 111 career starts to the Chargers. Green Bay’s adjustment was to slide guard Billy Turner over to Bulaga’s tackle spot, and to promote fourth-year player Lucas Patrick to the right guard spot. At that point, Patrick had started 6 games over the previous three years.
Unknown though he might be, Lucas has brought an energy to that line, and has improved as the season has gone on. He was notably impressive against the Rams.
On an eight-yard run by Williams in the first quarter, Patrick just muscled Sebastian Joseph-Day off the line and shoved him 6 yards up field. Toward the end of the first half, on an eight-yard run by Jones, it was Patrick overpowering Donald – pushing him to the far side of the formation.
The entire Green Bay offensive line performed spectacularly on Saturday afternoon. None were more eye-opening than Lucas Patrick.
Not Himself At All
Taking nothing at all away from the Packer offensive line, but I can’t sit here and write about these guys pushing Aaron Donald all over the field without expressing a fact that was obvious to everyone who watched the game. This was not the Aaron Donald that we’re used to seeing. I don’t believe the extent of his rib injury was ever completely disclosed, but there is no question that Aaron was a shadow of his usual self out there. Without any special attention at all, Green Bay made one of this generation’s most impactful defensive players mostly disappear – and that just does not happen if Aaron is at even 75% effectiveness.
The strongest hint of the severity of Donald’s injury is found in the snap count chart. Aaron was on the sidelines for 47% of Green Bay’s offensive plays. During the regular season, he missed only 15% of the opponent’s offensive plays.
I think it’s hard to over-estimate the impact of this loss.
What Happens When He’s Not There?
Look, football is a tough man’s game, and people get hurt. Winning teams cobble together enough quality depth to be able to survive if a starter goes down – even if that starter is a star. On Sunday, Kansas City milked enough plays out of Chad Henne to help them beat Cleveland even after they lost Patrick Mahomes. The Packers themselves are heading to the Championship Game without David Bakhtiari – one of football’s elite offensive linemen. Ricky Wagner has plugged into his spot, and is giving Green Bay enough to keep going. On Saturday against the Rams, he looked a lot like Bakhtiari.
But some losses boarder on the irreplaceable. When you have a unique talent, it’s almost second nature to construct your scheme (offensive or defensive) around that talent.
I wrote about this after Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray went down in a playoff-deciding game against the Rams. The Cardinal’s entire offensive scheme is intertwined with Murray’s unique dual-threat skills. When he was knocked out of the game, Arizona’s offense crumbled. We’ve seen the same thing happen in Baltimore when they’ve had to play without Lamar Jackson. Even players who have “similar” abilities can’t revive an offense that draws its life from the singular talent that sits at its heart.
Aaron Donald is that kind of talent for the Ram defense. When you have an Aaron Donald leading your defensive line, you can take all kinds of liberties with the layers of defense behind him.
On Green Bay’s very first possession, ball at their own 42, facing a first and ten, the Packers came out with two receivers split out to the left, and two running backs (Jones and Dillon) in the backfield with Rodgers. When Jones went in motion to flank out left – making the left side the three-receiver side – middle linebacker Troy Reeder followed him out to the perimeter – presumably in man coverage.
With two other defensive backs aligned over the other receivers, and a safety sitting deep to that side, the Rams had a four defenders-to-three receivers advantage on that side. But there were now no linebackers in the middle of the field. The Rams had three linebackers on the field, but two were on the edges in pass rush mode, and Reeder was outside the numbers in coverage. From tackle-to-tackle, the closest defender was safety Nick Scott, about ten yards up the field.
This is a liberty you can take when you have Aaron Donald in the middle of your line. Suppose the Packers try to run? Fine. Donald will push the guard into the backfield and drop the runner for a 2-yard loss.
But what happens when Donald isn’t there? Or, as in this case, when he’s physically there, but not able to be Aaron Donald. What then?
In this instance, center Corey Linsley turned nose-tackle Joseph-Day out to the right, Jenkins stopped Donald in his tracks, and Dillon popped the middle for nine yards. This exact scenario worked out multiple times during the game – Reeder confidently abandoning the middle of the field to cover a receiver motioning to the three-receiver side – almost always with the ensuing run popping for six to nine yards. This was even the setting – with one small adjustment – that opened up the game’s longest run.
First play from scrimmage in the second half. Adams goes in motion to the left, and Reeder follows him out of the middle – even though this time Donald is on the sideline. This time safety John Johnson is the only defender in the middle of the field – nine yards back. Jenkins this time blocks Morgan Fox, with Linsley again down-blocking on Joseph-Day. This time, though, he doesn’t stay with Sebastian. This time he passes him off to Patrick and leads through the hole to take out Johnson.
Now it looked like practice, with Aaron Jones running through a completely vacant middle of the field. Safety Jordan Fuller eventually caught up with him and escorted him out of bounds, but not until Aaron had covered 60 yards – putting the ball on the LA 15. Five plays later, Aaron scored from the one, and the Packer lead (after a failed two-point conversion) was 25-10.
I believe that this was the last time in the contest that the Rams did this, but even while playing more conventional defenses, LA still struggled to stop the run. When you have a guy like Donald absorbing two and sometimes three blockers, you have the luxury of running smaller linebackers behind them. But without the protection that Aaron afforded them, Reeder and Kenny Young – the other undersized linebacker who usually found himself in the middle – were continually subjected to the not-so-gentle attentions of that Packer offensive line.
Beyond his physical presence, the lack of Donald’s emotional energy seemed to drain the rest of the Ram defense. Even the other members of an top defensive line – guys like Leonard Floyd and Morgan Fox (who I praised in the thread linked to above) were just punching bags for the Packer line – and the running backs. Green Bay running backs averaged 2.97 yards AFTER contact (the NFL average was 1.91) and the Rams missed 8 tackles (according to the summary).
Constructing an entire philosophy – whether offensive or defensive – around a singular talent comes with uncommon advantages. Until, of course, they’re not there.
What to Make of the Packers
For the entire season, I’ve been waiting to get a clear read on who this Green Bay team is – and for the entire season, that clarity has eluded me. They have great statistics, and are about to host the Championship Game after securing their conference’s top seed. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that their path to this position was cushioned. They were the only team in their division to finish above .500, and, during their 13-3 regular season only played 4 winning teams – going 2-2 in those games.
They lost in overtime to a good, but not great, Indianapolis team, and had their lunches handed to them in their previous matchup with the Buccaneers – their opponent this Sunday. Even their two victories against winning opponents come with caveats. They beat a very good New Orleans team – but that was in Week Three while the Saints defense was still figuring itself out. They also beat a dangerous Tennessee team – but that was Week 16 after their defense had already collapsed (not to mention the fact that the Titans were clearly thrown by playing in the snow).
Now they have a playoff win against a defensively compromised team that was also missing its top wide receiver on offense.
I still don’t feel that this team has been truly challenged – certainly an unusual observation to make about a team about to host its conference’s Championship Game. Since I also have some lingering questions about Tampa Bay, it should make for an interesting matchup.