Saturday, January 1, 2011

Power Run Formations Fuel Packer Playoff Chances

Not too long ago on Cheesehead Radio, we had a little session where each of the hosts went around and confessed about things we, in retrospect, had been mistaken about.  We called it "...and I was wrong."  And I certainly had no bottom of the barrel of things for me to choose from.

But last week, after a long, frustrating season watching the Packers give up on the running game week in and week out, I might have actually hit the nail on the head for once.  And, in the end, committing to the run like I prayed they would may have made Aaron Rodgers even better as a quarterback.

Over a late Christmas get-together, my brother-in-law stared me down from across the table and said, "So tell me...why did it take so long for the Packers to actually run the ball?"  Thinking for a moment he was just trying to wind my up on one of my personal hot-button issues, I asked him, "Do you want the long answer or the short answer?"

In the end, you can give a long answer, but it all boils down to the short answer I gave him:  McCarthy simply found it much easier to pass, pass, pass and showcase his talented quarterback.  It took a second concussion and a missed start to make both McCarthy and Rodgers to wake up and realize that the run game is a necessity....and an advantage.

Now, there's a huge difference in run games.  Think back to the "rushing attacks" (for lack of a better term) the Packers had been using throughout the season.  When Ryan Grant got hurt, the Packers featured their usual third-down back, Brandon Jackson, and experimented with short-yardage back John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance.  How many times did we notice (and complain about) the endless pitch plays and zone blocking runs that kept getting bounced outside...and how they went nowhere?

Many times, we ran these horizontally-inclined rushes out of the shotgun formation, allegedly putting Jackson in a comfort zone.  Moreso, it was putting Rodgers in a position to audible out of it and into a passing play.  Now, we used to blame Brett Favre for having too much leeway at the line of scrimmage and (in our opinion) audibling out of runs so he could take a shot downfield and be a hero. 

It's a natural inclination of any quarterback to want to pass instead of run, particularly quarterbacks who carry the mantle of leadership on their is the case with Rodgers and was with Favre.  But, in the end, those shotgun, single-back formations fooled no one.

The point of most pitch or misdirection rushes are contingent on keeping seven in the box (or running the wrong way), which leaves the outside open for a stretch play and minimizes the number of defenders that have to be blocked downfield.  But, in the Packers' single-back shotgun formation (a formation that most defenses know will either be a pass or a stretch play) the defenders spread themselves out and close off the cutback lanes, forcing Jackson further and further to the sideline.

Of course, it didn't help when, on many occasions, defenders were in the backfield next to the running back as he was receiving the handoff to begin with.  All the more reason to abandon the run and "play to our strengths", which was essentially having Rodgers both run and pass.  In one game, I tallied up that he was responsible for over 90% of the offensive yardage that day, either with his arm or with his feet.  While it might help you out in the stat department, it wasn't translating into wins or even solid outings by Rodgers.

I led the call early in the season with my favorite unused player, Quinn Johnson.  We have a guy we drafted to be a tank in run blocking:  why weren't we using him?  Other players that could lay some wood were also seldom-used in that role, such as Tom Crabtree or Korey Hall.  Why don't we put some blockers back there and quit trying to run around the defensive line and just run through them?

Plenty of folks offered their naysays to me on that.  Aaron Nagler and I went back and forth on his statement early in the season that "A team can win the Super Bowl without a running game."

But in the end, the injury to Rodgers, playing a game with Matt Flynn, and realizing that the Packers need to win games as well as protect their offensive leader led to a change in paradigm against the Giants...the very change I had been stumping for the last 15 weeks.

Yes, the Packers "committed to the run" against the Giants, but don't confuse what they did last Sunday with what we've seen most of this season.  All season, we've seen the half-hearted, ZBS-oriented, single-back rushes that are easy to give up on because they go for no gain.  Against the Giants, they went with the power attack.

Let's just take a look at the first three possessions, the ones that led to a 14-0 lead for the Packers, who have been notoriously slow starters this season.

First possession
Play One: I-formation, Kuhn blocking for Jackson. 5 yards on the rush by Kuhn.
Play Two: Power-I, Crabtree and Johnson blocking for Jackson. 4 yards by Jackson
Play Three: I- formation,  Kuhn blocking for Jackson. Pass to Kuhn for 2 yards.
Play Four: I-formation, Johnson blocking for Jackson. Incomplete pass to Jennings.
Play Five: Shotgun with two backs offset (Jackson/Quarrless). 1 yard for Jackson.
Play Six: Single-back shotgun (Kuhn). Incomplete pass to Nelson

After this point, the Packers punt, but look carefully what the Packers set up despite it not being a successful drive.  On five plays, the Packers went out of a power running scheme (with at least one backfield blocker), even when they passed.  While the Packers only managed one first down on the drive, they set the table for what was to come.

Second Possession
Play One:  Shotgun with two backs offset (Quarless/Jackson), 80-yard touchdown pass to Nelson

Now, the Packers scored on one pass on their next drive, and your first inclination might be to say, "Ha!  See?  The run game didn't work, and the Packers went back to their bread-and-butter, the long pass!"

But on that first play, the Packers set up again in the shotgun with two backs offset, Andrew Quarrles and Brandon Jackson.  On the first series out of that formation, the Packers ran the ball with Jackson for a one-yard gain.

The Giants start with six in the box, with two linebackers hovering behind the front four.  The other five are covering the three receivers, both safeties staying over the top on either side. 

But on the snap, Aaron Rodgers delivers the impact of committing to a power running game, and executes a perfect play-action fake to Jackson that draws both linebackers instantly up to the line. But even more importantly, the safety covering Jordy Nelson, Antrell Rolle, also bites on the fake that is coming his way.  That makes three defenders who were sucked away from the play by the play-action...something that can't happen if the defense isn't respecting the run.

The use of a power running game on the first series, while it did not translate into a drive, set up the great play on the next one.  Now what happens?  The Packers can set up in a power run formation and not only pass, but pass more effectively because the play-action makes the defenders over-react.

I'm not a big fan of the Big Five formation.  Nothing advertises "don't respect our running game" like the run-and-shoot formation.  And, it allows defensive linemen and blitzers to tee off on Rodgers, often forcing him to scramble with the ball. 

On the next series, the Packers stuck with the plan:

Third Possession
Play One: I-formation, Johnson blocking for Nance.  Nance for 6 yards.
Play Two: I-formation, Johnson blocking for Nance.  Nance for 5 yards.
Play Three: Power-I with Crabtree/Johnson blocking for Jackson.  Jackson for -1 yards.
Play Four: Single-back shotgun (Jackson), pass to Jackson for 10 yards.
Play Five: Strong-I formation, Johnson blocking for Kuhn, Kuhn for 3 yards.
Play Six: Power-I with Crabtree/Johnson blocking for Jackson, incomplete pass to Jennings
Play Seven: single-back shotgun (Jackson), Rodgers scrambles for 15 yards (and slides).
Play Eight: Shotgun with two backs offset (Crabtree/Jackson), Jackson for 3 yards.
Play Nine: Single-back shotgun (Kuhn), incomplete pass to Jennings.
Play Ten: Single-back shotgun (Kuhn), touchdown pass to Jones for three yards.

Now, for the most part, the Packers eschewed their security blanket formation, the empty- or single-back shotgun until they were inside the ten-yard line.  They sprinkled it in periodically, but the Giants had to hedge against the other formations they had to honor. 

But more importantly, this ten-play drive kept the ball in the Packers' hands for 4:59, which compared to their pass-happy drives we've seen this year, is fantastic.  The Packers, and particularly McCarthy and Rodgers, have been impatient, wanting to get down the field with the passing game.  The results of this strategy aren't hard to figure out:  scoring or not, the average Packers' drive this season is under three minutes long.

Just look back to the playoff game against the Cardinals last year to see the impact of the hurry-up-and-score mentality:  high scores and pressure put on your defense.  This long drive had the Giants guessing and in the end, frustrated them and made them go into their own hurry-up-and-score mentality.

In the end, you can see the psychological impact this had on both quarterbacks.  Eli Manning grew more and more frustrated sitting on the sideline, and threw four interceptions (and should have had at least another two on top of that).  Rodgers was able to sit back and control the game with more time in the pocket, finishing with a glittery 139.9 efficiency rating with four touchdowns to no interceptions.

That efficiency rating was his second-highest of the season, with the 141.3 rating coming against the Minnesota Vikings, who quit early and fired their coach the next day.  But in the end, Rodgers didn't have the entire mantle of winning this game on his shoulders.  No, the running backs didn't have a Michael Turner or an Adrian Peterson-esque kind of day, but they did what Rodgers needed most:  they put him in a position to do what he does best.  The mere threat of a power run, straight at the heart of the defensive front seven, made the Giants have to respect it.  It slowed the pass rush, giving Rodgers perhaps an extra half-second or two to set his feet and go through his reads. 

But most of all, it gave Rodgers' play-action some real bite, and that is what can propel a team like the Packers past a quality opponent like the Giants, as well as the Bears.

In the end, both Aaron Nagler and I are right.  He is correct in saying that a team can win the Super Bowl without a running game.  It has happened before, and it will happen again.

But the 2010 Green Bay Packers cannot win a Super Bowl without a running game.  If they continue to press power formations against the Bears, and hopefully, through the playoffs, we won't see a repeat of the one-and-done Rodgers and McCarthy had last year.


Chris Richards said...

Wonderful piece.

My take: I think teams can be successful without a ton of rushing yards as long as they at least try running the ball on a consistent basis. The results aren't as important as making the defense respect the fact that you might run the ball. That's when the passing game can have it's greatest impact.

Anonymous said...

fantastic, hit the nail on the head. Lets hope the Giant game spurred a brand new mindset respecting the run moving forward!


Brian Carriveau said...

Like it. Good analysis.