Packers comfortable expanding rushing playbook
GREEN BAY—It took the ideal running back and the right offensive linemen before Mike McCarthy would loosen the reins of his rushing attack.
Now the Green Bay Packers enter a new season brimming with confidence that the most schematically diverse running game in McCarthy’s tenure will be every bit as effective as they need it to be.
“Last year we said, ‘We’re ready,’” said McCarthy, the team’s ninth-year coach. “Last year and this year, I’m at the point where our cupboard’s all the way open. That was not the case in prior years.”
Players used to say the Packers basically had two runs—inside zone, outside zone—in 2006 and ’07. McCarthy and his staff mixed in a power play here and there in 2008, but he generally stayed true to the zone scheme from 2009-’11.
In 2012, its second season with T.J. Lang instead of Daryn Colledge at left guard and first season with Tom Clements as offensive coordinator, Green Bay began to pull linemen.
It marked the first time McCarthy was beginning to draw from the other primary family of NFL run games. That is, the gap scheme, which McCarthy likes calling the pattern scheme.
The Packers had another mediocre year running the ball in 2012, ranking 20th in yards per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per carry (3.9). But McCarthy wasn’t the least bit dissuaded because he had to use five different feature backs and the line had weak links Marshall Newhouse at left tackle and Jeff Saturday at center.
The Packers already had hurried Saturday off to retirement and Newhouse to the bench in April 2013 when Eddie Lacy fell into their laps late in the second round.
Now, Lacy already is established as one of the NFL’s leading ball carriers, strapping Bryan Bulaga is back at right tackle and JC Tretter, though a tenderfoot, is the team’s biggest center since Mike Flanagan a decade ago.
Lacy has no preference on the type of run that’s called. At the same time, the line has the strength and the athletic ability to function well in both schemes.
“I know you’d like to say they’re a zone team or a pattern team, but if you’re ever just one thing, it’ll catch up to you,” McCarthy said. “Maybe you can have a one-year or two-year success rate, at best.
“Now we’re probably 50-50 as far as the initial primary concept. Our flexibility in and out of zone-pattern schemes is the highest it’s been.”
Quarterback Matt Flynn operated those zone-dominated run games from 2007-’11 before departing for Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo. After a 20-month sojourn, Flynn was taken aback by the rushing attack that he rejoined.
“There was a lot more details in it,” Flynn said. “A lot more verbiage. Things weren’t called the same. There was a lot more on the quarterback.”
In order from 2006-’12, the Journal Sentinel’s final grades for the rushing offense were C-minus, C, C-minus, C-plus, C-minus, C-minus and C-minus.
Each year, the passing offense led by Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers fared better, sometimes by two full letter grades.
In 2013, even though Rodgers missed almost eight full games with a broken collarbone, the Packers’ grades of A-minus (pass offense) and B-plus (run offense) showed the exquisite balance any coach would crave.
It was noteworthy, too, that the Packers rushed on 43.2 percent of their plays, comfortably more than the league average of 41.7 percent. It was the first time that happened in McCarthy’s tenure; the 43.2 percent also matched his five-year run rate (2000-’04) calling the plays as coordinator in New Orleans.
“Showing my roots,” McCarthy said, laughing. “Marty Schottenheimer. Paul Hackett was excellent in the run game, too.”
Hackett was Schottenheimer’s offensive coordinator from 1993-’97 in Kansas City before being replaced by Jimmy Raye in ’98. McCarthy was the quarterbacks coach on that staff.
“We were getting into this big argument one day about Marcus Allen,” McCarthy recalled. “Jimmy Raye said that the success of the run game is directly tied to the runner.”
Allen never surpassed 1,000 yards with the Chiefs. However, McCarthy was on staff in Green Bay in 1999 when Dorsey Levens did before either Ricky Williams or Deuce McAllister gave him a 1,000-yard rusher all five years in New Orleans.
“Eddie doesn’t care,” McCarthy said. “Just give him the ball. I don’t like to do comparisons, but I’ve been around some exceptional backs.”
Lacy ran zone and power schemes at Alabama, where he said coach Nick Saban’s offensive philosophy “was imposing our will on the defense. Even when we did run a stretch play you’d make your cut and get up the field.”
Alex Gibbs, the famed offensive line coach, helped McCarthy learn the zone scheme in 1993-’94 with the Chiefs. Gibbs also introduced McCarthy to the “wham” run game he directed in San Diego under coach Dan Henning.
Jeff Jagodzinski, McCarthy’s coordinator in 2006, had learned from Gibbs in Atlanta. Inheriting a mess at guard, the Packers drafted Jason Spitz, Tony Moll and Colledge that first year and ran straight zone.
Josh Sitton solved the mess at right guard in 2009 but the Packers decided to live with Colledge’s lack of horsepower through the Super Bowl season of 2010.
Lang turned his career around in ‘11 and, together with Sitton, began to give McCarthy the combination of bulk, power and intellect that enabled him to start pulling guards.
In the final 14 games a year ago, Sitton pulled on 46 runs compared to 30 for Lang, 10 for right tackle Don Barclay and nine each for left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. The Packers’ increasing use of the pattern scheme was reflected by 16 O-line pullers against Dallas on Dec. 15 and 17 against Chicago on Dec. 29.
“I think they’re as good as the best (pair of) guards in the league,” McCarthy said. “They’ve kind of hit the peak of their careers.
“Can you pull them? Yes. Do they have the power to zone? Yes. Can they anchor on a down block? Yes.
“To me, that’s the three responsibilities you look for in guards.”
A zone run generally implies a cohesive blocking unit that attempts to create a wave of movement toward the play side with back-side cut blocks giving the ball carrier the option to cut his run back.
In a pattern type run, not all the linemen move in one direction.
“I worked with a line coach who called it ‘angle, angle, pull,’” McCarthy said. “You’re trying to cut the defense. Where you have a down block, you have a kickout.”
Bulaga has the bulk and strength some of the former tackles under McCarthy—Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Allen Barbre and Newhouse—lacked. Of the four, Tauscher was the best run blocker.
Newhouse, in particular, provided almost no physical play or movement in the run game.
“If you want to be an outside zone team your tackles have to be able to stretch an end,” McCarthy said. “That wasn’t the case with some of the guys we’ve had in the past. Our tackles today are much better stretching an angle in an outside zone.”
McCarthy made the point that guard is a more critical position than tackle because of opponents and adjustments. The opposite probably is true blocking for pass.
“You play tackle in the National Football League, your job responsibility is man, man, squeeze,” McCarthy said. “You want the best athlete, the biggest-framed guy that you can get because today you’ve got to protect the quarterback.”
After a play is called in the huddle, the quarterback in McCarthy’s system can make an adjustment as well as the linemen.
For example, if Sitton or Lang thinks Tretter’s scheduled block is too difficult given how the nose tackle is lined up, one of them can make a call even two or three seconds before the snap turning a zone run into a pattern run. Then a guard might have a better angle to handle the nose tackle.
“It’s all based on (numbers),” McCarthy said. “We have smart linemen. We have smart offensive guys.”
Meanwhile, there’s increased pressure that accompanies the increased at-the-line responsibility for the quarterback.
Those pre-snap checks by the quarterback are even more valuable in the run game than the pass game, according to Flynn.
“Obviously, you’ve got to protect yourself in the passing game,” Flynn said.
When McCarthy spreads the field from shotgun formation, Rodgers has a full complement of zone and pattern runs to employ against reduced defensive boxes.
The Packers almost never run trap plays. They seldom “wham” a front-seven defender with a blocker coming across the formation.
McCarthy doesn’t send in a sixth offensive lineman or use an unbalanced line. He hasn’t shown strains of the read option yet.
“To me, things like that, you’ve either got to live in it or don’t do it,” he said. “I don’t believe in dabbling. “
The Packers practice reverses and other deceptive plays but McCarthy hasn’t been much interested trying them.
“When we correct ourselves every year I’m, like, ‘I wish I would have called more,’” he said. “But my answer always is, ‘Hey, just give the ball to 12 (Rodgers) one more time or give it to Eddie one more time.’”
The Packers certainly employ a fullback far less than even a few seasons ago.
Last year, the Packers posted their best NFL rankings since 2003 in rushing yards per game (seventh) and yards per carry (fourth). It led to a No. 3 ranking in total yards despite upheaval at quarterback