14 Nov 2007
by Michael David Smith
On paper, the Packers' run offense against the Vikings' run defense looked like a mismatch. Heading into Sunday's game, the Vikings ranked second in the league in run defense DVOA, at â€“32.2%. The Packers ranked 16th in the league in run offense, at â€“7.5%. Ryan Grant, who had 186 rushing yards in his career heading into Sunday's game, started at running back for the Packers.
But if it was a mismatch in the Vikings' favor on paper, it was a mismatch in the Packers' favor on the field. Grant's first run went 12 yards, his second run went seven and his third was a 30-yard touchdown. By halftime he had 92 yards and he finished the game with 25 carries for 119 yards as the Packers rolled to a 34-0 win. So how did the Packers run so effectively against such a good run defense?
A big part of it was the offensive game plan and play-calling, which recognized the right times to run and the right way to attack that Vikings defense. The initial 12-yard run from Grant came on a second-and-5 when middle linebacker E.J. Henderson was lined up so far off he line of scrimmage that the Vikings had only five players in the box. Although Henderson did eventually make the tackle, he was in such a bad position from the snap that he couldn't make it until the Packers had already picked up a big gain.
And why was Henderson lined up so far off the line of scrimmage? Because the Vikings' entire defensive game plan was to stop the Packers' passing game. All game long, the Vikings came out in defensive alignments that made clear that they thought their best chance was not to let Brett Favre beat them deep. But Favre had a brilliant day anyway, and as the Packers established the pass to set up the run, Grant was the beneficiary.
Grant's second run came with the Packers in a strange offensive formation. They had two fullbacks in the backfield, each four yards deep and directly behind each guard, with Grant lined up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage. Any time you have two fullbacks on the field you're thinking run, but the Vikings still only had seven in the box, and Grant was about five yards past the line before anyone touched him.
Grant's first two runs succeeded for the simple reason that the Packers had more blockers than the Vikings had defenders, but the third run, the 30-yard touchdown, was more about superior execution than superior scheming. Grant started the play behind fullback Korey Hall, and at the snap Grant followed Hall around the right side. Hall submarined Vikings linebacker Dontarrious Thomas to open up some room, wide receiver Donald Driver and tight end Donald Lee both held their blocks at the point of attack, and wide receiver Koren Robinson ran all the way across the field to block free safety Dwight Smith. It appeared that there was some kind of mistake in the Packers' blocking assignments -- unless the play actually called for right tackle Mark Tauscher to pull to the outside and block nobody -- but the blocking from Hall, Driver, Lee, and Robinson got Grant enough space. Grant finished the run by breaking Cedric Griffin's tackle and high-stepping into the end zone.
Hall is a rookie out of Boise State, where he played linebacker. I've been a fan of Hall's for a long time, and I'm glad to see that he's found a place in Packers coach Mike McCarthy's offense, even though he played defense in college. He's a very promising young player.
Switching a college linebacker to fullback is far from the only way McCarthy has gotten creative with his offense. Earlier I called one formation "strange," but there's really no such thing as a strange formation in McCarthy's offense. The running backs line up all over the place, and McCarthy will go from calling for a full-house backfield on one play to five wide receivers on the next, and the result is a defense that doesn't know what to expect and is therefore primed to be beaten with draws, delays, counters, and misdirections, which are the kinds of runs that McCarthy called on Sunday. McCarthy got the Green Bay job in 2006, a year after he coordinated a San Francisco 49ers offense that was one of the worst you'll ever see. That led to some questioning of whether he actually deserved the top job in Green Bay, but there's no doubt that he's doing a good job with the Packers.
There was talk last week that one or both of the Packers' guards, Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz, were in danger of being benched, but they both had good games Sunday, as did center Scott Wells. On a second-and-7 in the second quarter, Wells, Colledge and Spitz did such a good job clearing out the middle of the Vikings' defensive line that Grant had no one even close to him when he crossed the line of scrimmage, right up the middle. He picked up eight easy yards. (It should be noted that Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams was taking a breather on the play, and it's a lot easier to run up the middle on Minnesota when Williams is off the field.)
Just as the Packers' successful plays were often a numbers game, so were their failures. On a second-and-five late in the first quarter, Grant ran around the right end, and no one blocked Henderson, who tackled Grant for a loss of two yards. In the second half the Packers' running attack was much less productive, mostly because they had a big lead and the Vikings knew they had to stop the Packers from gaining yardage on the ground and letting the clock run. On a first-and-10 late in the third quarter, Grant took a pitch in a two-fullback formation and defensive end Ray Edwards ran right through the line to blow up the play two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, on third-and-1, Grant tried to run an off-tackle play but had to cut it outside when he was met by three Vikings behind the line of scrimmage, and he was ultimately pushed out of bounds for a two-yard loss.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the second half for the Packers is that rookie second-round draft pick Brandon Jackson looked like he was in over his head. Jackson ran the ball four times Sunday, and on three of those runs he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. The Packers were relying on production from Jackson this season, but he looks too indecisive and doesn't hit the hole quickly enough.
Those second-half struggles against a defense that was playing the run indicate that the best hope for the Packers' running game is Favre continuing to throw deep effectively enough that opposing defenses have no choice but to play pass first. The Packers' running game probably isn't good enough to win games in January if Favre has an off day, but it's good enough to complement the passing game and make the Packers a real threat in the playoffs.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
42 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2007, 3:18pm by Packer Pete