GREEN BAY — There were many surprises during the Green Bay Packers’ 3-1 start under first-year coach Matt LaFleur and most were pleasant.
A few weren’t.
Especially these two: The Packers struggled to run the ball and stop the run.
Even in today’s quarterback-dominated NFL, the ground game remains important. Establishing a physical presence along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball gives a team the ability to dictate to opponents.
So far, the Packers have pass-protected well on offense and rushed the passer well on defense. However, they haven’t been able to create a dominance or set the tone along either line of scrimmage in the running game.
In their first four games, the Packers have run the ball at an acceptable level only once (against Minnesota) and have stopped the run at an acceptable level only once (against Chicago). They rank 26th in rushing (86.2 yards per game) and 26th in stopping the run (142.2 yards per game) in the NFL. In yards per rush, they rank 26th (3.5) on offense and 29th (5.0) on defense.
Do those numbers indicate a team that has become soft or a team that underwent personnel/scheme changes and whose players have had a hard time getting on the same page against a difficult schedule?
This much we know: Until they start to impose their will on opponents physically and improve upon those rushing statistics, the Packers are going to have a hard time beating quality teams and building on their impressive start.
That is especially true with Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. With elite halfback Ezekiel Elliott running behind the best offensive line in the game and a fast, aggressive front seven on defense, the Cowboys, also 3-1, are one of the NFL’s more physical teams. After the Packers were crushed on both lines of scrimmage in a home loss to Philadelphia last Thursday, the Cowboys will offer a supreme test of whether Green Bay is still physical enough to compete with the better teams in the NFC.
Of the Packers’ two problems up front, the inability to run the ball is the most puzzling. From the time he was hired, LaFleur spoke often about the necessity for a strong running game to make the play-action passes work. The outside-zone running scheme he installed was thought to be a good fit for halfback Aaron Jones.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Packers had 144 rushing yards against the Vikings in the second game and 201 in the other three games combined. Jones, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his first two seasons, is averaging 3.3 this season and 1.7 in his past two games. Backup Jamaal Williams is also averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
Some of that is due to the high-quality defenses the Packers have faced. But they can’t use that excuse because there’s no rest for the weary. The Cowboys defense, anchored by linebackers Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, is ranked seventh in the league.
Instead, the Packers have to look at themselves, at their play-calling, at their execution, at their physicality.
“Their front seven is very well-coached,” offensive tackle David Bakhtiari said. “They fly around, they play with high energy and they’ve got a lot of athletes across the board. The biggest thing for us is, it’s going to be a challenge and the more physical team is going to win.”
It would help to be more efficient, too. LaFleur said the Packers will need to be on their details and fundamentals to run on the Cowboys.
Having tackle Bryan Bulaga back from injury, which seems likely, will help the Packers move the ball on the ground against a defense that, according to LaFleur, is “not overly complicated, but they’re very physical and they play very fast.” Especially the linebackers.
“I think it all starts at the very first level with your combination blocks,” LaFleur said. “So we’re going to have to be great on our combos in order to get to the second level. Our backs are going to have to do a great job of really pressing the hole and truly reading it one gap at a time. They are so instrumental in setting up the blocks for the offensive linemen. They’re going to have to do a great job.”
The defensive front will have to up its game as well. The Packers allowed only 46 rushing yards against the Bears in the opener but have allowed 523 — 174.3 per game — in the three outings since then.
They allowed that despite having one of the NFL’s best run-stuffing nose tackles in Kenny Clark. The problem is, Clark has played almost every snap this season and seemed to wear down against the Eagles.
LaFleur said too many defenders have been undisciplined and gotten out of their gaps, but that’s only part of the problem. Coordinator Mike Pettine’s bend-but-don’t-break approach has resulted in takeaways but also has given opponents wide running lanes, lanes the Packers must close.
“I think for us most of it is just doing our one-of-11,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “Like what coach LaFleur has been talking about, each guy being in the right gap, understanding where their help is, when they can attack, when they can be aggressive. And when they’re in there, the physicality comes in.”
It always does, which is why standing up to the Cowboys physically would be a pleasant surprise from the Packers.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com.