Packers’ offensive identity evolves after season-opening loss to 49ers
By Pistol Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette
~The Green Bay Packers opened the season against the San Francisco 49ers with new starters on offense at center and halfback.
But more than that, they played differently in that opener, and for that matter all season, than when they rampaged through the 2011 season as the NFL’s top-scoring team.
“I don’t think we had our identity at that point,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers defeated Minnesota in their wild-card playoff game Saturday night. “We were trying a lot of different things.”
The Packers think they’ve developed an identity through the long regular season. They’re not the consistently quick-striking offense of 2011 and have had to adjust to the way teams have defended them this year.
The book against the Packers this season, generally speaking, has been to keep both safeties back to prevent the deep strike, and not blitz much so seven players can drop in coverage, plus Rodgers is lethal against the blitz. Count on stopping the run without having to bring up a safety, and take your chances rushing four.
The Packers finished No. 5 in the NFL in scoring, so they still are one of the league’s best offensive teams, but they aren’t the machine that last season scored the second-most points in NFL history. They scored 127 fewer points, so their average per game dropped from 35.0 in ’11 to 27.1 this season.
It’s also telling that Rodgers’ average per pass attempt (7.8 yards) this season is his lowest since his first season as the starter (7.5 yards in 2008) and a huge 1.4-yard decline from the 9.2 yards he averaged while leading the NFL last season.
“With the way teams are playing us, dropping seven guys, doubling up on receivers, we’ve had to adjust to that,” left guard T.J. Lang said Tuesday. “And get the run game going a little more, which we’ve done. Kind of took a little step back this last week, but overall we’ve come to, ‘If you’re going to play us this way, then we’re going to take what you’re giving us.’ Early in the year we were still trying to force some things. We’ve adjusted a lot of things.”
Looking back at the Packers-49ers matchup in the opener, the Packers had no running game — Cedric Benson’s nine carries for 18 yards were the only runs by Packers halfbacks, and their only other rushes were Rodgers’ five scrambles.
After falling behind 10-0 early in the second quarter, coach Mike McCarthy abandoned the run — four of Benson’s nine carries were in the first quarter — and tried to spread out the 49ers’ defense with four- and five-receiver sets. McCarthy often played no halfback and lined up receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield. The Packers had installed that wrinkle early in training camp and deployed it on and off during the season, but against the 49ers, it was a huge part of the offense.
Playing the four and five receivers provided one major advantage in that it removed from the field one of the 49ers’ best defensive players, inside linebacker Patrick Willis. The 49ers defended those groupings with their dime personnel, which meant they left only one linebacker on the field, and that usually was NaVorro Bowman. Willis played on 48 of the 72 defensive snaps, a season-low 67 percent.
Bowman and Willis are premier players, and the Packers had to like that they can get one of them off the field, usually Willis, when they want.
“We took a long, hard look at the first game we played them,” Lang said. “I’m sure they’re going to be repeating some things because they were very effective against us.”
On the other hand, the Packers also lost playing that way and put up only 22 points (only 14 from their offense as Cobb had a punt return).
Also, McCarthy has groped to find a running game since Benson’s season-ending foot injury in Week 5, and the Packers think they might have found something in street free agent DuJuan Harris. He’s averaged 4.6 yards a carry in the last four regular-season games and as the team’s primary back last week against the Vikings gained 47 yards on 17 carries. He figures to be their primary back against the 49ers as well.
But there’s the problem of trying to run against the 49ers, which in part will depend on whether their Pro Bowl defensive end, Justin Smith, can play effectively despite a partially torn left triceps. He’s one of the keys to a 49ers defense that finished the season ranked No. 4 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and No. 3 in yards allowed per rush.
More troubling for the Packers, the only backs who had much success against the 49ers are relatively big, physical runners who also are among the better backs in the league. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch had 214 yards on 45 carries in two games; the New York Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw had 116 yards on 27 carries; St. Louis’ Steven Jackson had 149 yards on 50 carries in two games; and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had 86 yards on 25 carries.
Harris, though short at 5-8, isn’t small at 203 pounds. But he’s still about 11 pounds lighter than the smallest of the aforementioned backs, Bradshaw at 214 pounds. Lynch and Peterson are among the league’s most powerful runners, and Jackson is 240 pounds.
“(The run game) is something they took us out of with their scheme,” Lang said of the first matchup with the 49ers. “We feel we have a good scheme this week, as we do every week, we just have to go out and show that effort and most importantly finish up blocks. Really the last four or five weeks we’ve done some really good things on the ground, so just keep building on those things and make sure that defense can’t just sit back, drop seven into coverage and stop our run with four guys or six guys.”
The Packers also will have a different offensive line from that opener. They lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a season-ending hip injury, so they have to be concerned about undrafted rookie Don Barclay matching up with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has 61/2 sacks and is a talented outside rusher. They also have Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, where he replaced 37-year-old Jeff Saturday, who finally hit the proverbial NFL wall.
“I’ve been a fan of (Dietrich-Smith’s) for a couple years, excited about his growth,” Rodgers said. “I think he brings a good energy to our offense and helps us with some of the up-tempo (no-huddle) stuff we like to do. And Don has really grown. I think this has been very beneficial for him moving forward to be able to play extensively at right tackle, and he’s given us some stability there. We still want him to get off to a good start every week, but you worry less and less about Don every week.”
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