The NFL is a battle of attrition. Injuries happen nonstop and don’t discriminate. The 12 teams that have the fewest injuries combined with the depth to overcome injures, are normally in the playoffs.
This brings us to the Green Bay Packers. They have ripped off six straight wins to take the NFC North crown. Aaron Rodgers has been on fire, having thrown for 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the last six wins. But this article isn’t about their pass game. This is about how the Packers have overcome key injuries to the running back position, and still have some production there.
The Packers are 29th in rushing attempts but seventh in yards per carry. They lost both Eddie Lacy and James Starks. It hurt their run game. The coaches had to get creative so they inserted a wide receiver, Ty Montgomery, into the running back role and he’s flourished, changing the offense for the better. Along with Montgomery, the Packers have used their fullback, Aaron Ripkowski, and free agent pickup, Christine Michael, formally of the Seahawks.
What stands out to me is how the Packers have tailored their run game to fit the individual skill sets of each runner.
Ty Montgomery is a receiver by trade and he functions best in open space. He was a kick returner in college so he has some understanding of running to green grass. The Packers have made it easier for Montgomery by giving him runs with easy reads, outside zone, where he can run to the open grass, or one cut up the field.
There are also ‘G’ type run plays where a lineman is pulling and he can follow his lead blocker. These are simple reads that allow Montgomery to play to his skill set. They haven’t run much inside zone, which requires an understanding of linebacker fills, where the safeties will be, and how the front is moving.
Lets go to the film and start three weeks ago in Chicago. This was Ty Montgomery’s best game to date. He ran for 162 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns. You will notice throughout these clips how the Packers try getting him to the edge and give him space to work
In the first clip, it’s outside zone weak. The Packers start the TE strong, but slide him back weak to hold the linebackers just for a second. He just runs to the open grass, makes a guy miss and scores.
Next up is Montgomery’s longest run of the game. It’s a G play, with the left guard pulling to trap the 9 technique defensive end. By alignment, a back should know this play would go inside the puller No. 65, following No. 70 up into the hole. Montgomery isn’t a back by trade. He’s trying to get outside. However, he does a marvelous job of being patient.
That shows up through his carries. It’s hard to teach being patient. You either have it or you don’t. He makes guys miss and busts out a 61-yard run. There’s no denying that he’s not elusive when he’s out in space.
Here’s another run play with a defined read. The center is pulling on outside zone. The back can easily see he’s the guy to follow and Montgomery gains 13 yards showing his patience but also getting to the edge.
Let’s head to the following week against the Vikings. Ty only had nine carries and 23 yards, but he did some good things in the run game.
You could tell the Vikings weren’t going to allow the Packers to run outside zone. They shot their defensive line up the field, causing penetration and forcing Montgomery to cut it up. Penetration is the killer for zone plays. That being said, Ty did a good job of one cutting which basically means making one cut and heading straight up field. He’s not going to change course much after that initial upfield cut.
This next play shows you where he’s not a natural running back. The Packers have a good play set up for success. Follow your fullback.
Initially, Montgomery does a good job of setting up his fullback’s block. He nods his head inside, allowing the fullback to hook his guy so he can get outside. But at the tail end of the play, it’s not natural for him to make a sharp cut heading back inside when the corner comes to make the tackle.
I also get why he doesn’t run backside early on, because the linebacker on the fullback has color inside, but it sure looks great if he can get backside here quickly.
Again, let’s show the Packers using a ‘G’ play to show Montgomery where to run.
In last weekend’s victory over the Lions, the Packers changed course in the run game. They must have felt that inside zone was the way to roll against the Lions because that was the focus of their run game. Since Montgomery isn’t the best inside zone runner, the turned to their fullback, Ripkowski, to run some smash mouth football. And he brought it.
I have yet to compliment the offensive line, so I’ll do it here. These guys have taken it upon themselves to open up holes and be consistent in their assignments, thus allowing the backs to feel confident running the ball. This showed on Sunday. Ripkowski didn’t have to do much decision making. The holes were there.
Here the Packers use Ripkowski plus an extra fullback, their tight end, and Nelson to cut off the backside. This is interesting because I’m not quite sure what the tight end is doing. He doesn’t have an assignment, so I think he’s there for support and to let the back follow him.
This type of run is much better suited for Ripkoswki than Ty. It’s a pure downhill inside zone run.
Here’s the last run I want to highlight from the Lions game. It’s another example of the Packers getting creative using essentially two fullbacks in the game. This is an old West Coast run. Two halfbacks spilt in the backfield. It’s an underneath dive.
This run is rare in the NFL nowadays. It’s a cool little play.
Ripkoswki takes an underneath handoff and heads straight towards the A gap, with the fullback leading up on the linebacker. Notice the excellent double team on the nose tackle between the center and left guard?
This type of run allows the runner to get a full head of steam directly into the hole. Big gain here.
As the Packers head into the playoffs, let’s not forgot about their run game complimenting Aaron Rodgers. Being able to run the ball allows more 1-high coverages, which Rodgers will continue to have success against.