The Packers hit their stride rushing the football at around the midway point of the season and over their final eight games, lead back Eddie Lacy rushed for 711 of his 1,139 season-total yards. He did that at a clean 5.04 yard per carry clip.
"They've had a big turnaround," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll noted this week. "They've had a real obvious statistical turnaround. You guys probably have picked up on it from the first eight games to the second eight games. Their rushing stats have flip‑flopped, and that's a big change in their approach, what they can count on and all. Their defensive numbers have flipped, and their offensive numbers have flipped to the point where if you're giving up 80 yards a game rushing and you're rushing for 150, that's a real powerful message that you send about what you do at the line of scrimmage, and they've been able to accomplish that. That's something we would be very proud of in our style, as well."
"We just started clicking," Lacy explained of the Packers' resurgence on the ground. "I don't look too much into anything. Once you get on a roll, I'm going to let it just keep rolling. But we're all on the same page, making it hard for defenses to pick out if we're going to pass or throw the ball. We have a great balanced offense."
And, that run/pass threat is the thing about this Packers team that maybe gets overlooked a little bit nationally. Aaron Rodgers is undoubtedly the face of the Green Bay offense -- even the franchise, or hell, the league, maybe -- but while the Pack has the advantage of having probably the best player at the most important position in the sport, they also boast a pretty damn good run game to go with it. I guess it's no wonder the Packers scored more points than any other team in the NFL this year.
In the Seahawks and Packers' Week 1 matchup though, with Green Bay missing starting center JC Tretter to an injury, rookie Corey Linsley was pressed into action. Prior to the game, Seattle's DE/OLB Bruce Irvin quipped that he'd be praying for the rookie because of his unenviable task, and, not that it was all on Linsley, Lacy could only come up with 34 yards rushing to start the year. The Packers were blown out.
Except, that was a long time ago.
"We didn't have an identity," Packers left guard Josh Sitton said of the early-season offense. "It always seems to take us awhile to get going and figure out who we are. Some teams come out right away and have their identity. It always takes us longer. We know who we are now, and we feel confident."
So, who are they? Obviously, they're a high-octane, efficient pass offense, but let's take a look at their rush scheme.
There's obviously a ton of nuances within, but in its basic terms, over the past few games the Packers have been a predominantly pistol-formation, zone-blocking rush scheme. Generally speaking, they prefer running off tackle and off guard over straight up the gut, but over the past few games they've mixed things up all over the line.
The most common formation the Packers trotted out against the Cowboys featured three receivers, a fullback, and a running back. In most cases, that means it's Aaron Rodgers, John Kuhn, and Eddie Lacy lining up in the backfield, like below.
Because most teams can't afford to stack the box against the deadly arm of Aaron Rodgers, Kuhn's become very effective at blocking on the move (rather than a smash-mouth one-hit type of fullback). He acts as a lead-blocker downhill for Lacy but can often find himself sealing defenders not at the line of scrimmage, but in the second level.
The main coaching point for the run above is the center-right guard combo block (T.J. Lang and Corey Linsley) on the nose tackle. As the ball is snapped, the guard pinches down on the nose tackle and seals him in his spot. This allows the center to move laterally quickly, swing his hips around, and seal off the defender, opening up a huge running hole. As luck would have it, the linebacker (#55) is either coming in on a called blitz or reacting to the play very atrociously. Lacy hits the hole quickly and picks up big yardage.
One of the beautiful things about the pistol formation is that it does not immediately give up run direction in the way that many shotgun runs do. Generally speaking, apart from pitch plays, if the running back is aligned on the right side of the quarterback in shotgun, the run play is going to go straight up the gut or to the left of the formation as the ball is handed off. In pistol, the play can go either left or right at the exact same speed.
Below, even with Kuhn lined up on the offensive left side of the formation, the run goes right, and he simply has to counter across the right guard and the run goes off center. With the zone blocking scheme that the Packers run, the idea is to drive defenders laterally at the snap, opening up running lanes inside. Again, the right guard-center combo block is very effective at opening up a huge run lane, with left guard Josh Sitton doing his job to seal the 3-technique defensive tackle (lined up outside the guard's shoulder).
Of course, Kuhn moves through the newly opened up run lane and picks up the first linebacker to show up. Lacy uses that block deftly and cuts the ball back. This just shows that Lacy's not just a big wrecking ball.
"He's a fantastic football player," Pete Carroll noted in his presser Wednesday. "We loved him coming out and just being a brute in college, and he's continued that. He's got great style about him. He's a big‑bodied guy. He bounces off guys. He has a fantastic knack for spinning and making guys fall off the tackle. He runs with a great attitude. It's exactly like we would cherish. We've got our guy that does the same, and we love that about him. He adds a real style to them. I think he's been a great addition. And then catch the football and all that, he can do everything. He's a big factor."
Here, same things apply:
The Cowboys swarm tackle with four defenders and that's exactly what the Seahawks are going to have to do on Sunday.
Apart from their pistol looks, Green Bay does a few other things. One example would be a "read-option" type of look from the shotgun, like below:
It's prototypical blocking by the left tackle, left guard, and center. The tackle seals the end, the guard combo blocks on the defensive tackle before moving downfield to pick up a linebacker, and the center seals with the help of the guard combo.
If the right guard (#70) had been quick enough to cut block that backside linebacker right at the snap, James Starks might've had a big chunk of yards here.
One wrinkle the Packers will use is a pulling guard or center. This, in general terms, is referred to as the power-O blocking scheme. Below, after snapping the football, the center pulls behind the left guard and blocks up a filling defender. This allows Lacy to bounce the ball outside.
And, of course, receivers have to block in this scheme too.
Randall Cobb as the joker
Speaking of receivers, the Packers like to run a personnel package with four receivers and a tight end, then use the dynamic Randall Cobb as a de facto running back in the backfield.
"He has great versatility," Carroll said of Cobb this week, "being the quarterback and all that in the old days (Cobb played quarterback his freshman year at Kentucky). They've used him like that really throughout the years they've had him. There was a drive in the Dallas game where they stayed with that personnel and they kind of just highlighted him in a number of ways."
What Carroll is referring to is the Packers' go-ahead, game-winning drive late in last week's Divisional Round matchup where they featured Cobb in a number of different roles.
1) In the backfield ...
2) In the slot ...
3) And, out of the backfield as a receiver ...
The idea behind putting Cobb in several different spots and in that specific personnel grouping is to try and draw out favorable matchups against your opponent. With Green Bay, when they line up with four receivers and an athletic tight end, most defenses are going to counter with a nickel or dime defensive grouping. This gives the Packers a better chance to run the football if they want to.
As for how Seattle plans to defend it? "We don't know how much they're going to use that," Carroll noted. "We're ready for them to use it quite a bit because they're very effective when they did. He's a terrific football player, and he gives them all kinds of options that he can carry out. We'll be ready for all of that. I don't know, maybe it was a dozen plays or something in the game. We need to be ready for that kind of number, or more."
Seahawks corner Richard Sherman admitted that Seattle's defense probably won't do anything special to counter it, just be ready for it. "Nothing different," he said when asked what they'd do. "Honestly. To us, I mean we treat him like a running back would be in the backfield if they run the football, we play like a run play. Everybody attacks their gaps and we get them down. So I don't think it changes it in that regard. I think for some teams I guess they try to match personnel a little differently than we do. I think for our playing and our defense it doesn't really change very much for us."
Bottom line, it's going to be a great matchup, as you'd hope the NFC Championship would be. It pits one of the best passing offenses against one of the best pass defenses. It pits one of the top rushing attacks of the second half of the year against one of the top run defenses over that same timeframe.
"We get another shot," said Eddie Lacy this week, referencing the Week 1 loss. "We're trusting in what we believe a lot more than when the season first started. And that's both running and passing. We believe in ourselves, we believe in the play calling. It's going to be a war. They're ready; we're ready. We just have to tune in, focus, trust our process and know they're in our way for us to go the way we want to go."