Obviously, the loss of Aaron Rodgers is huge for the Green Bay Packers. He's one of the best in the league, and is the leader of that team. Still, this squad is far from a pushover without him, and it will take a full team effort in all three phases to leave Lambeau Field with a win on Sunday afternoon.
For years, Green Bay (for good reason) has been known as a passing team. Now, an influx of youth at the position and the ability and willingness to stick with the run game has lead to an offense that is second in the entire NFL in running the football, and it all starts with rookie Eddie Lacy.
Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Bill Davis talked about how the biggest difference he saw with the Packers offense after Rodgers left with his collarbone injury was the backfield, where they shifted primarily from a one-back system to two. Here's an example of one of the types of runs you'll see, albeit from the team's previous game against Minnesota. This is a lead draw play, where Rodgers initially looks like he will pass the football before turning and handing it off to Lacy.
Here, you'll see left tackle David Bakhtiari kick out to block the 7-technique defensive end. Left guard Josh Sitton will take the 3-technique. The fullback John Kuhn will run through the hole as if he were the tailback, and block the first defender in his way. In this case, that's the middle linebacker.
The Packers were in 20 Personnel on this play, with the two backs, no tight ends, and three wide receivers. There's a lot of space in the middle of the field here, and with all of his blockers out in front, Lacy has a huge hole with tons of space to run the football.
Lacy reaches the second level, and it's up to the safety to bring him down. Here, the defensive back has a shot at him, but as "Eagles Game Plan" analyst Ike Reese would say, he makes a "business decision" and doesn't go full bore on Lacy. The rookie breaks the tackle, and picks up 17 yards on first down.
As the second-leading rushing team in football, the Packers come at you in a number of different ways. They'll either come right at you and move you off the line of scrimmage, or they'll gash you with scheme runs using angles and misdirection as they use their athletic offensive linemen on the move. Let's take a look at an example of the latter.
First, I want you to notice the block by former Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless, who has seen extended playing time due to the injury to Jermichael Finley. He's going to step laterally to the left at the snap of the ball to gain outside leverage on defensive end Julius Peppers, and will attempt to seal him off from the perimeter.
Next, let's take a look at Bakhtiari, who is going to block down on the 3-technique defensive tackle. He's going to let the defender get upfield, and ride him out of the play, again sealing him from the outside.
Now let's look at the center, Evan Dietrich-Smith. Watch the fourth year veteran reach and get to the second level. His target is No. 50, linebacker James Anderson.
Lastly, I want you to take notice of both guards on this play. The left guard, Sitton, and the right guard, T.J. Lang, pull to the left and get out in space. This will be a toss play to the left, and now we get to see how these blocks work in concert to get a first down.
This play was from the shotgun, and when Lacy takes the toss he has his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, can see the field, and get downhill in a hurry. Much like Bryce Brown, Lacy is at his best when he can stick his foot in the ground and get north with the ball in his hands.
Look at the blocks set out in front of Lacy. The Packers offense does a great job getting a hat on a hat, whether it's linemen, receivers, or tight ends. This first down play ends up going 16 yards as the Packers move the chains on the first drive of the game.
That was an example of a "scheme run," now let's take a look at an example of some power football that the Packers put on display on Monday night after Rodgers left the game.
This is going to be a simple inside run, a dive play. The Packers on this play are going to get double teams on the 1-, 3-, and 5-technique, as linemen work up to the second level to reach the backers. This blocking is very similar to a play Chip Kelly broke down with us last week on Game Plan.
When Lacy takes this handoff, he's able to read the line of scrimmage and see which hole he is going to take, dependant on how the blocks play out up front.
Look at the movement up front from right tackle Marshall Newhouse. His double team with guard Don Barclay (who had been at right tackle but shifted inside after Lang suffered a concussion) completely uprooted defensive tackle Corey Wooten.
Lacy does a great job "hugging" the double team. He knows he has a single block to his right in the form of Quarless against defensive end Shea McLellin, and his best chance is to stay as close to that double team as possible. He runs right off the tackle's outside hip, and is on the move.
Like we saw on the first play in this piece, a safety has a shot at Lacy at the second level. This time, Chris Conte completely misses Lacy, who takes this run for a 56-yard gain on first down. It will be important for the Eagles back seven to be present in the run game, as they have yet to face a running back this intimidating all season long. Tackling, which has been immensely improved from a year ago, will be of the utmost importance on Sunday.
Lacy isn't the only threat in the Green Bay backfield. Nor is he the only rookie. The Packers also drafted former UCLA back Johnathan Franklin this past April, and he has seen his fair share of carries. Another player to worry about, as he has been a thorn in the Eagles past before, is veteran James Starks.
This is another first down run, this time against Washington. Quarless is lined up in the backfield as a fullback on this play, and will serve as Starks' lead blocker. The rest of the blocking scheme will look just like the lead draw play we saw in the first play of this piece.
Again, we see a huge alley for Starks to run through. Look at all of the Green Bay blockers engaged with Redskins defenders.
At the second level, two defensive backs have a shot at Starks, and it looks like he should be taken down.
Starks muscles his way through, breaks both tackles, and heads into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown run. Starks is another physical presence in the Green Bay backfield, and with Rodgers out of the lineup I would expect that the run game will be featured even more than we have seen in recent weeks, which means an increased role for No. 44.
The Packers' use of misdirection doesn't end in the run game, as they often use run-action to set up the pass game. They're a very good play action team, and regardless of who is under center you would expect they will continue that trend. Let's take a look at an example.
You're going to see inside zone-action from the Packers here, as they look like they will be running to the right at the snap of the ball.
The ball is snapped, and Rodgers make his initial step as if he is going to turn and hand the ball off to Lacy.
The run-action has the Baltimore defense reacting towards the direction of the play.
Rodgers' second step, however, flips the script. Rodgers turns back and is actually going to throw the ball outside into the waiting arms of receiver Jarrett Boykin.
Boykin catches the ball, and look at the space he has at his disposal. He's got one defender to beat, a slot receiver blocking the one remaining defensive back, and a lot of turf out in front. Boykin makes his man miss, and takes off for a 43-yard gain. The Packers run this play often, and it works consistently. They've run it in the red zone, and the play has led to multiple touchdowns for Green Bay. Keep an eye out for this look on Sunday.
Chip Kelly talked with Dave Spadaro inside the studio on Wednesday, and brought up that even with Seneca Wallace under center for the Packers, you can't expect them to change what they do philosophically. They will continue to run the same way they did throughout the rest of the season. Let's take a look at one theme we've seen over the last few weeks with the Green Bay passing game, and it has to do with their best receiver, Jordy Nelson.
The Packers, even before Rodgers, have had numerous injuries on the offensive side of the ball. Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley, in particular, have impacted the Green Bay passing game with their absences. Both Cobb and Finley were very productive in the slot running down the seam and working over the middle. With them out of the lineup, we've seen more and more reps out of Nelson in the slot, as we see above. When Nelson is lined up outside, he's almost always going to be running some kind of comeback, fade, or go route. On the inside, however, he has been utilized over the middle using crossing routes. That's the case on this play.
Rodgers makes an unbelievable pass right on the money where only Finley can catch it, whizzing the ball right past the ear of linebacker Chad Greenway. Can Wallace make these kinds of throws? That's up for debate. But regardless, even after Rodgers left the game on Monday, Nelson was seen in the slot making plays like this one, where he took the ball 76 yards for a Packers touchdown.
Let's shift over to the Green Bay defense, a unit coached by veteran coordinator Dom Capers. Much like our own defensive coordinator Bill Davis, Capers came up in the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive scheme under Dick LeBeau, and likes to bring pressure from a number of different angles. Let's take a look at what has turned into one of the more well-known blitzes from that Steeler's scheme; the "Fire Zone" or what I call the "Fire X" pressure.
What you'll always see from these "Fire X" blitzes is too inside linebackers crossing over each other in the pressure. Here, you'll see linebacker A.J. Hawk coming into the nearside "A Gap," with teammate Andy Mulumba coming in off his backside hip. The idea is to get offensive linemen shifting laterally and creating a hole in the protection.
What the Packers have done throughout the season is bring a defensive back into the pressure as well. Here, you'll see they bring a nickel corner, Micah Hyde, up the middle from the slot.
You'll see what this does, as you know have three rushers on two Baltimore protectors. The numbers favor Green Bay, and this will lead to a sack for Hawk, who has been used as a blitzer often throughout 2013.
Pressure from the secondary doesn't just come with the "Fire X" looks though ...
Here, you'll see Hawk coming after Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton along with defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and linebacker Nick Perry (No. 53). Again, we'll see an additional blitzer coming from the secondary.
It's four-on-three in favor of the Packers, and it's the last rusher (cornerback Tramon Williams) that ends up getting to Dalton and bringing him down for the sack.
Just as the Eagles do defensively, the Packers like to isolate one side of the line of scrimmage and create a numbers game in your advantage. If you've got three blockers there, bring four. If it's two, bring three. One of the ways they create these matchups is the use of front alignment, just like I talked about this week with the Eagles and Earl Wolff's pressure on Terrelle Pryor.
In the circle you'll see Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels lined up as a 1-technique, shaded over the center. Daniels' presence in that gap occupies the Ravens' center on this play, basically removing him from the protection scheme and cutting the offensive line in half.
Now, you can see three Ravens in protection, the right guard, right tackle, and running back.
The Packers bring four to the Ravens three. Daniels erased the center from the equation, and they'll now get a free hitter on quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens block the three most dangerous, meaning the three closest to the quarterback, and leave the furthest blitzer outside unblocked. That would be the rookie again, Micah Hyde, who comes in for the sack on third-and-long.
The Packers like to rotate along their defensive front, and are a match-up defense in that they will try to counter what you do offensively with their subpackages. When you factor in that rotation with the amount of blitzing they do, they can be a dangerous defense regardless of who is healthy and who is not. Much like the Eagles did against the Raiders, another pressure-based defense, a week ago, I would expect Philadelphia to challenge the Packers defense with tempo early and often. It will be an interesting chess match at Lambeau on Sunday.