How the New Packers’ Running Backs will Impact the Offense
By Dan Dahlke
Eddie Lacy runs against Kent State. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Like many Packers’ fans, I was excited when Green Bay selected Alabama running back Eddie Lacy at the end of the second round. What a steal at that point in the draft. I was also excited when they traded back into the fourth round to take running back Jonathan Franklin from UCLA. This completely surprised me.
Franklin was a guy I had tagged for Green Bay since his great week at the Senior Bowl. He just seemed to fit perfectly into the Green Bay offense. Lacy and Franklin were my two highest rated running backs going into the draft, and I would have been happy if the Packers got either one. Now I am ecstatic they got both. A surprising, yet brilliant move by Ted Thompson and his staff.
Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
With Lacy and Franklin in the backfield the running back position could become a real strength for the Packers’ offense next season. Maintaining a consistent running game seems to have been the Packers’ Achilles heel the past few seasons. They haven’t had a back eclipse the 100-yard mark in a regular season game since Brandon Jackson did it early in the 2010 season. Since then, Green Bay has been shuffling various backs in and out of the lineup searching for “the guy” who will make opposing defenses account for the run. This running back carousel has been difficult to watch.
When the Kansas City Chiefs slowed the high-powered Green Bay offense at the end of the 2011 season and then the New York Giants did it again a few weeks later in the playoffs, teams finally found the formula to beat the Green Bay Packers.
Opposing defenses took away Green Bay’s big plays and throws over the middle by dropping their safeties into a two-shell coverage (Cover 2) and putting their linebackers back into zone coverage in the middle of the field. Opposing defensive linemen only needed to worry about rushing the passer. We saw this time and time again last season when Green Bay played teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
Aaron Rodgers is sacked by New York Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn during the first quarter of an NFL game at MetLife Stadium. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Teams weren’t made to account for the run. It wasn’t a threat. Their pass rushers didn’t have to hesitate and check for run. They just went after the quarterback. Play action was nearly a non-factor. The result was a significant drop in big plays for the Green Bay offense, and Aaron Rodgers getting sacked 51 times—most by any quarterback in the league last year. Rodgers was still able to make plays and put up good numbers, but the Packers weren’t nearly as dominant on this side of the ball as they had been in previous seasons.
Establishing an effective running game will force teams to account for more than just the pass, and get Green Bay’s offense back on track to being dominant, once again. Let’s look at how Lacy and Franklin may help Green Bay’s offense next season and force teams to play the Packers differently.
At 5-11 and 231 pounds, Lacy is a big back, to say the least. He’s a powerful downhill runner who isn’t afraid to lower his pads and deliver a hit on opposing defenders. He has a natural knack for finding holes in the line and has quick feet for a back his size. The Packers haven’t had this type of running back since maybe Ahman Green.
Lacy can be a force. He sheds arm tackles easily and rarely goes down upon the first hit. The Packers need a guy like this that can pound the ball between the tackles and strike a little fear into defenses. I can just imagine Lacy running over 49ers linebackers like he did Manti Te’o in the BCS Championship game.
Some criticize Lacy because he ran behind one of the better offensive lines in college football, but if you watch Lacy’s footage, he’s breaking a lot of tackles and showing the right burst through the holes. His production in college is clearly more than just having a good offensive line. Plus, he ran the ball in the SEC, the toughest and most competitive division in college football, and put up impressive numbers. He ran for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns with a 6.7 yards per carry average in 2012. I think this guy is for real.
Eddie Lacy is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o
It is too early to tell if Lacy will be the clear favorite to start on Sundays at running back, but if he proves to bring some bite to the Packers running game it could be a real game-changer for Green Bay.
Opposing defenses would have to stop playing two-shell coverage all the time, and walk an eighth defender into the box to play the run. This would allow the wide receivers to get single coverage on the outside and enable Rodgers to pick the mismatch he wants to exploit. This would also allow the Packers to run an effective play action and hit more big plays downfield as teams are forced to respect the run and not drop their safeties on first and second down.
It will also prevent linebackers from dropping back in coverage on most downs, which will leave the middle of the field more open for the tight ends and crossing routes by receivers. Defensive linemen won’t just tee off on the quarterback. They’ll have to respect the run, which give Rodgers a little bit more time when dropping back to pass. If defensive linemen even hesitate for a split second before rushing the passer, this could make all the difference in the world.
A physical back like Lacy also can be effective on the goal line and in short yardage situations. No longer will you see the Packers go with empty-back sets on third and one. Yay! Having a physical runner will also help Green Bay close out games and dominate time of possession. Something they struggled with in key games last season. During our live NFL Draft blog, fellow lombardiave writer, John Dewey, made the point that having an effective running game also helps out the defense. If Green Bay can sustain drives and maintain time of possession, this would all their defense time to rest and be fresh when they take the field.
Finally, to run effectively late in the season when temperatures drop, you need a big, physical runner, like Lacy. Lacy could be the gameday closer that can sustain success late into the season. He’s the type of player Green Bay has lacked for years.
Get a feel for the kind of runner Lacy is and check out some of his highlights:
Franklin offers a different skill set than Lacy. Franklin was highly productive at UCLA, rushing for a school record 1,734 yards as a senior and recording 13 touchdowns.
He is more of a cutback runner who offers a good burst through the hole and has the speed to turn on the burners and break off a big run. Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt called Franklin “elusive” and “a guy that will make you miss.” That is exactly what Franklin is. He makes people miss. He is a change-ofpace type of back and potential home run hitter. Watch some of his footage against Nebraska and Colorado and you’ll see a back who can break through arm tackles and spin his way out of trouble. Franklin’s quick feet and good vision make him a dangerous weapon in space.
Johnathan Franklin runs with the ball in the first quarter against the Arizona Wildcats at the Rose Bowl. Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports
Franklin may challenge Lacy for the starting spot at running back, and at the very least, Franklin will provide Green Bay with a very good third down back and situational player. Franklin can catch the ball out of the backfield and pass block just as well as he can run the ball. And that is saying something. Van Pelt called both Lacy and Franklin the “best two passing blocking backs in this year’s draft.”
Franklin will offer Rodgers additional pass protecting support, and he has the skills to receive effectively out of the backfield. He will frequently win one-on-one matchups against linebackers who try to cover him, giving the Packers another mismatch to exploit in the passing game.
Franklin will work great out of shotgun and spread formations (something the Packers like to run). If you notice in the footage, Franklin frequently ran out of the shotgun, and this is something that will add another dynamic to Green Bay’s no huddle and third down offense. If Franklin can offer a rushing threat from shotgun formations, this just gives opposing defenses another weapon to account for in the Green Bay Packers spread offense.
Franklin is also great in the screen game, which is another effective way to slow down the opposing team’s pass rush. If teams have to begin accounting for Franklin’s running and receiving ability out of the shotgun and spread formations, then that will force teams to play the Green Bay receivers and tight ends in single man coverage. This will only give Rodgers more options when trying to pick and choice which matchups to exploit on the field.
Check out some of Franklin’s gameday footage against Nebraska:
Both Lacy and Franklin should breathe life into the previously lethargic Green Bay running game. With the addition of these two backs and the potential of DuJuan Harris, the Packers’ backfield is beginning to look like a position of strength for the first time in long while. The competition at this position should be exciting to watch over the offseason, and it’s reasonable to think a featured back will emerge from this group next season.
An effective running game will make the passing game better, the pass protection better, the play action game better, the redzone offense better, the defense better, and even your beer and brat at Lambeau Field taste better (OK, maybe I got carried away on that one). The Packers will always be a pass-first type of offense with Rodgers at the helm, but adding a couple of quality backs that can revitalize the running game will help relieve some of the pressure on Rodgers and open up the passing game.
It should be exciting to watch unfold.