GREEN BAY — Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he always has a sleepless week when his team is preparing to face Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers running game having the same effect on Zimmer’s sleep patterns.
Not so far, anyway.
The running game is a cornerstone of the offense installed by first-year Packers coach Matt LaFleur. Since the day he was hired, LaFleur has outlined his fundamental offensive game plan thusly: The outside-zone running scheme sets up the play-action passing game and the entire offense flows from there.
Given the importance of the running game in the grand scheme of things, the slow start on the ground is a surprise. In their season-opening 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, the Packers rushed for 47 yards on 22 carries. Only the tanking Miami Dolphins had fewer total yards than the Packers’ 213 in the NFL’s opening week.
It’s early, of course, and there are several perfectly good reasons — some under LaFleur’s control, some not — why the Packers running game was a no-show against Chicago’s elite defense. But the opener was proof positive the offense will struggle against good defenses until the running game gets up to speed.
It needs to get up to speed quickly, too, because the Minnesota Vikings will bring another elite defense to Lambeau Field for the Packers’ home opener Sunday.
“I think we’ve got to run the ball a little better,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “Obviously in this offense, when it’s most effective, you’re running the football really well and the action comes off of those runs. We’ve got to run the ball a little more effectively. If we do that, we should be ahead of the sticks and should have some more manageable third downs.”
Against the Bears, the Packers were 2-for-12 on third-down conversions, though that number had more to do with what happened on first down than on third. The Packers rushed 13 times for 28 yards on first down against the Bears’ fierce front, creating many third-and-longs that made pass protection almost impossible.
“It’s just staying in manageable situations, staying ahead of the sticks, not having negative yardage plays,” LaFleur said. “If you look at the third downs, the bulk of them were third-and-10 plus last week and that’s tough living, especially when you’re going against a quality defense. I think if you look at Mike Zimmer and his past with that defense there, they’ve always been one of the tops in the league in overall defense, but also in third downs because they present so many problems. So we know that’s going to be a huge key to this game is staying out of those third-and-long yardage situations.”
To do that, the Packers will need more than the 7 yards on six carries they had against the Bears in the first half. And they’ll have to do it against a Vikings defense that returns 10 starters from a unit that finished fourth in the NFL last season, one spot below Chicago. Indeed, the Vikings’ front seven is just as fast and physical as the Bears’ front.
If you ask the Packers, the biggest reason they couldn’t run the ball was because the Bears defense, which was No. 1 against the run in the NFL last season, looks and plays like a brick wall.
“It’s a good front,” Rodgers said. “They hold the point really well. ... They did a good job with their front, kind of boxed us in and stopped some things. We had a couple good runs in the second half, but we’ve got to start a little faster. You’d expect to at home without the crowd noise being an issue, so we’ll look at start fast in the run game this week.”
True, the Bears defense was one reason Jones finished with 39 yards on 13 carries and Williams had no yards on five attempts. There were others.
LaFleur’s approach to the exhibition games certainly didn’t help as top backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams never played in August and the line got only a few snaps together. Since the running game requires so much coordinated movement, the line simply wasn’t ready for the start of the regular season and got manhandled by the Bears. Meanwhile, Jones and Williams never took a hit prior to the opener and also missed considerable practice time due to hamstring injuries.
Another factor was the Packers are still learning the new scheme installed by LaFleur. As they get comfortable in the scheme, their play speed should increase.
Put it all together and only an eternal optimist would think the Packers’ running game in particular and the offense in general were going to be crisp and clean right from the start. But if the opener was the de facto preseason for the Packers, this is this week they need to merge the run and pass effectively.
“We’ve just got to hit them over the head with both,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “We’ve got to be efficient in the run game, which I think we’ve got a really good run plan right now. Receivers blocking is critical in this offense as well. We’ve got to make sure we’re handling our side of it and then make plays when they come. When we marry the opportunities that we’ll have when we start getting the run-game going and our play passes, it’s going to be tough to guard.”
It’s going to be a nightmare. At least that’s the plan. Starting Sunday.