GREEN BAY – Each Wednesday and Thursday, after they’ve practiced and after they’ve showered – well, sometimes they shower – guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton leave the Green Bay Packers locker room and head down the hallway to a meeting room. There, they sit with their fellow linemen and the team’s running backs – and sometimes with the tight ends – and watch the day’s practice film together.
There are plenty of reasons why the Packers suddenly have a running game. There was that offseason line shuffle that put some familiar faces in new places – even though it didn’t quite work out as planned. The guys up front are playing well individually. A few tweaks to the offensive scheme – not that any coaches are willing to divulge what they might have been – have helped. That Aaron Rodgers guy at quarterback still commands a lot of the defense’s respect. And having three running backs – Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Johnathan Franklin – capable of being productive hasn’t hurt.
But ask anyone associated with the team’s running game – the one that entered this week fifth in yards per game (141.0) and second in yards per rush (5.3) going into Sunday’s game at Baltimore – and to a man, the answer is the same.
From the linemen to the running backs to the various position coaches to the offensive coordinator, they all say the same thing: An offseason decision to get the running backs and linemen (and sometimes the tight ends) all on the same page – and, literally, all in the same room – has made a world of difference.
Ask Lang. “It seems like together, we’re finally starting to jell as a unit rather than being on separate pages. That’s something we spend a lot of time throughout the week meeting together, talking about plays and it feels good when you go out and execute on Sundays.”
Ask Sitton. “We’ve made the run game a point of emphasis, put a little bit more on our shoulders, we’ve done a lot of good things in the run game. One of the biggest things is our communication – as a line, with the running backs, with the tight ends, with the running backs coach. The communication between the coaches and players has been really good this year, and I think that’s one of the biggest things for us. And, it’s shown.
Ask center Evan Dietrich-Smith. “We’re communicating a lot better as a group – with Aaron, the running backs, the tight ends, the blocking unit, the protection unit. We have taken it upon ourselves to make sure that we all understand each other, what we’re doing, assignments, that kind of thing. That has paid dividends.”
Ask offensive line coach James Campen. “We meet together. We’ll go watch practice together. We’ve done that in the past, but we’ve done some things in practice to help simulate game things, we’ve done some things as far as when we’re watching film that have helped identify what their vision is, what we see. I think those things help.”
Ask running backs Alex Van Pelt. “We spend a lot of time together. We discuss a lot of these runs. I think that’s different than last year. So you get to hear what we’re trying to get done in the run, what we think will happen with a run versus certain fronts.
Or ask offensive coordinator Tom Clements. “That’s been normal for them during the course of the week to watch practice together. It helps with the runs, and it also helps with the protections. I think we did it last year and probably the year before, just like the quarterbacks and the receivers watch practice together because a lot of issues come up that need to be discussed between those two groups, it’s similar with the line and the backs. We did a little bit of it (in the past), but we expanded it this year.”
Here’s how it works, according to Van Pelt:
Every Wednesday and Thursday morning before practice, the linemen and running backs will walk through running plays in the gym with the rest of the offense. As they go through the plays, the coaches encourage the linemen to discuss what their intentions are blocking on each play, while the running backs listen. In turn, the running backs communicate with the linemen what they’re inclined to do on certain reads or off specific blocks.
Then in the afternoon, after practice on each day, they’ll watch film together and discuss plays. The sessions are lively, and productive. While certainly not revolutionary – the quarterback and the receivers have been watching film together for years – the renewed emphasis is making a difference. (Tight ends, in case you’re wondering, split their time between the running back/lineman meeting and the quarterback/receivers meeting.)
“It’s been good. It’s a good addition to how we go through the week of preparation, and it shows,” Van Pelt said Thursday. “Our runners right now are really in-tune with the linemen and how they see their blocks unfolding up front, talking to us at the same time – saying, ‘Hey, if we get this from the three-technique (defensive tackle), we’re thinking you set him up outside, you should come back inside.’ And that’s really worked well for us. There’s good communication, good understanding of how we’re attacking these defenses with each different front and what we expect to get out of the play and where we think the play might hit. We’re jelling real well with the offensive line.”
The process, though, actually starts on Monday, when Campen, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot and Van Pelt sit down together in a coaches meeting room and break down every running play from the previous game. They’ll take notes on what they liked, what they didn’t, and what adjustments they want to make. Then, they’ll talk about their observations and ideas to the players before spending Tuesday formulating the game plan with Clements and head coach Mike McCarthy, applying their ideas to the next week’s plan. Then they’ll walk through those plays on Wednesday and Thursday.
“The walkthroughs are huge in the gym. It’s when we get a lot of the communication done,” Van Pelt said. “Not to point anybody out in particular, but Josh Sitton’s very vocal. They all are, (but) Josh has done a great job of helping these backs and explaining to them what he’s going to do to try and set these runs up on certain plays. That’s been a big advantage for us.”
As a result, the Packers have gotten production from Starks (34 carries, 187 yards, 5.5-yard average), Lacy (38-150, 3.9), Franklin (16-104, 6.5) and even wide receiver Randall Cobb (4-78, including a 67-yard run last Sunday against the Lions). After going 44 straight regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher, they’ve gotten 100-yard games from Starks (132 against Washington on Sept. 15) and Franklin (103 yards at Cincinnati) and saw Lacy come up one yard shy last week against the Lions. (If not for a holding penalty that wiped out half of a 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter, Lacy would have finished with 112 yards.)
It’s not all the communication, however. While none of the coaches wanted to divulge any of the scheme changes they’ve made in the run game – “Because we still have some rabbits in the hat,” Van Pelt said – there have been subtle adjustments.
But one change they have made goes hand-in-hand with the communicating they’re doing: According to Clements, much like Rodgers has multiple options on pass plays (not to mention run/pass option plays), there are now multiple options attached to the run calls.
“We might call a particular play, but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate to use, and we look at the pictures and say ‘OK we’ve done this once, let’s try if we get that same look let’s use this other variation.’ Because of the fact that we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they’re doing a good job of it.
“Maybe some different types of runs (were added), but really it’s primarily looking at the defense and picking out of a menu of runs, the run that’s best suited for that defense. We did a little bit of it (in the past), but we expanded it this year.”
In the end, though, everything is simply coming together – with the help of that improved communication.
“We’ve done a couple different things, but we’ve done what we do – we’ve just done it better,” Sitton said. “We’ve just been focusing on the run game more and executing. We’ve got running backs back there playing with an edge and running the hell out of the ball. It’s fun right now.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.