By Nick Shook
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Just weeks ago, we filled this space with a breakdown of why Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the passing game. My, how times have changed.
Since surrendering truckloads of points in a three-game stretch, the Packers are in the midst of indeed running the table. Green Bay got Damarious Randall back and remedied its issues on defense, and ditched the idea of the traditional running back after injuries decimated the position and forced the Packers to deal for Knile Davis in an ill-fated attempt to acquire a stopgap. Mike McCarthy’s offense has since resorted to turning wide receiver Ty Montgomery into a running back, and while yes, it’s odd to see a player wearing No. 88 lining up in the backfield, it’s working for the Packers.
The reason isn’t necessarily a fresh scheme, or a shift in attitude, but the physical tools of Montgomery, who has grown visibly comfortable with the new position as the season has progressed. At 6 feet and 216 pounds, Montgomery possesses both the size and speed to be effective as a runner. But the most devastating quality Montgomery has at his disposal is how he’s carrying the ball.
Gone are the days of big Eddie Lacy plodding through holes with a head of steam and a midsection that was quite large before Shaun T trimmed him for beach photoshoots. Instead, Montgomery’s vision has him envied by a good portion of the league, and considered for the namesake of Lil’ Wayne’s next child (best wishes to the future Ty Montgomery Carter).
How much has Montgomery improved as a runner in the second half of the season? Take a look at this run Sunday against the Bears, which should have been stopped for a short gain at best, but thanks to Montgomery’s patience and continual search for an opening finished inside Chicago’s 5-yard line.
Montgomery didn’t hit a blinding top speed Sunday, but his initial burst through the hole resulted in more than one rush of 35-plus yards. He rarely wastes steps (he tied with the Giants‘ Paul Perkins for most efficient back in Week 15 with 2.7 yards per rushing yard gained), running in a choppier fashion that allows him to make quick cuts to both find, enter and exit small running lanes and evade defenders in the process. His 61-yard run and 36-yard gallop were great examples of how his style aided in big gains.
Part of Green Bay finding success with a wide receiver as a running back is in its play design. The Packers operate almost exclusively out of either the pistol or shotgun, which allows plenty of personnel movement to set up runs. Late in the second, Green Bay stacked Jordy Nelson behind Richard Rodgers in a close trips set on the right, and had Rodgers effectively blocked (he struggled with blocking well in open space in the first half), the play might have gone for a big gain. Green Bay also designed a play late in the second that sent backside guard TJ Lang on a pull in what is traditionally a counter-play path, but instead had frontside guard Lane Taylor take a step outside toward the defensive end before heading directly upfield to the linebacker, leaving the defensive end to be kicked out by Lang. It cleared a crease for Montgomery to burst through on a run that gained 36 for Green Bay and set up a Mason Crosby field goal.
But there was also a stark contrast in the Packers‘ approach, and in how Montgomery gained his yards. In previous weeks, he was used in a supplementary role at best, receiving single-digit carries in every contest prior to Sunday. Against Chicago, Montgomery toted the rock 16 times. We can chalk that up to two details: Chicago entered the week ranked 23rd in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, and it was really cold — 11 degrees with a windchill of minus-4 — so cold that Ka’Deem Carey had his logo knocked off his helmet, and Jake Ryan had half of his helmet’s paint and decal job cracked off.
Montgomery had gained much of his yards in previous games by going largely untouched. As the tape from Sunday shows, that wasn’t anywhere close to the case against the Bears. Of his 162 yards rushing, 156 came after contact. Montgomery finished with the most rushing yards by a Packer since Samkon Gado’s 171 yards in Week 14 of 2005.
When future coaches attempt to teach their offensive personnel how to properly execute an outside run with two pulling guards leading the way, they’ll cue up this play. Lined up in a Pistol Ace formation (a slight variation of the traditional, two-tight-end Ace), Green Bay pulled both guards to the left as Michael took a stretch handoff left. Frontside pulling guard Lang kicked out linebacker Willie Young, sealing the outside as tight end Jared Cook moved to the second level, walling off linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who took on the block outside to force the run inside. He did his job, but there was a problem: the inside help didn’t follow through. Backside guard Taylor pulled around the outside hip of tackle Bryan Bulaga (blocking down on defense end Cornelius Washington) and into the hole, where he met linebacker John Timu. Michael suddenly had, in the words of the late Vince Lombardi, an alley.
The back sprinted through the hole and, with Jordy Nelson doing an excellent job of blocking safety Deon Bush, had a choice: inside or outside. Michael cut hard inside, where Cre’von LeBlanc was in position to make the tackle, but was instead forced to eat grass by Michael’s stiff arm. The back didn’t miss a step in shedding LeBlanc and won a footrace back across the field, outrunning free safety Adrian Amos with a top speed of 19.29 mph (Amos: 18.7 mph) to the end zone.
More often than not, this type of execution wasn’t the case for the Packers in their 30-27 win over the rival Bears. But with a consistently shifty, speedy back in Montgomery and a powerful, fast runner capable of ripping off a big gain in Michael, Green Bay still managed to rack up 207 yards rushing and three touchdowns between the two. Aaron Rodgers will always be the most important Packer on the field, but the growth of Montgomery and addition of Michael has added just enough balance to the Packers‘ offense. With two weeks left in the regular season, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Some other notes from Week 15 in Next Gen Stats:
1. Brandin Cooks has found himself among the fastest players in the league for much of the season, and just weeks after complaining about his lack of targets, Cooks set the highest mark for those catching touchdowns, hitting 22.4 mph to best Marquise Goodwin‘s 22.25 mph mark, which reigned supreme from Weeks 2-14. Cooks is included in this week’s passing and receiving charts samplings, which you can find by clicking here.
3. Green Bay had Chicago defenders running all over mother earth to tackle Packers. Of the top five defenders covering the most distance per tackle, Chicago had Nos. 3-5 in safety Deon Bush (28.7 yds, 5 tackles), cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc (27.8, 7) and safety Adrian Amos (27.2, 5).
4. Though the Browns still haven’t been able to locate the win column, Robert Griffin III found the end zone via the ground Sunday. He also recorded the top two speeds for a quarterback in Week 15 at 19.7 and 19.66 mph.
5. Dak Prescott looked cool under the pressure of the bright lights of Sunday night, recording a season-high in completion percentage (88.9 percent) and going a perfect 7-for-7 against five-plus pass rushers.
6. Joe Flacco was surprisingly better under pressure in a one-point win over the Eagles, completing 7 of 10 passes for 130 yards, one touchdown and a 145.8 passer rating against the blitz. Flacco was just 9 of 20 for 76 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 51.3 when he wasn’t blitzed.