Packers look to reestablish their groove on the ground

Green Bay was held to just 15 carries in loss to New Orleans

RB AJ Dillon

GREEN BAY – Sunday wasn't the first time a defense held its safeties back and dared the Packers to run the football.

The Cover-2 is a tactic many defensive coordinators have tried against Green Bay over the years in order to limit quarterback Aaron Rodgers' big-play opportunities and combat a potent aerial attack.

However, the difference in what the New Orleans Saints did during Sunday's 38-3 win over the Packers was their offense aided the defense's cause by zapping time off the clock with a pair of run-heavy, 15-play drives that produced touchdowns.

That, in turn, forced the Packers to alter their plan and move almost exclusively to their two-minute package. The result was Green Bay holding the ball for just 8 minutes, 9 seconds in the first half, the lowest initial time of possession of Matt LaFleur's two-plus seasons as head coach by more than two minutes.

Asked what could be learned from a 17-play first half against the Saints in which the offense ran the ball just four times, Green Bay's run-game coordinator/offensive line coach Adam Stenavich was straightforward in his response Thursday.

"(You) can't really tell anything from that, to be honest," Stenavich said. "We didn't even execute our game plan. That's the bottom line."

As the Packers look to reset Monday night against the Detroit Lions, it's no secret what needs to happen – the offense must establish the run early and move the football, particularly on the opening possession.

Green Bay was tough to stop out of the gate last year, thanks to Aaron Rodgers' brilliance and a formidable backfield punch of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams that helped keep the Packers in favorable down-and-distance.

While Green Bay lost Williams to Detroit in free agency, it re-signed Jones and partnered the returning Pro Bowl running back with 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon. Due to the unique circumstances of the opener, however, Jones and Dillon combined to carry the ball just nine times for 28 yards.

Dillon was responsible for two of Green Bay's best carries against the Saints, on back-to-back power runs up the middle for 12 total yards in the second quarter. However, Rodgers was sacked for an 11-yard loss on the next play by Marcus Davenport and the Packers wound up having to punt.

"I thought AJ ran the ball really hard. He did a good job," Stenavich said. "That's his style. He's a downhill guy. Get him the ball, he's going to put his foot in the ground and fall forward, usually for a decent gain because he's a big dude."

Facing uncompromising Cover-2 looks is nothing new for Green Bay. It's a look the Packers have seen off and on for the last decade, though the schemes have evolved over time.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Rodgers discussed the shift he's witnessed from the Tampa-2 Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin and Lovie Smith deployed in the late-1990s to the Seattle and San Francisco defenses of the 2010s, and now the LA Rams' scheme.

The key, in most cases, is to be patient with the run and attack the lighter box. Eddie Lacy helped crack that code in 2013-14 before Jones and Williams picked up the mantle in 2017.

"That's why people play that defense, is to force you to commit to the run and stay with it," Rodgers said. "Based on down and distance, we weren't able to do that in Week 1, but I think that's kind of the cycle of the league, as I've seen a number of different cycles over the years."

And it's not just on the run game to break the two-shell. Both Rodgers and All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, who frequently has a safety clouding the top of his routes, mentioned how there are things Green Bay can do in the passing game to open things up, as well.

LaFleur's introduction of pre-snap jet motions has helped matters, along with the Packers running more underneath routes and occasionally shifting Adams into the slot.

Sometimes, it's as simple as Rodgers making an elite throw and trusting Adams to make a play on the ball, like the four-time Pro Bowl receiver did when he beat the Saints' double-coverage and hauled in a 31-yard pass to set up a 39-yard Mason Crosby field goal shortly before halftime Sunday.

"That's something that me and '12' talked about, like, 'Look, they're going to play this way, so maybe (there are) certain opportunities where you've just got to say, I like my guy,'" Adams said. "They're intending to double-team you, but if there's a window to throw the ball, I might just get some opportunities. That way, it's forcing them to play honest, and if I'm getting off from that, then it's just going to continue to open up stuff for the rest of the guys."

For the most part, neither running the football nor time of possession has been much of an issue for the Packers under LaFleur. In fact, last week was just the second time over the past 12 months the Packers were held under 13 minutes of offense in the first half (12:56 in Week 17 against Chicago).

If the Lions want to keep their safeties back and shorten the game on Monday, the Packers know they must be prepared to attack.

"We always talk about taking what the defense gives you and if they're going to give us it, we gotta take it," Stenavich said. "It's one thing that was unfortunate (against the Saints) … we just never got an opportunity to pound the ball or do any of that stuff because we just didn't execute at the beginning of the game and got down fast. We're just going to keep working on that."

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