September 15, 2011

Packers’ backfield should be owned by Starks and Kuhn, not Grant

In the season opener versus the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers’ running backs weren't exactly difference makers. No worries, they didn’t have to be because Aaron Rodgers was filthy. But at some point this season the Packers’ backfield will need to produce, so it’s worth discussing the ideal mix of backs depending on the game situation. Let’s dive into key situational moments the Packers will encounter this season and which Packer running-backers are fit to fill each role.

Third/Fourth and Short (4 yards or less): James Starks with a side of John Kuhn
Though our sample size is small with Starks, I can’t remember the last time he didn’t carry for at least one yard. He always falls forward, has above average vision and wins the majority of one-on-one battles with open field tacklers. If McCarthy is calling a pass play, specifically a deep shot (which we know he often does on third-and-short) Kuhn needs to be on the field for blocking purposes; he’s also a more than capable receiver and tends to entertain in the open field a la his epic hurdling of a defender or shoulder-lowering blows to smaller defenders.

Third/Fourth and One (or less): John Kuhn
When the Packers need power and short yardage, John Kuhn is the answer. As the strongest back on the roster, there isn’t much to discuss about why Kuhn is the man. Kuhn takes pride in finding first down markers and converting. If Green Bay’s offensive line can’t open a hole long enough for Kuhn to pick up a yard or less – they’re tired, lazy or confused.

Three/Four Minute Offense and Leading: James Starks with a side of Ryan Grant
Considering the offense will need to burn clock and keep the ball moving, Starks is the best option mainly for his pass catching ability and endurance. McCarthy’s play-calling can turn conservative in these situations meaning dink-and-dunk passes and shotgun draw plays become staples. Both aforementioned plays require good back vision, patience and tackle-breaking ability – all of which Starks does better than Grant. For a change of pace, and by change I mean slower, Grant may be useful to keep defenses off balance. Not sure if either Grant or Starks is a noticeably better blocker than the other, so I’m calling them even on that front.

Three/Four Minute Offense and Trailing: James Starks or Alex Green
No huddle mode is in effect here but not at the hurry-up level yet. McCarthy will call easy completion plays to get Rodgers into a rhythm, which is why I like Green and Starks. Both should be given opportunities to make open-field plays. I specifically like Green as an outside runner on HB-sweep type plays, something we’ll occasionally see in this situation from the Packers.

Two Minute Offense and Trailing: James Starks
When it’s crunch time, the second-year back from Buffalo should be on the field. He is the Packers’ most complete back, has better big-play potential and runs harder and faster. No reason to doubt his mental toughness, ball security or smarts – he’s shown he can be a difference maker on the biggest stage and the kid is oozing with confidence.

It’s no accident Grant isn’t mentioned much above. Say what you will about Ryan Grant’s history in this league: a few 1,200+ yard rushing seasons, a 200+ yard playoff rushing performance…and what? Not sure what else there is and I don’t think it matters anyway. James Starks is the franchise running back and the sooner the Packers realize he deserves 70 percent of the touches, the sooner they become a TRUE multi-dimensional offense capable of keeping the best defenses guessing run/pass on every play. Then we’ll see how great this Packers team can really be.

September 6, 2011

No Huddle Meant to Challenge, Gauge Packers' Offensive Preparedness

Packers' No Huddle is a Risk/Reward Proposition

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has used the no huddle to challenge the sharpness, conditioning and smarts of his entire offensive unit this preseason. Challenged the unit was Aug. 26 at Indianapolis, and the risks associated with the on-the-fly offense were exposed by the Colts, leaving star QB Aaron Rodgers with a few bruises from blown O-Line and RB assignments.

McCarthy implemented the no huddle on the final four possessions of the first half Aug. 26, and while the Packers successfully moved the ball, the offensive line was gassed, RB assignments were blown and worst of all - the Superbowl MVP, Aaron Rodgers, took a few punishing hits. This is McCarthy's idea of pushing his offense to and above their conditioning limit to truly gauge how prepared they are for the September 8 NFL opener against the Saints. The verdict? Here's a look at how each part of the offense has handled the no huddle in the preseason:


Offensive Line

It's doubtful the offensive line will be asked to run the no huddle four consecutive possessions in a game and Friday night proved why this isn't a good idea . But, McCarthy should be content with the lines' ability to protect Rodgers when no huddle is used on an ad hoc basis. Preseason games #1 and #2 showed how the no huddle can jumpstart the Packers' nearly unstoppable and rhythmic passing attack. McCarthy's challenge is to strike a balance between keeping the O-Line fresh and unleashing the potential filthy no huddle attack, which drains the fatigue levels of the franchise protectors.


Quarterback

Leading a successful and fluid no huddle offense is comparable to a maestro directing a perfectly choreographed professional orchestra. Aaron Rodgers is the best maestro since Peyton Manning perfected and originated the art. Rodgers' pre-snap intelligence enables him to recognize defensive formations to make protection and formation adjustments. His escapeability can turn a missed assignment or broken play into a homerun while his vision and rocket-powered arm can turn any missed step by the defense into an open-field opportunity for a Packers WR, TE or RB. The question isn't whether Rodgers can effectively execute a no huddle, it's if his teammates can keep up and perform at his superstar level. If his teammates do, the Green Bay Packers are going to score a whole lot of points in 2011-12.


Running Backs

Now we come to the no-attention position in the Packer no huddle. A RB's main job in this fast-paced no huddle is to block. Easier said than done. Grant and Starks have an especially difficult time recognizing blitzes and an even harder time picking them up. So much so that McCarthy often opts for 0 RB in the no huddle, instead bringing in a fifth WR option to create nightmares for opposing secondaries. RB John Kuhn hasn't seen much action in the preseason, but as the Packers' most capable backfield blocker, McCarthy might consider working him more into the game plan. The no-huddle RB will see the occasional screen and the Packers have had impressive success with it in the preseason. But again, screens will add considerable fatigue to the O-Line, a unit that needs to be fresh and energized at all times in the no huddle.


Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Call the Packers' squad of WRs/TEs a track team in football uniforms and you wouldn't be far off. This young, speedy and talented bunch of pigskin catchers thrive in no huddle, seeing it almost as a continuous marathon of running, catching and Lambeau leaping. The WR/TE squad is athletic, explosive and dangerous enough to keep any defensive coordinator up at night. With the return of TE Jermichael Finley and addition of slot sure-hander Randall Cobb , the Packers' passing attack can strike inside, outside, long, short, intermediate and any other place on the stretched field they play on. Scary to think this team has more weapons than they did in 2010-2011.


Packer fans no doubt enjoy the strike-at-any-time nature of the no huddle, but also must realize with high reward comes high risk. If the O-Line is gassed, Rodgers will be running and getting hit more than he should. Packer RBs must improve at diagnosing defenses pre-snap, recognizing blitzes and hitting/blocking QB-hungry DEs, DTs, LBs and CBs. McCarthy must strategically use the no-huddle to keep defenses off balance, but be careful to keep his own O-Line fresh and his franchise QB upright and healthy.