We keep hearing that in Coach LaFleur’s offense, the run game will be used to set up the pass, the offense will be built around the run game, and that Aaron Rodgers’ job will be made easier by a better run/pass balance. I’m ready to believe it: despite having Aaron Rodgers in the driver’s seat, the run game will be the key to the team’s success or failure in LaFleur’s first year.
We might find out very soon if the Packers’ run game is up to the task. Neither the Bears nor the Packers have much real-game experience going into this regular season. While the strengths of the two team’s run attacks are therefore pretty speculative, I think Green Bay has a distinct advantage in the comparisons.
In early season games, I’d be inclined to try to establish ball control and dominant time of possession via a strong ground game. Rushing plays can be ironed out without the amount of practice it takes to fine-tune a pass attack. As the season progresses, Green Bay’s passing game might well become explosive, but I’m not expecting such a result in early September.
So, who has the better prospect for establishing run dominance on September 5, the Bears or the Pack?
Bears Are Starting Over at RB
For the past three years, the Bears’ run game was entrusted to Jordan Howard, a 230-pound power runner out of Indiana. Like Eddie Lacy, Howard, though a round 5 pick, was named to the pro bowl in his rookie season. But it went downhill from there. Though he had at least 250 carries in each of his first three years, his rushing yardage went from 1,313 to 1,122, to 935.
On March 28, 2019, the Bears traded Howard to the Eagles for a 2020 sixth round pick. The Bears have a hole to fill in 2019 at running back.
Here’s how the Bears’ depth chart shapes up at running back: the top two runners are Mike Davis and Tariq Cohen; the backups are David Montgomery and Ryan Nall. It’s an inexperienced and largely unproven lineup.
Davis, at 5’9” and 217 pounds, has yet to prove he’s exceptional. A Round 4 pick, he was never a steady starter in two years with San Francisco, and two more with Seattle. Last season he had 112 rushes for just over 500 yards. That was good for a 4.6 yard average, though his career average in the pros is only 3.7. The Bears picked him up this Spring for $6 million for two years.
Tariq Cohen, another Round 4 pick, has shown his talent in his two years in the league – but it’s been as a return specialist and as a pass catcher. Last year he was named 1st team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl as a returner. As a running back, however, he was only graded by Pro Football Focus as the 32nd best among the league’s qualifying RBs.
It’s hard to believe that the Bears can establish a dominant ground game featuring Cohen; he stands 5’6” and tips the scales at 181 pounds. In his two seasons with the Bears, he’s so far had 186 carries, for an average of 4.4 yards. The Packers will have their hands full with Cohen, but not as an every-down running back.
The Bears drafted Rookie David Montgomery in the 3rd round of this year’s draft. He was a consensus First-team All-Big 12 player in 2017. Like the Packers’ Dexter Williams, he probably won’t see action next week barring injuries.
All Eyes Are on Packers’ Aaron Jones
Like Rodney Dangerfield, Aaron Jones gets no respect. The Packers, however, are banking on that changing in a big way and in a short time.
Total Packers has well chronicled how Coach Mike McCarthy insisted on platooning Jones with Jamaal Williams for the duo’s two years with Green Bay. Williams, a dependable backup, and fine receiver, has rushed 274 times, for a 3.7 yard average. Jones, meanwhile, has also rushed 274 times, but he’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry – best in the NFL over that time span. Such an average results in very favorable down-and-distance situations.
Even with Big Mike out of the picture, there’s a fear that Jones is fragile and therefore must be limited in his usage. Yes, he’s missed six games due to injuries, and he missed almost one full season in college, but otherwise he was a workhorse at UTEP. In his final year there, he ran 229 times for 1,773 yards – a stunning 7.7 yard average. The more carries he got, and the tougher the opponent, the better he did.
We’ll soon know the extent of Matt LaFleur’s commitment to the run game. Jones has been utterly consistent both in college and the pros: he chews up yardage, is a threat to break loose on every play, and is dangerous as a receiver as well. I’d like to see him get 20 carries a game, and be targeted by Rodgers at least five times per game.
Scatback Tariq Cohen was thrown to 91 times last year – 5.7 times per game; he had 71 catches for 725 yards and five touchdowns. Will LaFleur similarly exploit Jones’ talents? Thursday’s game could turn out to be a battle between these two smallish dynamos – though at 5’9” or 5’10”, and listed at 208 pounds, Jones has a weight advantage of almost 30 pounds.
Jones will also be running behind better blockers than he’s had before. LT David Bakhtiari, RT Brian Bulaga, and Corey Linsley are all top-notch, the Packers are paying RG Billy Turner a top-notch salary, and rookie Elgton Jenkins is pushing veteran Lane Taylor hard at LG.
Packers’ Run Game Is Key
Should Aaron Jones disappoint, I’m afraid the Packers’ offense will resemble that of Sean McVay and the L.A. Rams when running back Todd Gurley was hobbled by an injury in last year’s Superbowl. In that 13 to 3 loss to the Patriots, the Rams managed only 62 rushing yards (35 by Gurley in 10 carries), and 260 total yards (versus the Pats’ 407).
During the regular season, the Rams ranked second in offensive yardage, averaging 421.1 yards per game, including 139.4 rushing yards– third best in the league.
But I don’t see Aaron disappointing us. He’s reportedly in his best shape ever. He’s loose and confident. He responded spectacularly to his leadership role throughout his time at UTEP. He’s got a savvy coach, a playbook suited to his talents, and a group of capable blockers.
With the two Aarons sharing the load of leading a potent and balanced offensive attack, I’m also counting on Rodgers to return to what a guy at Pro Football Focus termed the “lethal accuracy” that he’s displayed for most of the last decade. There’s no better time and place to start than at Soldier Field on September 5.