Super Bowl Breakdowns: Can the Packers run it?

| 6 years ago

Super Bowl Breakdowns: Can the Packers run it?

Often times in a Super Bowl the game isn’t decided by strength versus strength, it comes down to how well the weaker units perform in the spotlight. So if the Packers’ underused running game can have some success (be it throughout the game or in key situations) that could be telling in determining the outcome of Super Bowl XLV.

The Steeler run defense has been on top form as per usual this season, shutting down just about every run game they’ve come across. Given the Packers’ on-and-off struggles running the ball, it wouldn’t appear on the surface like they’ll provide the sternest of tests of Pittsburgh’s season. So how can the Packers find enough success to make the Steelers play the run honestly, thus preventing Dick LeBeau and his defense keying in on the pass?

Controlling the Nose – Casey Hampton vs. Scott Wells

As with any team trying to run on a 3-4 front, Scott Wells has a vital role to play in Dallas. How he copes with Hampton over the nose will determine the flexibility the Packers have in their blocking schemes. If Wells can handle Hampton one-on-one, it frees up more blockers to neutralize the threat that comes from all four of the Steelers’ linebackers. Six times this season, Wells has played against a 3-4 defense (including the Jets’ hybrid front) and in those games his cumulative run-blocking grade is +6.5 (comparatively his grade in 13 games versus 4-3 fronts is +3.8). What this suggests is that the Packers center is far from uncomfortable when dealing with big nose tackles.

The Packers could (and likely will) simply choose to run predominantly from three-wide sets, which would keep Hampton off the field and take away a front seven defender, creating more space to run while allowing more linemen to match up on the four Steeler linebackers. However, that might be aimed more at counteracting their poor blocking on the edge than any difficulty they may have blocking inside.

Setting the Edge – Harrison and Woodley

The greater concern for the Packers’ running game is off the edge, where the Packers’ tackles and tight ends look dreadfully overmatched against the Steelers’ OLB pairing of James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. It’s hard to imagine TEs Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree and Donald Lee will be able to control Harrison and Woodley sufficiently to allow the Packers to take a straight off-tackle run, but that doesn’t mean the Packers can give up on it — Pittsburgh would have the freedom to crash down inside whenever they read run.

Instead, Mike McCarthy may have to look for draw plays and crack backs to allow the Packers to get runs outside and off tackle. It is something they could exploit because of the aggression with which the Steelers’ outside linebackers, particularly Harrison, crash down on inside runs from the edge, potentially leaving them exposed to misdirection plays. Many teams have a player or a play to keep an edge defender honest, but the Packers lack a ball-carrier at receiver; Harrison will get a chance to be more aggressive than usual. Unless, of course, the Packers use the mobility of Aaron Rodgers to get Harrison second-guessing what’s going on. But would you want to be the coach who ran a bootleg that left Rodgers vulnerable to a potentially disastrous James Harrison hit?

The Deciding Factor

Every indication is that the Steelers will clamp down on the Packers rush offense but the Packers can still have some success by picking up some small victories. Can Josh Sitton lay down a marker of just what a good player he is and open up running lanes by getting the better of Ziggy Hood? Will John Kuhn front up against his former team and muscle out some short yardage conversions or even pound in a goal-line carry? Can Brandon Jackson or James Starks come up with a big game, making a play or two in the open field to bust something loose?

These plays may prove to be few and far between, but how they affect the Packers’ passing game and ability to sustain drives in short yardage will be key. Some success or better, and the Packers are well set for Super Bowl triumph. A stifled running game, and the weight of Wisconsin will be on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

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