The Green Bay Packers are still building their new offensive identity for the 2022 season. After revamping the receiving room, it’s fair to expect that the passing attack will need some time to be fully ready. Meanwhile, the running game is going to be particularly important. The first game against the Minnesota Vikings is an excellent opportunity for running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon to make a big impact.
Last season, the Vikings run defense was a significant weakness. They were 30th in yards per carry allowed (4.7), 25th in run defense DVOA, and 29th in rushing EPA per play allowed. Minnesota changed its coaching staff in the offseason. Still, new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell runs a Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley type of scheme — similar to the one Joe Barry runs in Green Bay.
That defensive coaching tree is known for its willingness to sacrifice the run defense to put extra bodies in the secondary. That’s why they play with lighter boxes and use the gap-and-half technique. Defensive linemen are required to protect one gap but have the leverage to slide to another gap if necessary. It has worked for the Los Angeles Rams, who have Aaron Donald. But the Packers and especially the Los Angeles Chargers had poor run defenses last season. The Denver Broncos were in the middle of the pack with Fangio as head coach and Donatell as DC.
The Vikings tried to reinforce the unit with nose tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Jordan Hicks, but they aren’t game-changers. They also added edge defender Za’Darius Smith, who the Packers released largely because he was a liability in the run game.
The Packers weren’t very efficient running the ball last season, but injuries along the offensive line played a huge part in it. Even so, Green Bay was 15th in yards per carry (4.3) after being seventh in 2020 (4.8). In the first game against the Vikings last year, Dillon had 4.8 yards per run (53 yards in 11 runs), while Jones didn’t play. In the second divisional matchup, in Week 17, Jones ran eight times for 76 yards (9.5 yards per carry). Dillon wasn’t that efficient in yards per carry (4.5), but he ran several times in short-yardage situations, including two touchdown runs. He ended up with 63 yards in 14 attempts.
The Packers should use more two-running back sets with Jones and Dillon on the field simultaneously. They were heavily successful in pony personnel last year, but with low volume. This game might require a different strategy, though. The Vikings have uncertainties cornerback and are adjusting to a new scheme. If the Packers can use 11 personnel and open the opponent’s defense, they will frequently see light boxes. Therefore, they’ll be able to put Jones in open spaces or scheme runs in which Dillon could face safeties rotating into the box.
“They’re two of the premier backs in our league, in my opinion,” LaFleur said about Jones and Dillon during training camp. “They can do anything.”
Protecting Aaron Rodgers
The Packers haven’t shared any information regarding David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins‘ game status. We should know more about them starting Wednesday when teams need to release an injury report. Until then, it’s fair to project the line with Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Jake Hanson, and Royce Newman. It’s not a terrible group, but the right side is especially concerning. Hanson has played better at the center, and Newman at right guard. If the Packers can effectively run the ball, limiting Aaron Rodgers‘ passing attempts will also be an important way to minimize risk.
Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith pass rushing versus Nijman and Newman are probably the two worst matchups the Packers will face in this game. Therefore, LaFleur has to create and explore ways to protect Rodgers. Running the ball may be the best alternative, considering the veteran wide receivers Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, and Sammy Watkins are not speedsters. Rookies Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson have yet to prove they can quickly create separation and be impactful immediately.
The Packers might develop a good, complete offense throughout the season if the rookie wide receivers prove to be special. Meanwhile, they should lean into the players they already know are dominant. Rodgers is obviously one of them and can elevate his environment, but Jones and Dillon are the two best skill-position offensive players for the Packers until proven otherwise. And, at least to start the season, LaFleur must treat them as such. The game against the Vikings looks to be an excellent opportunity to do so.