Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Guards’ athleticism set up run game
In the locker room immediately after the Green Bay Packers’ 34-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Aaron Jones tried to give the game ball he’d been awarded to his offensive linemen.
They rejected it because they wanted Jones to have it to commemorate his outstanding performance in his home state of Texas.
But Jones’ sentiment was on target. If he was the player of this game, the Packers’ offensive line played a major supporting role and confirmed that general manager Brian Gutekunst has significantly upgraded the team’s guard position from last year.
On inside zone run after inside zone run Sunday, second-round pick Elgton Jenkins on the left side and Billy Turner on the right side showed their athleticism by bouncing out to the second level and blocking the Cowboys’ excellent linebacker corps of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.
If Jones’ exceptional vision and quick cuts were the biggest reason he rushed for 107 yards and averaged 5.6 yards a carry, he had a lot of help from Jenkins and Turner getting out on the Cowboys’ athletic linebackers on all those inside zone runs.
Coach Matt LaFleur decided to go with Lane Taylor instead of Jenkins as the starting left guard early in the season because of experience. Taylor better knew the line calls and the speed of a regular-season NFL game.
But when Jenkins began working into games for the occasional series, it was just a matter of time before he took over as starter. Taylor’s season-ending biceps injury a couple of weeks ago only hastened the changeover.
All signs suggest Jenkins already is improving as he accrues playing time, and on Sunday he was a key to the Packers’ dominating run game.
There were plenty of plays to pick from, but one illustrative run came late in the first quarter, on a second-and-8 from Dallas’ 24. The Cowboys were in their base 4-3 personnel, so all three linebackers were on the field, and essentially they had nine players in the box. This should be a tough personnel group to run against.
But on an inside zone run to the left, Jenkins shot out to Lee on the second level, turned the linebacker out and plowed him out of the play. Jones cut right off Jenkins’ backside and picked up 15 yards right through the heart of the Cowboys’ defense.
Later in that drive, on Jones’ 3-yard touchdown run, Jenkins executed the kind of block required from guards in a zone run scheme. He started off on a double team with center Corey Linsley, but quickly came off the block, picked up Vander Esch at about the 1, then buried the linebacker in the end zone, which paved the way for Jones to score.
Likewise, Turner had his best game since signing with the Packers at the steep price of $7 million a year.
From early on in this game Turner flashed his athleticism in the run game. On Jones’ 18-yard touchdown, for instance, Turner opened the hole up the middle by getting out to Smith and pushing him out of the way. That gave Jones a clear path to the end zone.
Later in the first quarter, on a secondand-3 Turner met Vander Esch about three yards downfield and knocked him back about 5 more yards. That cleared the way for Tra Carson to pick up an easy first down with a 7-yard gain. So it often went in this game.
Gutekunst put a lot resources into upgrading the interior of his line in the offseason. He used a highly valued second-round pick on Jenkins, and signed Turner at what appeared to be an extravagant price. Jenkins has shown promise from the start, and the decision to pay Turner a big contract is starting to look better after his up-and-down start.
The long run
The Packers’ defense is thriving in the big-play game but will need to defend the run better to contend for a Super Bowl.
The Packers’ pass defense definitely has shown the ability to take the ball away. Coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense intercepted Dak Prescott three times, saw Kevin King drop what should have been a fourth, and had another (by Will Redmond) called back because of a penalty on the defensive line.
King, Jaire Alexander and safety Darnell Savage bring a ball-hawking element to the secondary, and the pass rush with new outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith is much better than the last couple of years.
All three sacks of Prescott came on four-man rushes, which shows Pettine he can get pressure while dropping seven players in coverage.
But while the defense contributed a lot of big plays in the Packers’ upset win at Dallas, it still didn’t exactly handle the run.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.2 yards a carry in the first half and 5.2 yards for the game, though he had only 12 carries. The Cowboys seemed bent on running play action on a lot of early downs in the first half, then were so far behind for most of the second half they had to throw.
❚ The Packers have to hope that Robert Tonyan’s hip injury isn’t serious. He sustained it while making a leaping 23yard catch along the sidelines in the first quarter. It was Aaron Rodgers’ longest completion of the day. At this point, Tonyan is a more dynamic tight end than starter Jimmy Graham and should warrant increased playing time.
❚ One play late in the first half illustrated why the Packers promoted Carson from the practice squad rather than suit up Dexter Williams as the backup running back. LaFleur clearly doesn’t trust the rookie Williams in the passing game yet. Carson rewarded LaFleur’s faith on a second-and-goal from the 2 late in the second quarter.
On the play-action pass, defensive end Robert Quinn came unblocked off the edge, but Carson stood up Quinn with a solid hit that allowed Rodgers to escape the pocket to his right. Rodgers ended up throwing the ball away, but much better that than taking a big hit for a sack and possible fumble.