AP Photo/Mike Roemer
The best path forward for the Green Bay Packers involves taking the ball out of the hands of the reigning back-to-back NFL MVP.
The Packers can’t expect to win the same way they have during the previous three seasons under head coach Matt LaFleur. Two-time first-team All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams is no longer with the franchise, and Green Bay’s front five remains in flux.
Adjustments are necessary.
In this particular case, the solution seems counterintuitive. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and Aaron Rodgers has been the best in the business for two years running. Yet both of those campaigns ended in playoff disappointment.
Now, the roster makeup is different, and the 38-year-old signal-caller shouldn’t be expected to elevate the lineup at every turn, especially when obvious deficiencies exist.
Instead, an increased reliance on the Rodgers’ backfield mates is the new status quo. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are the playmakers. They’re the ones who defenses must account for at all times, whether it’s just one or both on the field. In turn, their effectiveness helps in other complementary areas of the Packers’ offense.
The transition toward a different dynamic duo was always going to take time.
Rodgers and Adams had been the league’s best battery for the last four years. Between the 2018 and 2021 campaigns, Rodgers targeted Adams an average of 154 times per season. During that stretch, the former Packers receiver went to four straight Pro Bowls on the strength of 432 total receptions for 5,310 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Quite simply, no wide receiver could fill the void left by Adams once Green Bay traded him to the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Packers’ strengths now lie in their backfield and a standout defense, with the luxury of having one of the greatest players of all time behind center. Jones and Dillion combined for 237 yards from scrimmage during Green Bay’s 27-10 victory over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
Sunday’s effort built upon the previous week’s production when the pair contributed 167 yards during a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. However, the Vikings built a pretty substantial lead, which made the Packers’ offensive approach more predictable.
Meanwhile, the trust in Green Bay’s younger wide receiver corps clearly isn’t quite there. LaFleur and Rodgers are trying to implement all of their targets, particularly rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, without overloading them.
Allen Lazard is the most reliable of the bunch, yet he made his first appearance of the season after dealing with an ankle injury. Sammy Watkins provided a downfield threat with three receptions Sunday for 93 yards.
Green Bay Packers running back A.J. Dillon (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Nonetheless, the differing skill sets between Jones and Dillion are what make this setup special.
Jones is a slashing runner who slices through arm tackles and provides an excellent pass-catching threat. The 27-year-old back is an adept receiver working out of the backfield or lining up wide, whereas Dillion is 247-pounds of downhill ferocity yet nimble enough to be a nifty target in his own right.
“Both of those guys wake up, and it’s the best day of their life,” Rodgers told reporters of the running backs after the game.
The quarterback added, “I give both of those guys credit. They’re examples of what it means to be a pro, and especially here.”
The interchangeability between the two allows the Packers to have both together on the field. From Week 1, the Packers continued to build on their pony package and expanded its usage.
Numerous different looks can be used out of this personnel grouping since both backs are capable in both phases and even like to block for one another when asked to do so. As such, a defense can’t specifically key on one as opposed to the other, which creates an advantage in how to create leverage points in the run game or potential mismatches in the passing attack.
But proper usage of the two backs goes beyond what they can provide. A ripple effect occurs.
Obviously, Rodgers is one of the best to ever play. His throwing prowess is unparalleled. Even so, he thrives when the Packers’ play-action game is strong.
Going into the 2021 campaign, Rodgers’ 21 touchdown passes on play action were the most by any quarterback since the start of the 2006 season without throwing an interception, according to Pro Football Focus. He then threw the league’s most touchdowns (22) off play-action that year.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (right) and running back Aaron Jones (left) walking off the field after Sunday’s 27-10 victory over the Chicago Bears. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
A strong run game isn’t necessary for a play-action passing attack to be effective. Defensive run keys are the primary culprit. But a defense selling out to stop a strong ground game and adding extra bodies into the box does affect how Rodgers and Co. can attack downfield.
Furthermore, the offense being placed in more favorable down-and-distances should keep more drives on track despite concerns elsewhere.
Generally, an offensive line is happiest when it’s allowed to impose its will by grinding out yards in the run game. Considering the Packers’ offensive line still isn’t complete since left tackle David Bakhtiari has yet to return from an ACL injury he suffered two seasons ago, confidence can be gained through a ground-and-pound approach.
It also forces defensive linemen to account for someone cramming the ball down their throats instead of pinning their ears back the entire game and getting after the quarterback.
While the focus falls on Jones and Dillion, the wide receivers can get more comfortable. LaFleur can implement plays like a jet sweep or short screens just to get the ball into the hands of his receivers and let them work. They don’t want to be placed in a situation where a dropped pass on a sure 75-yard touchdown crushes a young man’s confidence.
Complementary football will make Packers a difficult team to face every week. Green Bay’s effectiveness in running the ball should keep one of the league’s best defenses fresh. Difference-makers can be found at all three levels.
Green Bay Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell makes a tackle Sunday against the Chicago Bears. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Kenny Clark can completely change the complexion of a game based on how he controls the line of scrimmage. He’s not just a typical space-eater, either. The 26-year-old nose tackle is a two-time Pro Bowl selection with 18 sacks over the last four seasons.
Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is a volume tackler and a first-team All-Pro. He and rookie Quay Walker give the Packers an extremely athletic, rangy and physical linebacker pairing.
On the back end, Jaire Alexander is an elite cover corner. Alexander sealed Sunday’s contest with an interception by cutting under a route as Bears quarterback Justin Fields tried to make something happen.
A strong run game, efficient quarterback play and good defense is a tried-and-true formula for winning a lot of football games.
The Packers aren’t perfect, and they’re still figuring some things out as the season progresses. But the team continues to evolve, and it’s doing so with less from a four-time league MVP and without the league’s best wide receiver.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.