Packers' running game provides offensive balance
Mike McCarthy has known for a while the Green Bay Packers' running game would be in good shape.
"We'll be better, I promise you that," the Packers eighth-year head coach said in June after one offseason practice. "You can write that down. In big letters."
Seven games into the season, McCarthy's team is delivering on his promise.
After rushing for 182 yards — tying the team's season high — during Sunday night's 44-31 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers are averaging 141.4 yards rushing per game (fourth in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry (tied for third in the NFL).
Last season, the Packers averaged 106.4 yards rushing per game (No. 20 in the league) and 3.9 yards per carry (22nd in the league).
Since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006, the highest the Packers have ever been ranked in rushing in the NFL is 14th in 2009 (117.8).
Only twice in 2008 and 2009, when Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons — have the Packers finished higher than 20th in rushing.
But when asked Monday whether it was gratifying to see his plan come to fruition, McCarthy took exception.
"Has it come to fruition? We're not even halfway through the season," McCarthy said. "We're getting better."
Against the Vikings, rookie Eddie Lacy ran 29 times for 94 yards and one touchdown (giving him 395 yards over the past four games). James Starks added 57 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in his first action since suffering a Week 3 knee injury at Cincinnati on Sept. 22.
After going 44 consecutive regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher, the Packers have had three of them (Starks, Lacy and No. 3 back Johnathan Franklin) in seven games.
"They're statistics. There's one statistic that counts and we're working our way toward it, and we're a long way from that," McCarthy said.
"Running the ball's part of it. We're getting better as a football team, particularly on offense, the way we're playing, we're utilizing our personnel. ... That's the way I look at it."
And what would qualify as his promise coming to fruition?
"When we're talking about it in February, right?" McCarthy said referring to the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands. "Isn't that what this is all about?"
In the meantime, it's hard to deny what a difference the running game has made in the Packers' offense.
While quarterback Aaron Rodgers remains the focal point, he is seeing defenses approach the Packers differently.
While playing two safeties deep to guard against the big-play passing game remains a key part of defensive game plans, Rodgers said the run game is "definitely changing the way teams are playing us."
Asked after Sunday night's victory if the run game has exceeded his expectations, Rodgers said: "I think that's safe to say. It definitely has. Eddie's done a great job, and then to get James back this week, he's a slasher in every sense of that word.
"He made some great cuts, (had a) big touchdown run for us. Eddie was just pounding it. He's tough to bring down, he's like a bowling ball in there. I'm really proud of the job those guys did, but the offensive line again deserves a lot of credit."
Not only are the Packers getting better execution from their offensive line and have better talent at running back, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements said they have given Rodgers more responsibility in the run game.
"We've put more on the plate of our quarterback and he's handled it very well," McCarthy said. "I always worry about putting too much on the quarterback's plate because at the end of the day he's not paid to make run adjustments. He's paid to throw touchdowns."
Rodgers is doing that, too.
After completing 24 of 29 passes for 285 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions (130.6 passer rating) against the Vikings while also getting into the running act with four scrambles for 34 yards, Rodgers has completed 167 of 249 passes for 2,191 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions (108.0 rating) this season.
But in the running game, he's also making decisions on when and how to run the ball.
McCarthy has long had as a component in his offense run/pass option plays, on which Rodgers decides at the line of scrimmage whether to make it a run or pass play.
But this season, Rodgers is also making adjustments on run calls.
According to Clements, on many run plays, Rodgers comes to the line of scrimmage with a menu of variations on a run call and has the responsibility of selecting the best one.
"Aaron is a guy that I think takes pride in making correct adjustments to get us into a good plays. He's been very effective with that," Clements said.
"A lot of the runs we get, obviously we're getting great running and great blocking, but he's making some adjustments on his own or talking with the line on the sideline to get us in the proper play.
"It's a fine line. We don't want to overload him, we don't want overload any of our players. But we have smart players and they're able to make adjustments quickly."
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