GREEN BAY – They haven’t gotten to the point where opposing defenses are contemplating eight-man boxes to stuff the run. No one is suggesting that they can just throw anyone back there and get a 100-yard performance after that infernal 44-game streak without one. And it’s hard to say whether it’s been better talent carrying the football or better blocking by the guys up front that has brought on the improvement.
No, after only three games, no one is ready to say anything definitive about the Green Bay Packers’ improved running game.
Other than this: So far, it has improved, just as coach Mike McCarthy so boldly promised this offseason.
“We’ll be better, I promise you that,” McCarthy said on June 11. “You can write that down. In big letters.”
Right now, the big numbers say this: Entering Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, the Packers have rushed 73 times for 384 yards – an average of 5.3 yards per carry (second in the NFL) and 128.0 yards per game (ninth in the NFL).
They’ve done it with rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy, who carried five times for only 4 yards in the first half of the team’s season-opening loss at San Francisco but had nine carries for 37 yards in the second half of that game and a 10-yard run on the play where he suffered a concussion against Washington the next week; with veteran James Starks, who took over for Lacy against the Redskins and ran for 132 yards and had 55 more yards against Cincinnati before a knee injury knocked him out of the team’s pre-bye Sept. 22 loss to the Bengals; and with rookie fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin, who after a poor preseason carried 13 times for 103 yards in relief of Starks.
“We ran the ball good, and we’re going to continue to run the ball good,” said Lacy, who now has been cleared for action after his concussion. “And it’s going to make us two-dimensional and it will be a pretty hard offense to stop once we’re clicking on both cylinders.”
Entering Sunday, Franklin is averaging 7.9 yards per carry; Starks, who has been ruled out because of his knee injury, is averaging 5.5 yards per carry; and Lacy is averaging 3.4 yards per carry, although he’s averaged 4.7 on his last 10 attempts after the poor start against the 49ers.
Last season, Alex Green – released at the final cutdown this summer – led the team with 135 carries for a paltry 464 yards (3.4-yard average). In 11 of the Packers’ 18 games last season (including playoffs), one of their running backs carried the ball at least 15 times. Of those 11 games, only four times did that running back average 4.0 yards per carry or more: Cedric Benson did it twice (20 carries for 81 yards against Chicago on Sept. 13; 18 carries for 84 yards against New Orleans on Sept. 30, the week before his season-ending foot injury); Ryan Grant did it once (20 carries for 80 yards against Tennessee on Dec. 23); and Starks did it once (15 carries for 66 yards against Minnesota on Dec. 2, before suffering a knee injury and never playing another snap the rest of the year).
The Packers’ most productive running back, in terms of yards per carry, was DuJuan Harris, who ran 34 times for 157 yards (4.6-yard average) in the final four regular-season games, including a 14-carry, 70-yard performance against the Vikings in the regular-season finale. He carried 11 times for 53 yards in the season-ending playoff loss to the 49ers. Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and is on injured reserve.
And yet, despite that improvement, the Packers coaches haven’t seen any drastic change in the way defenses have played them. Although Washington played plenty of 1-high safety, the Bengals spent virtually the entire game with their safeties back in a 2-shell look.
“We’ve only played three games. The way teams are playing us, you go back to our first two games, I don’t see any big drastic change from the defense as far as prior games, how they were going to play us,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “Now, Detroit has played us differently in the past compared to the way they’ve played the first four weeks of the season. That’s why you play the games.”
The Lions have noticed, however.
“Lacy’s a big, strong back. Franklin really is a breakaway guy that can do some good things. Starks had a good day rushing (against Washington); he’s a big, strong back. We’ve seen him before,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday. “You can just tell from how they went about the draft and everything else that the Packers wanted to get that run game as part of their options.
“They’ve been a little bit one-dimensional over the years, and I think being able to go get a running back, drafting Lacy, getting Starks back from injury, drafting Franklin, adding that to the playmakers like (wide receivers) Jordy Nelson and (James) Jones and (Randall) Cobb … it’s not just their running backs.
“We’re certainly aware of those guys and we’re going to have to not let them move the ball running the football, for sure.”
That said, the Lions aren’t about to ignore Aaron Rodgers – although the quarterback did say Wednesday that the running game is “the best that we’ve seen in a while” – and the passing game and suddenly go all-in against the run.
“I don’t know that you can be a one-dimensional team against Green Bay. Maybe there’s some teams in the league that you can pack the line of scrimmage and say, ‘Hey, we dare you to throw it.’ I don’t know how good of a philosophy that is against Green Bay,” Schwartz said. “There’s some teams that you can get everybody way off and sort of a prevent, umbrella defense, and say, ‘We dare you to run it.’ I don’t think that’s Green Bay, either. You do have to play them honest.”
That’s exactly what the Packers are looking for, since they have in fact been a team that defenses could dare to run it. But there’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg aspect to their improvement: Do they have superior personnel at the running back position now, or is the revamped offensive line – the guys who’ll have to block Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on Sunday – blocking better in the run game?
“I remember back in 1993, it was in an offensive meeting and Jimmy Raye, a coach I have a great deal of respect for, we were going back and forth about running backs and Marcus Allen was part of the conversation,” McCarthy recalled Wednesday, referring to his time as an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs. “(We’re talking) about this scheme and that scheme and who we were playing against and (Raye) got up and wrote on the board, ‘Production of the run game is directly related to the runner.’ I felt, ‘Wow, that’s a strong statement.’ And that has a lot to do with it.
“When I look at a running, (it’s) really in the same way I look at a quarterback. They’re decision-makers. They have to run through the right hole and set the blocks. Good runners make a run-blocking unit better. That’s a fact and I think our running back position is off to a good start and we’ve been more productive in the run game because of it.”
Perhaps, but couldn’t the multiple running backs having success be indicative of better blocking?
“We’re out there to try to be productive,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “We know that the more dangerous we are running the ball, that creates a lot more open lanes for our receivers and our quarterback. That’s something we spent a lot of time on this year is running the ball, whether it was in practice or OTAs. It’s something we really put a premium on. The last 10 quarters, we’ve done a nice job of being productive there.
“(But) you take it week by week. If we go out this week and lay an egg, nobody’s really going to remember the last two games. We understand we have to keep building on and making sure we’re consistent with before you can really say we’re dominant running the ball.”
Asked if it’s been gratifying to see McCarthy call as many running plays as he has, Lang replied, “The one thing we’ve noticed up front is the trust that Coach has in us by giving us those opportunities to go out there and run the ball. That’s something that probably wasn’t so high in previous years. The fact that Coach keeps coming back to the plays that are successful and keep running the ball, up front that gives you a lot of confidence. We tell ourselves every week, ‘If we want to run the ball, make sure when we get those calls, make them work so Coach keeps calling them.’
“It’s two games. For us to be looked as a good run-blocking team, we have to build off of those performances. You can’t just do it a couple weeks here and there. You have to be consistent with it. A lot of good things have been done the last couple weeks. We’re going to have to make sure that we’re trying our best to keep improving.
“When we’re blocking up front, we don’t look behind us to see who’s in. We don’t block plays differently. The fact that we’ve got three running backs who can be productive says a lot about the depth that we have, and up front, it shows that all the time and all the work that we’ve been putting in the last couple months is starting to show on Sundays.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.