GREEN BAY – No one is suggesting that the Green Bay Packers suddenly have Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Jim Brown in their backfield. In reality, they have an inconsistent second-year guy coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his rookie season, a 30-year-old veteran whom the team made no effort to re-sign in the spring and who was on his couch a week ago, and a little-known, little-sized former practice-squadder who’d carried the ball nine times in real NFL games before Sunday.
But in a seven-play span during Sunday night’s 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, Alex Green, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris gave the Packers hope that they may have unearthed an actual running game, which just might finally force opposing defenses to stop feeding the Packers offense a steady diet of two-high safety looks.
And that, in turn, could bring back the aerial attack of Aaron Rodgers & Co, in a season when coach Mike McCarthy has been more committed to running the football than ever before but hasn’t gotten the production he’d hoped.
“If you’re able to run the ball well, teams don’t like to get run on. So they do things to try to stop the run,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements explained Monday afternoon. “And usually one of things they do is bring a safety down. You look at some teams with great running backs like Adrian Peterson, that’s all they see is one-high (safety looks). If we continue to run the ball well, maybe that will happen. If they want to stay two-high and let us run the ball, we’ll do that as well.”
So far this season, opposing defenses have been given little reason to respect the Packers’ ground game. A year removed from scoring the second-most points in NFL history, with Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, at the controls, the priority for opposing defenses has been preventing huge plays in the passing game.
Entering Sunday’s game at Chicago, the Packers have 23 pass plays of 25 yards or more – ranking them a middling 16th in the NFL, according to STATS. Last season, they had an NFL-best 46.
During the offseason, McCarthy had more than an inkling that teams were doing their due diligence on his offense, so he knew it wouldn’t be easy to replicate what his quarterback and bevy of talented perimeter players have accomplished. He didn’t lower expectations, but he did realize the challenges that lay ahead. Perhaps that’s why the Packers have 350 rushing attempts (including Rodgers scrambles and kneel-downs) on the season and 482 quarterback dropbacks (pass attempts and sacks) for a run percentage of 42.1 percent. (Last year, that percentage was 39.4.)
“I wouldn't say we changed the philosophy. Trust me, we would love to be scoring as many points, especially with the abilities of Aaron Rodgers and our perimeter people,” McCarthy said. “The dynamics of our football team changed. The way our season ended, it changes way you think. Whether you want to admit it or not. The most important part of our offseason study was, how we going to be better, well-rounded team? We would like to be playing more wide-open. But right now, it’s probably not in best interest of our team.”
That’s partially because the Packers have an offensive line configuration – with their 2010 and 2011 first-round draft picks, tackles Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, out for the year, guard/tackle T.J. Lang sidelined temporarily with an ankle injury and undrafted rookie free agent Don Barclay starting at right tackle – that doesn’t excel in pass protection, allowing Rodgers to be sacked an NFL-leading 42 times.
That means spreading it out with five receivers and an empty backfield – something the Packers did do on occasion Sunday night – isn’t a safe way to go about business right now. So there’s no time like the present to start running effectively.
It appeared Cedric Benson was finally starting to get his legs underneath him when he suffered what would wind up being a season-ending foot injury Oct. 7. It looked as though oft-injured James Starks was recapturing the form he’d had during the 2010 Super Bowl XLV title run when he suffered a knee injury last week against Minnesota – in a game in which he’d carried 15 times for 66 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. Starks will miss “multiple weeks” with his injury, McCarthy has said.
So now, McCarthy is set to go with a three-man committee of Green, Grant and Harris – after trying to avoid the spread-the-wealth approach to start the season – in hopes that the threat of a successful ground game alters opposing defensive approaches. Helping that is the fact that the three are decidedly different runners: The 6-foot, 225-pound Green is at his best taking handoffs from the shotgun as he did in Hawaii’s spread offense in college; the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Grant, the franchise’s fifth all-time leading rusher, can do the power game and pound between the tackles; and the 5-foot-8, 203-pound Harris can squeeze through tiny openings while showing unexpected power, as he did on the 11-yard run he had to open the game.
“I think it's a great benefit just to have a combination of three different running styles,” McCarthy said. “It’s something we already started on today (in game-planning meetings) – how we can better utilize their talents.”
Against the Lions, the threesome rushed 21 times for 113 yards as the Packers finished with 140 yards on the ground. Led by Green and Starks’ combined 124 yards on 27 carries, the Packers put up 152 rushing yards the previous week against the Vikings.
But it was during the go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that it became evident what the Packers might have now. On a seven-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, Green ran it on the first four plays for 24 yards, Grant then got his only carry of the game and followed left tackle Marshall Newhouse for a 13-yard gain, and then Harris took over, picking up 5 yards after slipping in the backfield and getting back to his feet lickety-split, then breaking through for a 14-yard touchdown.
According to Clements, all seven runs were called by McCarthy. Not one was an audible by Rodgers.
“I don’t remember the last time we did something like that,” confessed Grant, who joined the Packers in 2007. “I’m excited from that standpoint and it’s something you can build on.”
That’s certainly the hope, even if it means looking a lot different than the offense that led the team to 560 points and gained 4,796 net yards passing last season.
“We had some different challenges that you don't expect, like every team does, with the injuries and who has them. You have to play to your strengths, and your strengths in Week 1 sometimes, unfortunately, may not be your strengths in Week 14,” McCarthy said.
“Let's be honest, the quality of play sometimes favors the one that has the field titled his way. Maybe not knowing about DuJuan Harris, exactly what he could do. That’s why it was important to get him out there. He goes roaring around the corner on the first play of the game, it’s different. We haven’t had a runner like that in my time here. So how do you keep utilizing (him)?
“We're not going to trick anybody, especially down the stretch here. If you keep trying to tilt the field a little bit your way schematically or in games ... that's what trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, the players have to execute.”
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.