Running to daylight?
GREEN BAY, Wis. — With the reigning NFL MVP at quarterback, the Green Bay Packers are never going to be a pound-it-out, run-first operation.
But with opposing defenses insisting on playing their safeties deep in Cover-2 schemes – a tactic meant to take away the Packers’ downfield passing game while daring the Packers to run against them – the party line that the success of the Green Bay running game is measured more on the quantity of the runs than the quality is no longer valid.
Says who? Quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I think we all have to admit here that it’s about the production. It’s a nice thing to say, that it’s about the quantity not the quality, but who are we kidding here? It’s about the production,” Rodgers said during his weekly radio show Tuesday on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “It’s a lot better when you hand off and you’re kind of taking it to the backside on your keep fake and you look back and the guy is running, still going, still not tackled.”
Coming off one of their most productive performances on the ground this season, as running backs Alex Green (12 carries for 58 yards) and James Starks (15 carries for 66 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown) both had solid days in a victory last Sunday over Minnesota, the Packers are looking to keep the momentum going Sunday night against Detroit even though they’ve suffered yet another backfield injury.
Already without workhorse back Cedric Benson, who is now done for the year after his Oct. 7 foot injury required season-ending surgery last week, coach Mike McCarthy expects Starks to be out “multiple weeks” with a knee injury he suffered last Sunday against Minnesota. The team signed veteran Ryan Grant, the franchise’s fifth-leading rusher all-time, on Wednesday.
With Grant having spent most of the year out of football, save for a one-month tour of duty with the Washington Redskins that ended on Oct. 23, Green will again get a chance to be the go-to guy, a role he’s held and relinquished multiple times this season.
“Whatever role they have for me, I’m ready for it,” Green said Thursday. “I’m confident. I have no doubt whatsoever. I’m ready to go.”
“I think early on, it was all new. To be able to sit back the last couple weeks, split carries with Starks, it was definitely good for me, to kind of take it slow a little bit. Now, I feel confident and ready to go.”
While Benson was healthy, Green, whose rookie season ended with a major knee injury last year, carried just two times in the first four games. He dressed for two of those games without seeing a single play of game action.
But after Benson’s injury at Indianapolis on Oct. 7, Green assumed the starting job and had three straight games with 20 or more attempts. In those three games, he rushed 64 times for just 154 yards (a 2.4-yard average) before Starks emerged as an alternative.
Against Jacksonville on Oct. 28, Green carried 22 times for 54 yards while Starks had one carry for 8 yards. The next week, against Arizona on Nov. 4, Starks had 17 carries for 61 yards and Green had 11 carries for 53 yards. Then at Detroit on Nov. 18, Starks had 25 carries for 74 yards and Green didn’t get a single carry. Against the New York Giants on Nov. 25, Green carried 10 times for 30 yards and Starks had eight attempts for 35 yards.
Because Grant has played so little this season, McCarthy said Green “has to” be ready to carry the load. But long-term, running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said the plan is to integrate Grant as well.
“It would be unfair to him to put him in there and give him a ton of carries in this game and expect him to do a lot and step in and not miss a beat,” Van Pelt said of Grant. “There’s obviously some rust to knock off after coming off of a break from football. The best part about it is he’s done it before. He’s been productive in the past. He’s helped win big games here with the same teammates.
“(Green) will obviously carry the majority of the load and (we will) spot him with Ryan. Alex seems to run best when he is mixed in. You look at statistically when he is sharing reps, his run average is a lot higher. He’s fresher. As ready as Ryan might (not) be, we’ve got to monitor where we are with Alex. If we feel like he needs a (break) for a couple plays, then Ryan will be the next guy up.”
Whoever is in the backfield, the Packers need more production.
“That’s always the key thing – keep the defense honest, have a balanced offense,” Green said. “It’s always great for a team like ours, that has a great quarterback and everyone knows it, to have a running game. Running the ball is definitely going to be important for us.”
The league’s highest-scoring team from a year ago – a 35.0 points per game, 63 offensive touchdowns – isn’t scoring at the same clip. The Packers enter Sunday night averaging 24.7 points per game and having scored only 33 offensive touchdowns (three rushing, 30 passing), putting them on pace for only 44.
According to Van Pelt, much of that drop off can be attributed to Cover-2 defenses, which are waiting for the Packers to run the ball effectively. When the Packers did so against the Vikings last week, Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier was forced to bring one of his safeties down to provide run support.
“If you can run the ball effectively, you change the structure of the defensive shell. You’ve got to make them fear it and bring somebody down in the box to stop it, and that’s when you take advantage with the pass game,” Van Pelt explained.
“You can run it as much as you want, but if you’re getting 1 yard per carry, 2 yards per carry, they’re going to stay in a two-shell and make you continue to run it. You have to be successful and productive when you do get the opportunities.
“Now, there is merit in the amount of touches. Eventually, they’ll hopefully come down and try to stop it. But you’ve got to be productive for them make a change defensively in their game plan to bring an extra safety to play in the box.”
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.