Running on Empty? Maybe Not

That the Packers are facing Detroit's last-ranked run defense is just one of the reasons for optimism. We examine the reasons why Green Bay's stagnant running attack could still be good enough — and whether those struggles even matter.

Sunday's game will be a big one for the Green Bay Packers' offense.

If the Packers' gone-and-almost-forgotten running game, can't get going this week, then the warning signs will turn into warning sirens.

The Lions enter the game ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing defense with 148.7 yards allowed per game and 30th with 5.0 yards allowed per carry, and are one of only two teams that have allowed two carries of 40-plus yards.

Whether Green Bay can take advantage seems dubious. The Packers' 95.3-yard average per game ranks 22nd and their 3.8-yard average per carry ranks 19th. In the last two games, when the Packers have gone with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn in place of injured Ryan Grant, they are averaging 77.0 yards per game. Jackson has 18 carries for 41 yards (2.3-yard average) in the last two games.

History, however, provides a couple reasons for hope.

Traditionally, a slow starter

Last season, Green Bay ranked a respectable 14th in the NFL in rushing with a per-game average of 117.8 yards and 11th with a 4.3-yard average per carry. However, even with a 152-yard game against St. Louis in Week 3, the Packers averaged 101.2 yards in the first five games with a per-carry average of 4.1 yards.

That's been fairly typical. Entering this season, Grant averaged 3.6 yards per carry in September before upping that to 4.0 in October, 4.6 in November, 4.7 in December and 4.6 in January.

"I don't think that we plan it that way," offensive line coach James Campen said.

Obviously not, but some of the staples of the zone blocking scheme — namely, the back-side cut blocks — can't be practiced during training camp. Thus, it takes a few games for the linemen to get into a groove.

"These players have always been very good at making corrections and applying them to the next game and the ones down the road," Campen said. "We expect it to get better and better, absolutely."

Getting into a groove

Jackson's numbers against the Bears were terrible. He broke an 11-yard run but his other six attempts managed just 1 yard.

Like any running back, Jackson needs opportunities. Just look at the season opener against Philadelphia, when Grant started poorly before ripping off three strong runs before getting injured. Jackson (and John Kuhn) need chances to get into the flow of the game and in sync with their blockers. Jackson's shiftiness on a couple receptions delivered some hope that he can do the same in the run game.

Brandon Jackson has to avoid Brian Urlacher, who beat Korey Hall's block.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Getting into a groove is the same for the offensive line. It's a completely different mentality for an offensive lineman if he's dropping into a pass set every down rather than firing out of his stance and attacking a defender.

"It's hard for a quarterback to have great success when he's on his back, it's hard for a back if he can't press his target and there's too much color showing," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "It's hard for them to make guys miss real early. You want to give him a chance at the second level on a DB, give him a fair shake. Some of those, (Jackson) hasn't had great looks quite yet. But we're hopeful those are going to improve."

This would be a good week to start.

If all else fails, throw it

The lack of a running game wasn't what doomed the Packers on Monday night. In fact, the lack of a running game ranks below penalties, special teams and James Jones' fumble on the list of concerns.

And yet the Packers almost beat a very good game on the road.

In other words, don't sweat it.

Like I wrote in my Four-Point Stance on Tuesday, the ability to run the ball is becoming less and less important every year. Look no further than last year's Colts, who won the AFC last year despite a running game that ranked last in yards, 31st in attempts (despite almost always leading and being in position to run out clocks in the fourth quarter) and 30th in yards per attempt.

Rules are tailored for the passing game. Most of the good teams — especially the Packers — have the quarterback and the receiving depth to overwhelm most secondaries, which generally don't have enough good cover men to match up against two receivers, much less three or four and a stud tight end.

For years, Mike Holmgren used the pass to set up the run. And that's basically what coach Mike McCarthy did on Monday, seeing little reason to test his struggling running game against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. The Bears won the game but it's not like the Packers' offensive approach of spreading the field and throwing quick passes was unsuccessful.

Philbin disputed the notion that short passes can replace the run, saying: "I don't know that anything totally replaces just teeing it up, strapping it up and getting 5 yards on the ground." Beyond that, a capable running game makes play-action and bootleg passing more successful and prevents the defensive linemen from simply attacking the quarterback on every snap. The Bears were able to attack Aaron Rodgers last week, and while they never sacked him and barely touched him, the rush was strong enough that Rodgers never got a chance to push the ball down the field.

But you don't need a great running game or great running back to accomplish that. You simply need a coach willing to give the run game enough attempts and an offensive line and running back(s) good enough to consistently get 3 or 4 yards per carry.

The offensive line's track record suggests it will hold up its end of the bargain. The jury is out on whether Jackson is that guy or whether general manager Ted Thompson will make the bold move needed to simplify McCarthy's play-calling life.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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