Running Game Gets Few Chances To Start Fast

The Packers' chronically bad early-season running game enters Thursday's preseason game with a league-low number of rushing attempts. Still, everyone from Joe Philbin to James Campen to Ryan Grant believes they'll be fine on Sept. 8 against New Orleans.

The Green Bay Packers enter Thursday night's preseason finale with an NFL-low 61 rushing attempts.

Of those, 15 are by undrafted rookie Brandon Saine, who's a candidate for the practice squad but certainly not the final roster. Another six are by the quarterbacks. The projected top ball-carriers, Ryan Grant and James Starks, won't see much — if any — action against Kansas City, so there's little evidence that the Packers' running game will be ready to run when the season kicks off on Sept. 8 against New Orleans.

"I thought we've been running the ball well in camp against our own defense," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Monday. "Especially early on, during the installation part of training camp, I thought we were doing a good job. It's hard to get a good feel. We really haven't had enough of a body of work with the same guys doing it to say, ‘We're right on track,' or ‘Boy, we're way off the mark.'"

Philbin didn't think the team's pass-first emphasis was an issue — he recalled Grant's 55-yard run that helped clinch the 2008 opener against Minnesota — but slow starts have been the story in the last few regular seasons. Grant's 3.9-yard average in September is the lowest of any month and far below his career mark of 4.4.

The preseason results aren't encouraging.

Grant leads the Packers with 52 yards on 14 attempts. Starks, who missed a game with a sprained ankle, has just three carries for 16 yards. Rookie third-round pick Alex Green, who missed the first preseason game, has 11 carries for just 16 yards while running mainly behind the No. 2 line.

Last week at Indianapolis, Grant (six carries, 16 yards), Starks (one for 2) and Green (five for 8) combined for 26 yards on 12 carries, and the entire fleet of running backs managed merely 35 yards on 17 attempts.

"I would have thought we would have run the ball a little better the other day," Philbin said. "I'm disappointed in the production that we had. We had a couple of schematic errors in the first half — not major things but little communication things. Then, we didn't run the ball very effectively in the second half at all. We'd like it to be better."

The Packers' problems go beyond the number of attempts. At 15 yards, they have the shortest long run in the league. Their 3.4 yards per attempt ranks 29th. Their eight rushing first downs are the fewest. Only three teams have fewer than the Packers' one rushing touchdown.

Still, rather than panic that September histories will repeat themselves this season, there's confidence that the work done on the practice field will carry over to the regular season.

"I think we've improved during this camp from last year," offensive line coach James Campen said. "I think we're a little bit ahead (in terms of carries at practice). We get a lot of work in individual (drill periods), too. The individual time is very valuable for that progression. I think we've got a good foundation built."

Running backs coach Jerry Fontenot agrees that the running game will be ready for the Saints.

"Yeah, I think we are, because it's something that we work in practice," Fontenot said. "Obviously, we work on it in the games but not as much as we do in practice. We're certainly capable and we're ready to go whenever we open it up in the run game."

Grant said the emphasis has been on fundamentals. That's true of himself, after missing almost all of last season, as well as Starks, who played in only three regular-season games, and the unproven Green. Fontenot is happy with the fundamentals — the Packers are one of 10 teams without a fumble — though he wants to see his players take the next step by breaking more tackles and getting into the open field.

They thought they'd get that chance last week. Instead, with a no-huddle offense on four consecutive series, Rodgers dropped back to pass 29 times and there were just seven running plays in the first half.

"We thought we were going to run the ball," Grant said of the Colts game. "We planned on it as an offense, but once the game starts, you never know how it's going to play out, especially in preseason. So, you take advantage of the reps you get and stress the fundamentals. Little things, like your course, are really important, driving your legs, running through the trash. If I feel like I'm going to get six carries early on and you get two, you've got to make sure those first two are sound — whether they're busts or not. We think we've done that as a backfield. We'll definitely be where we need to be when the time comes."

That time will come in 10 days, when the last two Super Bowl champions square off. Fontenot, with his history as an offensive line coach and offensive lineman, knows the importance of the entire run unit — from blockers to backs — getting off to a running start.

"It's important to establish the tempo early," Fontenot said. "That's something that I stress with our guys is that we're going to go out and set the tempo of the game. I firmly believe that it's set by the guys up front — the offensive line and the running backs. If you go out early and make a statement early, you give defenses something to worry about. If you come out slow, then you tend to change the play-caller's ideas. We're about going out and having success and starting fast."

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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

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