Running Game Opens Up Play-Action Attack

Even with the return of Ryan Grant and a seasoned James Starks, the Packers' running game is no better than it was last year. However, the threat of the run — and some adept play-calling by Mike McCarthy — has created opportunities for Aaron Rodgers to make big plays.

On Monday and again on Thursday, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin lamented the state of the Green Bay Packers' running game.

"We've been on our whole run unit — backs, linemen, tight ends, receivers — about finishing," Philbin said on Thursday, a few days after James Starks and Ryan Grant combined for 74 yards on 22 rushing attempts against St. Louis and a few days before the Packers face Minnesota's fourth-ranked rushing defense.

"We've got to do a better job finishing. There's pictures on the film where we think there's more there than we're getting. Part of it is breaking more tackles. Part of it is staying on your aiming point longer, finishing your block longer. Part of it's getting to that second-level defender, whether it's a DB by a wideout or a tight end or a back or a blocker. There's a lot of instances where we have to do a better job. Our backs know this: They need to do a better job of breaking tackles and gain some yards on their own. I don't think there's a magical formula to do it but it needs to be done."

The Packers enter this week's game ranked 24th in rushing with 98.5 yards per game and 24th with 3.8 yards per carry. Playing from ahead frequently, they rank 17th with 26.0 rushing attempts per game.

While Grant and Starks would seem to be an upgrade over Brandon Jackson, the numbers are almost identical from last season. With Grant lost for the season in Week 1 and with Starks almost a total nonfactor until the playoffs, the Packers averaged 100.4 rushing yards per game, 3.8 yards per attempt and 26.3 rushes per game.

This year, Starks has a team-high 299 yards and is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Grant has 200 yards on 4.2 yards per carry. Combined, they've gained less than the Vikings' Adrian Peterson. Nonetheless, the running game is "serving its purpose," as Philbin put it.

According to ESPN Stats and Information's breakdown of play-action plays, Rodgers ranks first in the league with eight touchdown passes, second with 12.4 yards per attempt and sixth with 70.7 percent accuracy. He's third in ESPN's new "total quarterback rating." Using the NFL's convoluted but more familiar figure, Rodgers boasts a passer rating of 142.1 on play-action passes.

That's because the threat of Starks and Grant has opened up the play-action game.

"I think so, yeah," Philbin said. "Sometimes, defensive coaches are going to use their Rolodex and they're going to call their defenses to keep you off-balance. They don't care if you're running the ball or passing the ball. And then there are other teams that are fearful of what you're doing in one phase of the game or the other and they may call their defenses accordingly. It's not the same story every week but we feel like we have a good play-action game, feel like we have a solid run game. Sometimes, one's better than the other. Probably now, our play-action game's been better. Hopefully, we can get better balance where they're both complementing each other."

Beyond the threat of the run, coach Mike McCarthy almost seems to be mocking his own play-calling tendencies at times.

Take, for instance, Rodgers' 35-yard touchdown pass to James Jones in the second quarter last week. McCarthy lined up with two receivers, two tight ends and Grant in the backfield. By our unofficial tally, the Packers have run the ball on 44.1 percent of their first downs. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers run the ball on 44.0 percent of the snaps in which Grant is in the game compared to 30.0 percent of the snaps in which Starks is in the game. Finally, one of the tight ends was Tom Crabtree. The Packers run the ball on 59.7 percent of the snaps in which he's in the game.

With all of those factors, a running play seemed in order. Instead, Aaron Rodgers faked the handoff to Grant, booted to the left and threw a perfect strike to Jones.

A week earlier at Atlanta, Rodgers threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jones and a 29-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings. On both of them, it was first-and-10 with John Kuhn and Grant lined up in the "I" formation. Both times, Rodgers faked handoffs to Grant. Both times, the Falcons were suckered.

"They're playing lights-out on offense," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call on Wednesday. "Aaron's obviously doing a great job and they've got a lot of weapons at the tight end position, the wide receivers, the running backs. Just a very efficient offense. Nobody's really come up with any answers for their offense along the way. We're going to do the best we can to slow them down."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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