With 176 yards on 39 attempts, both season highs, in a 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers finally got some production. And it was needed on a day when injuries piled up and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, admittedly, had an off day (14-of-30, though he threw four touchdown passes).
"I was pleased with the rushing effort today," said head coach Mike McCarthy.
The Packers used the tandem of James Starks, who got his first start of the season, and Alex Green, who had been the starter the last three games in the absence of the injured Cedric Benson. With Benson out, the Packers have averaged just 2.8 yards per rush attempt, third-worst in the league, though they had 82 attempts during that span. Against the Cardinals, Starks and Green combined for 114 yards on 28 carries, good for a 4.1-yard average.
"It shows the confidence (the coaches) have in us," said Green, who carried 11 times for 53 yards. "We know what kind of backs we have in the backfield here. We know what kind of O-line we have. It's just a team effort. The coaches know what's going on down here. They know we have a chance to be great in the run game as well as the pass game, and that's what they're trying to get through our heads and emphasize."
Had it not been for the Packers' relative success on the ground Sunday, the play of the day through the air may not have worked so well. Rodgers said the run game played a big factor on backup tight end Tom Crabtree's 72-yard touchdown catch to end the third quarter.
"Oh, 100 percent that was the reason," said Rodgers. "I've got to give Mike (McCarthy) a lot of credit for a great call in that situation. The way they were playing, they wanted to keep a two-shell but to add an extra guy in the box area -- they were creeping their corner in there on run action. We saw it and we talked about that play at halftime and were able to call it and dial it up in a perfect situation. The corner crashed, we made a fake, Crabby (Crabtree) did a nice job of bluffing Paris (Lenon) there and I was able to put the ball in a good spot."
Crabtree lined up in the backfield on the play. After staying in for a moment to protect against a possible blitz, he released up the middle, easily getting behind a fooled Lenon for the Packers' longest touchdown of the season. The score put the Packers ahead 31-17 after the Cardinals had scored 10 straight points.
The Packers had five runs of at least 11 yards, including a long of 25 by Rodgers and a 21-yarder by Green on the first scoring drive. The Packers, highest rushing output in a game since 2009 (202, Oct. 25 at Cleveland) was certainly a collaborative effort. Wide receiver Randall Cobb certainly looked natural on his snaps in the backfield with three carries for 29 yards as well – even as he dealt with an injured shoulder that held him out for part of the game.
"Randall Cobb is a playmaker, that's how we view him" said McCarthy. "Playmakers need the ball in their hands. He gives you great flexibility as far as where you can play him. He's continued to get better as a receiver week in and week out. He played injured today and that tells you a lot about him. Once again, we have to be smart how many times he gets the ball in his hands, but we're making a conscientious effort to do that."
Even though the Packers had a season-high eight first downs via the ground game, McCarthy was critical of himself for some third-and-1 calls that the Packers failed on. After Green converted one during a 12-play scoring drive in the second quarter, the Packers went 0-for-2 in the second half. Green was stuffed on a cutback by nose tackle Dan Williams and Starks got nothing on a pitch play to the right end that Williams also made the tackle on.
"There were some situations, particularly short yardage, that we need to improve on," said McCarthy. "We could have helped ourselves there from a coaching staff standpoint, being a little more flexible than we were today as far as the different personnel.
"Not getting those conversions is really probably more on myself on what we had ready from a play-call standpoint."
The Packers had to shift their offensive line for the first time this season when right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with a hip injury early in the second quarter and did not return. Left guard T.J. Lang moved over to take Bulaga's spot while Evan Dietrich-Smith took over Lang's spot.
Another sore spot on an otherwise strong day for the running game was Starks' fumble at the 6:33 mark in the second quarter. Fortunately, Rodgers was able to recover the fumble on a heads-up play, but Starks basically took a seat on the bench until midway through the third quarter because of it.
Though the Cardinals came in ranked just 21st in the league against the run, the Packers have a performance they can build on sans Benson.
"That's the way you want to run the ball," said McCarthy.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org