With Running Backs, Packers Run Misdirection

Contrary to popular thinking, Packers coach Mike McCarthy dialed up about as many running plays as any team in the league over the second half of the season. Watch out now, with Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin potentially providing a threat not seen in decades.

One thing's for sure: Aaron Rodgers won't get sacked if he's handing off.

Not since Ahman Green was running roughshod over the NFL a decade ago have the Green Bay Packers had this sort of talent in the running back with the additions of Alabama's Eddie Lacy and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin. The Packers potentially haven't had a backfield tandem like this since John Brockington and MacArthur Lane and — as preposterous as this sounds — perhaps even the great Hall of Fame duo of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.

The Packers used some outside-the-box thinking to replace Greg Jennings. How does a passing game function with only three proven receivers and an inconsistent tight end? By running it and letting coach Mike McCarthy's "Pittsburgh Macho" way of calling an offense finally come to the forefront.

McCarthy's reputation is being a pass-first coach. The numbers largely back that up, with the Packers ranking 19th in run percentage in 2012, 25th in 2011, 19th in 2010, 22nd in 2009 and 17th in 2008, which was Rodgers' first season as starter.

The second half of last season, however, was revealing. During a seven-game stretch starting in Week 9 against Arizona and continuing through Week 16 against Tennessee, the Packers ran the ball 48.4 percent of the time. Taken over the course of a full season, that would have ranked sixth in the NFL.

Think about this for a moment: The Packers, with a revolving door of Alex Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris, ran the ball only 0.09 percent less frequently during those seven games than Minnesota with Adrian Peterson.

Now, think about this for a moment: What might the Packers' offense do with a rotation of the sledgehammer Lacy, the all-around skill of Franklin and the small but explosive Harris?

"I think from top to bottom, you talk about DuJuan and James and Alex and now adding these two guys, I have not had this diverse ability of so many different types of runners and unique athletic ability," McCarthy said. "Obviously with Lacy being such a big, strong, powerful runner, I think he has a lot better feet than people realize. He's obviously an accomplished player. And Franklin now, I don't know how you cannot be excited about the film he has and he can really catch the football and do things out of the backfield. I feel very, very good about the group because it's a very competitive situation in the running back room. With that, the way we play offense, there will be excellent opportunity. I'm really looking forward to seeing who grabs the rope and runs with it."

The possibilities are intriguing, to state the obvious. With Rodgers — the NFL's career leader in passer rating and points per start — the Packers have the best quarterback in the league. Defenses made stopping Rodgers their focal point and could tolerate giving up whatever the running game could muster. Now, imagine Lacy running against six-in-the-box defenses. Imagine Franklin given the ball in the space provided by the Packers' stretch-the-field passing game.

"That's what you shoot for is the balance, obviously," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "The teams that I'm most familiar with that run this style of the offense were the K-gun, (the) Jim Kelly days in Buffalo, where you led the league or were near the top of the league in rushing and in passing, and that attributed to a lot of chances to win playoff games. So, if we can get that balance and get the running game going and open up the passing game, which we hope it will, that's obviously a key to success."

As Lacy put it: "I will allow the defense to not just be able to focus on the passes because there's a back in the backfield who's going to have to make them think about the run."

As a byproduct of the increased focus on the run game, the team as a whole should get tougher. Presumably, the addition of Lacy and Franklin will mean more running plays being called in training camp. That, in turn, should impact the rest of the team, whether it's more opportunities to get physical for the offensive linemen or more snaps for the defense trying to attack a ball-carrier rather than rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.

Nothing is a sure thing, of course. Lacy's style has left him susceptible to injuries, and Franklin fell deep into the fourth round because teams wondered how much of a load he could carry in the NFL. And even with the addition of fourth-round offensive linemen David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter, there's no guarantee the offensive line will be any better.

Still, with Lacy and Franklin, the Packers look like a better team today they did on Thursday morning.

"The NFL is an evolving thing, you try to get better," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We hope those young men can come in and  help our team for sure, and if that causes other teams problems, that's good."

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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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