On Eddie Lacy's one and only carry, a 10-yard run, Jermichael Finley easily kept star outside linebacker Brian Orakpo to the outside and left guard Josh Sitton sealed and turned around defensive tackle Stephen Bowen. Receiver Jordy Nelson came down and took care of a defensive back. The dominant block, however, was provided by left tackle David Bakhtiari, who ran linebacker London Fletcher 12 yards downfield before putting Fletcher on the ground.
By day's end, the Packers finished with 139 rushing yards. They've had just seven days better than that since the start of the 2010 season.
"No. 1, it starts up front," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said on Monday. "The line blocked well, we got some excellent blocks by the receivers to spring longer gains, and James Starks ran hard. And all those things combined for a good day."
Running the football takes a total team effort, but it all starts up front with the offensive line. That group turned in one of its best performances in memory, with 91 of the team total coming before contact, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The line, while proud to have played such a big role in the team ending its 44-game drought without a 100-yard rusher, took the big day in stride.
It's a starting point. Nothing more.
"Today was good," Sitton said. "It was just one game, you know? It was a positive and it was something that we can build off of. Hopefully, it will keep going from there. If we have games like that, we'll give Mike (McCarthy) confidence to be able to call the run a lot."
The running game was a big emphasis of McCarthy during the offseason. At one point, he proclaimed in "big letters" that this team would run the ball better than it had the previous three seasons, when Green Bay ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in yards per carry. DuJuan Harris' season-ending knee surgery threw some of that plan for a loss, but the groundwork had been laid during training camp. There were more individual and group drills, and the longest 11-on-11 sessions were the team-run periods.
It helps, too, that Bakhtiari provides a more physical presence than Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. Last season, the Packers ranked 26th in the league in runs around left end and 32nd in runs off left tackle, with averages of 4.5 and 2.3 yards per carry, according to league data. It's only two games, but Green Bay ranks seventh in runs around left end and second in runs off left tackle, with averages of 6.1 and 7.2 yards per carry, respectively.
Starks' 20-yard run around left end in the second quarter helped that first number. Finley again handled Orakpo, Bakhtiari sealed the defensive tackle and pushed him into the backfield and Sitton pulled to his left and sealed Fletcher. With Nelson again coming down to take care of the safety, that left Starks one-on-one with cornerback David Amerson. Starks shifted into another gear to burst into the open field.
On the other side, right tackle Don Barclay has picked up right where he left off during his late-season promotion a year ago. The Packers are averaging a second-ranked 6.0 yards per carry off right tackle.
So, while there have been some growing pains in pass protection with the league's least-experienced tackle tandem, the running game has benefited from their tenacity.
Starks finds a huge hole in the defense. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
"They're both playing very well," Clements said. "They played well the first week and they played well yesterday. They're scrappers, they get after it and they know what they're supposed to do. They're good at finishing the plays. I think overall the line has been pretty good blocking. We're just going to hope they continue to get better."
It wasn't just the blockers, as demonstrated by the runs sandwiching the 57-yard reception by James Jones. On a 12-yard run, Starks' patience froze the linebacker in the hole, allowing him to get outside. Then, on a toss to the right that resulted in an 8-yard gain, right guard T.J. Lang flattened blitzing linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, Barclay pulled to take out the cornerback and Finley went inside to wall off inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr. Nelson motioned into the backfield and lined up practically as a fullback and blocked rookie safety Bacarri Rambo. Jones stalk-blocked Fletcher. It added up to Starks not being touched until he had gained 10 yards.
Later, with the Packers driving to extend the lead to 31-0, Starks had back-to-back 9-yard runs. On the first, Bakhtiari and Sitton had a devastating double-team block. On the next, Lang double-teamed the defender over Barclay, then bounced off to block Fletcher. On the next play, Rodgers threw a perfect back-shoulder pass to Nelson, who made a twisting catch in the end zone.
"We know it's one game but we did a lot of good things. It's up to us to do it week in and week out," Lang said. "When we run the ball and we're that effective, it really opens up the whole playbook for us. It gives you a lot of big-play opportunities down the field, and Aaron's a guy who's going to take advantage of those matchups. We had a very effective run game and it opened up a lot of things in the secondary."
When Starks broke the 100-yard barrier on his 32-yard touchdown, it started with Sitton winning his one-on-one block and Dietrich-Smith and Lang teaming up for a dominating double-team block. The key block, Sitton said, was delivered by tight end Andrew Quarless. Quarless was headed between Sitton and Bakhtiari but changed his path when he saw Riley filling in behind the double team. Quarless adjusted and made the block, and nobody touched Starks until he was 18 yards down the field.
"It's been too long," between 100-yard games, Sitton said. "So, yeah, we love that. That was great. We did a good job up front and James ran his ass off."
If the Packers can run it consistently, it will be a huge help for Rodgers. Not only will he not be forced to carry the load, but he'll benefit from better production as defenses can't just line up and race to the quarterback.
A big test comes Sunday at Cincinnati. The Bengals are allowing just 2.8 yards per carry.
"You see the trust from Coach that he's going to give us the opportunities to run the ball," Lang said. "As an offensive lineman, the more balanced you are, the more dangerous you can be as a whole offense. You never want to go out there and ask too much out of one guy, even Aaron, to make big play after big play with his arm. When you can run the ball, it takes a lot of pressure off him and it takes a lot of pressure off us up front. When you hear that run called, there's a little bit of an edge to you. You want to be productive to give Coach McCarthy more faith in us and more trust in us, which you saw today. He was coming back to the run game quite often."
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