Back to the Future

The Packers' running game has produced more each game despite personnel challenges — the latest being a knee injury that will sideline James Starks. How have they gotten it done? To make a point on Wednesday, Mike McCarthy went back to an offensive meeting he had 20 years ago in Kansas City.

Through injuries and inexperience, the Green Bay Packers' running game not only has survived, but thrived early in this 2013 season.

To start, the team ended its 44-game regular-season drought without a 100-yard rusher when James Starks ran for 132 yards in Week 2.

In Week 3, rookie Johnathan Franklin made his debut in the backfield in relief of the injured Starks and ran for 103 yards, making the Packers the only team to post multiple 100-yard rushers this season.

And with 321 rushingyards , the Packers have posted their highest total in back-to-back games in more than five seasons. Consequently, their 5.3-yard average per carry is second in the NFL. They were 22nd in that category in 2012 at 3.9.

All in all, not a bad start for a team that in the offseason vowed to be much better running the ball.

"We've made it a point of emphasis this year," said guard Josh Sitton. "We've tried to get better and have. The backs are doing a lot of good things. The line is doing a lot of good things. We're communicating really well right now so I think that's one of the biggest things — the communication has always been there in the past but I think we're doing that great right now."

Nothing has come easy, however. The Packers have had personnel challenges in the backfield. Expected starter DuJuan Harris (knee) was placed on injured reserved at the end of training camp. Rookie Eddie Lacy was one run into his second game as a pro before a concussion knocked him out. Starks was on a roll for a game-and-a-half before a knee injury put him on the sideline. His replacement, Franklin, caught fire for a half against the Cincinnati Bengals before a foot injury left the Packers without a single healthy running back in the fourth quarter since fullback John Kuhn (hamstring) and Lacy were inactive.

So, just how have the Packers made strides? Is it the talented new depth? Or is the offensive line playing better? Head coach Mike McCarthy answered those questions by recalling a specific moment when he was an offensive assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs in his first year in the NFL.

"I can remember in 1993," began McCarthy, "I was in an offensive meeting and (assistant coach) Jimmy Raye, a coach I have great respect for, and we were going back and forth about the running backs, and Marcus Allen was part of the conversation and about this scheme and that scheme and who we're playing against and he got up on the board and wrote down, ‘Production of the run game is directly related to the runner.' And I thought, ‘Wow, that's a strong statement.'

"That has a lot to do with it. Now, the run blocking part of it is very important — keeping your guys in clean plays, matching the run to the action passing game — those things are all very important. They're probably even more important today because of the way the game's gone. I mean, it's a more open, athletic game, in my opinion. I mean, you still have to play hardball, downhill runs whether you're in three wide receivers on the field or three tight ends. So, that part hasn't changed. But when runners have a chance to get into a rhythm — I look at running back really in the same way as you look at the quarterback — they're decision-makers. They've got to run through the right hole and set the blocks and good runners make the run-blocking unit better. That's a fact. I think our running back position is off to a good start and we've been more productive in the run game because of it."

The Packers' depth at running back, arguably the best McCarthy has had in eight years, is difficult to ignore. Three weeks ago, it looked like Franklin may never see the field this season (he was only a special teams participant the first two weeks), then, in just one half after Starks went down, he looked like the team's most natural cut-back runner. Lacy, who got off to a tough start Week 1, has shown No. 1 running back ability as the Packers' second-round draft pick. And Starks, the lone veteran of the group (in his fourth season), has been much better finding the holes this season and, as a result, he leads the Packers with 187 rushing yards in just over five quarters of play.

McCarthy announced on Wednesday that the knee injury Starks sustained against the Bengals before the bye week probably will keep him out for a couple more weeks. In the meantime, Franklin, Kuhn and Lacy returned to practice as full participants. Michael Hill, out of Division II Missouri Western, was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster this week.

Lacy, who missed the Bengals game, is expected to start this Sunday against the Detroit Lions, a team ranked just 20th in the league against the run.

"It goes hand-in-hand," said Lacy of the Packers' rushing success. "The offensive line, they get off a good jump, get their hand placement right, run their feet, and as backs, our steps, where we're supposed to go, helps them out. Once you put both of them together, it's pretty much set runs."

Coincidentally, the Lions were one of the opponents the last time the Packers had a rushing total in back-to-back games better than their current one. In 2007, the Packers closed the regular season by rushing for 217 yards on 38 carries. The prior week, under brutally windy conditions in Chicago, they ran for 125 against the Bears, giving them 342 yards for the two weeks. Two weeks later in the divisional round of the playoffs — after a bye week, no less — the Packers ran for 235 yards against the Seattle Seahawks on a snowy Lambeau Field.

"I think that it's the best that we've seen in a while," said Rodgers of the current rushing attack. "I think a lot of the credit goes to the offensive line. They're opening up some big holes. We've done a good job of having a little bit of balance rushing for over 100 yards two back-to-back weeks by one individual player after 40-some-odd in a row without doing that, so that's pretty impressive, and those guys all offer a different dimension with their style of runs. So, I think the future is bright for those guys running the football and we've got to keep finding a way to give them opportunities."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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