Offensive Line Powers Rejuvenated Run Game

It's just four games, but the Packers are on pace to obliterate the team record for yards per carry and smash through the 2,000-yard barrier for the first time in a decade. How are they doing it? With "incredible" performances by the offensive line.

After Sunday's victory over Detroit, Aaron Rodgers said the offensive line played "incredible."

That word hasn't been used often in conjunction with the Green Bay Packers' offensive line in quite some time.

In that 22-9 win, the Packers rushed for 180 yards and threw for a net of 269 for a total of 449. Rodgers was sacked once — and that was a coverage sack in which Rodgers had plenty of time to throw the ball into the seats.

It's a remarkable turnaround after the Packers averaged 3.9 yards per carry and gave up 51 sacks in 2012, averaged 3.9 yards per carry and yielded 41 sacks in 2011 and averaged 3.8 yards per carry and allowed 31 sacks in 2010.

Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have settled into their positions after switching sides during the offseason. Evan Dietrich-Smith has been a big upgrade over past-his-prime Jeff Saturday at center. And offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay have performed beyond the expectations of youth (rookie and second year) and pedigree (fourth round and undrafted).

"It's impressive. Those guys are doing a really good job," Rodgers said after the game. "You know, it helps when you have a center who can really set the tempo and set the calls. Then you've got two of the smartest guys on the team on either side of him with Josh and T.J. Those guys make sure we're in the right calls, do a great job of making dummy calls all the time. You've got Donny and David, who have been really consistent. David, you don't even think twice about him over there. It's impressive to watch him, especially on film, the way he's improved. Those guys are rolling right now."

Unbelievably, the Packers are averaging 5.32 yards per carry and are on pace to rush for 2,264 yards. That would be the fifth-most in franchise history. Green Bay hasn't rushed for even 1,900 yards since 2003, when Ahman Green rushed for 1,883 of the team's record 2,558 yards. The 2003 team also owns the club record with 5.05 yards per carry.

Improving the run game was the team's major focus on offense during the offseason and training camp. That work is paying dividends beyond anyone's expectations.

"It's showing up on tape and it's more productive," offensive line coach James Campen said on Thursday. "It's still a work in progress. Certainly, it's not just the line or the running backs. It's also the receivers making blocks downfield and quarterbacks carrying out fakes. I look forward to keep improving as we move forward."

One thing mentioned by Campen last week and by the linemen on Sunday was improved communication.

"In a lot of our runs, we have a lot of options based on what the defense does or what look they present," offensive coordinator Tom Clements explained on Monday. "We might call a particular play but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate, and we look at the pictures and say ‘OK we've done this once, let's try if we get that same look let's use this other variation.' Because of the fact that we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they're doing a good job of it."

They certainly did on Sunday. It was Green Bay's first back-to-back 180-yard rushing days since 2003. Its 182 yards against Cincinnati and 180 against Detroit represent the second- and third-best days since 2009.

"We're communicating a lot better as a group with Aaron, the running backs, the tight ends, the blocking unit, the protection unit," Dietrich-Smith said. "We have taken it upon ourselves to make sure that we all understand each other, what we're doing, assignments, that kind of thing. That has paid dividends. The coaches have put us in good schemes and allowed us to go out there and play fast. Once we can execute, that's what we do: We put points on the board and put up big yards."

Against the Lions, running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin and receiver Randall Cobb combined for 28 carries. Only two of those lost yards — Franklin's fumble and Lacy on the final drive. That's big-time against Detroit's formidable front four. Since the start of 2010, the Lions' defensive line ranked second in the league with a total of 181.5 sacks and tackles for losses.

In fact, the Packers have just six lost-yardage running plays for the season (quarterback kneeldowns excluded), according to STATS. That's tied for San Diego for tops in the league.

"Surprised? No," Lang said. "We know that we have a lot of talent up front. Our job is to go out there and grind. When we do a good job of our assignments, we give our offense a lot better chance of being successful. We never like to take credit up front. We just go out there and do our job."

The good news is the offense doesn't feel like it's peaked. Fourteen runs on Sunday went for 3, 4 or 5 yards. The next step is for the linemen to maintain their blocks for an extra split-second or the backs to make one more defender miss to turn a nice run into a big play.

"We're not going to rest on our laurels," Clements said.


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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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