It was fall of 2001, and after missing out on the playoffs the previous two seasons, the Packers started off by outscoring their opponents 93-13 over the first three games. At the crux of that dominance was the Packers' efforts on the ground on both sides of the ball.
Following a Week 3 victory at Carolina, the Packers were third in the league in rushing offense and first in run defense. In the 12 years since, they haven't come close to matching those numbers at the same time in any given week.
Through five games, the Packers have steadily marched up to fifth in rushing offense (140.8 yards per game) and third in run defense (78.2 yards per game). No team in the NFL has a better combined ranking in those two categories. Who would have predicted that at the beginning of the season?
"Any time you emphasize an area of your football team, a situation, you'll definitely want improvement," said McCarthy on Wednesday regarding whether the improvement on both sides of the ball is tied to practices dating back to training camp. "You know, that's why you have the scheduling. You keep track of all those things. You can't emphasize every single situation as far as giving an extra rep, giving it extra time. It's kind of a moving target as your team grows, as your team changes, the veterans on your team. So, those are things that I always go through. We didn't put a whole lot more time into the run game on both sides than we have in the past as far as normal down and distance. We did a little bit more half-line drill work that I hope is part of what's going on because it's been good work for us. I think it's been a safer drill for us. But at the end of the day, you really have to give credit to the players."
While the Packers' offense always will start with Rodgers, its running game is no longer taking a back seat. For four straight games, the unit has produced more than 135 rushing yards. And with 704 yards total, it has its highest output through the first five games of a season since 1989.
For McCarthy, it starts with attempts. In the final 10 games of last season, the Packers ran the ball almost five times more per game than over the first eight games. The team's per-carry average, under those parameters, went from 3.7 to 4.1. This season, the Packers are on par with the number of attempts over the final 10 games of last season. With the addition of rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, improvement from James Starks and a season-long 67-yard run out of the backfield from Randall Cobb, the run game has produced 5.2 yards per carry, third best in the NFL. On first-down runs, the Packers are averaging a league-leading 5.7 yards per carry.
Lattimore stuffs Rice last week. Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Defensively, the Packers' front seven has been stout. Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the run defense – 2009 notwithstanding – has generally been a middle-of-the-pack unit in the league. But this season there is a noticeable difference. In Week 1, the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore ran for just 44 yards on 21 carries after hitting the Packers for an average of 115.5 yards and 5.9 yards per carry in two games last season. In Week 5, one of the league's hottest backs, the Detroit Lions' Reggie Bush, had 44 yards on 13 carries. And last week, the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice could muster up only 34 yards on 14 carries against the Packers.
"I think it's a combination of things," said Capers. "I think our guys, I think probably some guys would question our run defense the last year or two. I've always felt like we could stop the run with the guys we had but we're just playing it better right now. We're executing it better. I think our front guys are doing a nice job of technique. I think our linebackers are being decisive in terms of gap fits. Our secondary guys, when they come down, are doing a pretty nice job of showing up where they need to show up.
"We do a combo drill every week, which is kind of a live half-line drill up front. You saw us do a little bit of that in training camp. I think our guys like the drill. It's a physical drill. They get three shots apiece on each side, which is basically what run defense is all about is being physical and whipping the guy over you and controlling your gap and being disciplined and having everyone fit together."
While turnovers often have been Capers' saving grace over the past four years in Green Bay, the Packers are getting the job done this season without the aid of interceptions and fumbles. Take away a four-turnover performance at Cincinnati (albeit in a loss), and the Packers have had just two turnovers in the other four games.
Instead, the run defense has been the reliable factor. The Packers are the only team not to allow 110 net rushing yards in any game this season. After giving up 4.5 yards per carry in 2012 and 4.7 in 2011 and 2010, the Packers are third in the league this season at 3.4. The Packers' best mark in the regular season under Capers came in 2009 at 3.6. That season they were No. 1 in the league in run defense allowing just 83.3 yards per game.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com