The Green Bay Packers need a running game.
If you don’t believe it, check out the Tennessee Titans.
On their first play, DeMarco Murray ran 75 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-0.
“Any time the offense scores on an opening play like that, it sets a pretty big tone,” linebacker Joe Thomas said.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota took advantage of that tone-setting play and the Titans’ season-long rushing power throughout the game. On the next possession, Mariota used play-action to hit tight end Delanie Walker for 41 yards to the 12. One play later, a handoff to Murray brought safety Morgan Burnett toward the line of scrimmage. Murray then hit a wide-open Walker behind Burnett for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
On the next drive, Mariota dialed up play-action again and hit tight end Anthony Fasano for an easy 9-yard touchdown.
When Green Bay got on the board, the Titans wasted no time in responding. Again, it was the threat of the run that made it happen. The Titans lined up in a run-heavy formation. That got Rishard Matthews matched up one-on-one against Micah Hyde for a 32-yard touchdown to extend the margin to 28-7.
Because of a running game that has been strong throughout the season, the Titans destroyed the Packers through the air. Including Murray’s pass, Tennessee threw five touchdown passes compared to seven incompletions. The Titans had 28 points on the board before Mariota even threw an incompletion, as he started 10-of-10 for 198 yards and two scores.
“He’s playing well for us right now,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “He knows the things we can’t do with the turnovers, but he’s the reason we have a chance to put the points up. He’s the reason why we can move the football as effectively as we can, throwing it or running. The threat of him running helps in a lot of ways, more ways than you know.”
Without a running game due to injuries and circumstance, Aaron Rodgers was 31-of-51 for 371 yards with two touchdowns and two mostly irrelevant interceptions. On paper, the Packers have more passing-game weapons than the Titans, who have a star tight end in Walker and a bunch of nobodies at receiver. The Titans, however, won the air war overwhelmingly. Thanks to an effective play-action element, Mariota averaged 11.3 yards per attempt. Without play-action to help create big plays, Rodgers averaged 7.3. That's exactly what we talked about in the World's Best Preview. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers was 10-of-23 on passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield.
The return of James Starks gave the Packers a true, experienced running back for the first time since Week 6 and could provide something resembling balance going forward. He carried seven times for 33 yards (long of 11) and added a 13-yard touchdown on a screen in which he juked an unblocked defender at the line of scrimmage. With the game so quickly out of hand, coach Mike McCarthy had to scrap the running game.
“We were way behind today,” he said. “We didn’t really run the offense that we prepared to run. I mean, when the score gets to the position it was today, — you have a game plan each and every week. The way the game goes dictates the way it goes. We went to probably, I’d say, second quarter, more exclusive the no-huddle. We don’t want to play that way.”
What way do the Packers want to play? What gives them their best chance? Can Starks and Ty Montgomery provide a viable running game to provide some balance, knowing full well this group will never have the run-game dominance? Or is the offense’s best chance for success unleashing Rodgers for 50-plus passes a game? An effective run game, at least, would add a measure of unpredictability. An all-out passing game would put the pressure on Rodgers and the receivers — a group that hasn’t won with regularity under the best of circumstances. Those questions are only complicated by injuries to right guard T.J. Lang and left tackle David Bakhtiari.
“We’ll figure it out,” Rodgers said. “James did a good job for us today, and getting him back is a good boost for us. Great job on the screen for a touchdown. Thought he ran well; there was a holding call on one of his big runs but I thought he ran the ball well and it was good to have him back.”
The problem is, the Packers are running out of time to figure it out.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.