Keys to the Game: Don't forget the run

A balanced offense is the key to offensive success in the NFL.

Notwithstanding last week's 50-pass onslaught by Brett Favre, the Packers rarely win when the entire offense is thrown on their Hall of Fame-bound gunslinger. The Rams, meanwhile, more often than not stumble when coach Mike Martz forgets he has Hall of Fame-bound Marshall Faulk in the backfield.

The weather for Monday night's game, however, dictates that both teams lean on the running game. While the rain and snow is out of the forecast, temperatures are expected to be 25 degrees by tonight's kickoff.

Despite having Faulk and promising first-round pick Steven Jackson in the backfield, the Rams rank just 17th in the NFL in rushing with 109.7 yards rushing per game. Only Philadelphia among teams with .500-or-better ranks below the Rams (5-5).

For Green Bay (6-4), the problem entering tonight's game is obvious: Who will run the ball?

Both teams' running games are among this week's keys to the game.

1. Hand the ball to ... who?

Can Ahman Green grit his teeth and fight through his painful ribs? Packers coach Mike Sherman isn't saying, though it's hard to imagine how effective Green could be with his ribs sure to take punishment every time he touches the ball.

If not Green, can the Packers count on the oft-injured Najeh Davenport, who has barely played in the last month? Davenport has all the talent in the world but has been productive only once this season, when he gained 62 yards at Detroit.

Whoever is in the backfield, even if it's third-down back Tony Fisher or the recently signed James Jackson, Sherman must put his trust in the Packers' dynamic offensive line. The Rams' run defense ranks 29th in the league and could be especially vulnerable on a bad field.

2. Ram-tough running game?

For all the Rams' weapons on offense, stopping Faulk must be job No. 1 for the Packers' improving defense. The Rams are 27-0 when Faulk tops 100 yards, and in his only career game against the Packers, he tallied 116 on just 17 rushes. Faulk didn't play last season, but St. Louis won anyway, 34-24, when unheralded Arlen Harris rushed for 85 yards and Lamar Gordon added 30 more.

Stopping the run hasn't been a problem for the Packers, who once ranked 31st against the rush but have ascended to No. 12. Last week against Buffalo, with the running game struggling, St. Louis went to the air and quarterback Marc Bulger threw three interceptions.

"With the weather, we're obviously going to have to run the ball more," Bulger said. "I know they're going to get their points. That's been the point of emphasis this week: scoring points because we've haven't been scoring as many as we'd like."

3. Stop the big plays

It's not just Faulk who will worry Packers defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. Rams receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt have combined for 111 catches, 1,580 yards and nine touchdowns. They have terrorized Green Bay's pass defense in their earlier matchups, but this game will be on grass so that could slow them down.

Nonetheless, the Rams know they must be more explosive on offense, and with Packers rookie Ahmad Carroll locked up on one of the Rams' dynamite wideouts, St. Louis could be looking deep early and often.

"We're just not getting as many big plays as we have in the past," Bulger said. "Last year, we had guys step up to make plays when situations arose, but we're just not getting that done right now. You watch New England, and they don't have any superstars, so to speak. But, every week someone steps up and makes a play when they have to. That's the difference in the NFL."

"Once they get it clicking, they're a really dangerous offense," said Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies. "They haven't put up the numbers they usually do, but you don't see many teams with as many great skill players like they have."

4. Big plays on defense

One thing keeping these teams from truly challenging the Eagles for supremacy in the NFC is their inability to create turnovers.

That either of these teams is in the playoff hunt is remarkable. Green Bay is tied for fewest turnovers forced in the league with eight. St. Louis has only forced 10. The Rams have a league-low four interceptions.

The pass rushers aren't much better. Green Bay ranks 25th with only 20 sacks and the Rams are tied for 26th with 19 sacks. On the plus side, Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has five sacks in his last three games. St. Louis standout Leonard Little, whose 39 sacks in the previous three seasons ranks third in the league, has five sacks this season but only one in the last three games. Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher says "he's as good as they come."

5. Pick on Rams DBs

If the Packers can run the ball, then St. Louis' secondary could be ripe for the pickings with standout safety Adam Archuleta forced closer to the line of scrimmage to play the run. Neither of the starters, Dejuan Gross or Jerametrius Butler, are standouts, though Butler does have three interceptions. Both are 5-foot-10. Gross, meanwhile, is doubtful with a knee injury.

Packers receivers Donald Driver and Javon Walker, meanwhile, lead the league with a combined 113 receptions, and Walker tops all receivers with 945 yards.


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