So why does it seem the Packers' rushing attack not been as dominant as it was a year ago? Especially in the past four of five games? The answer might be, quite simply, less opportunities.
When backup running back Najeh Davenport responded to whether the run game is as good as it was last year, he commented, "I couldn't really tell you. We haven't really put a team away with our running game, so I really wouldn't be able to tell you yet. Last year our running game got us far into the playoffs, so ask me when we get far into the playoffs and I can answer then."
The Packers learned after their game with the Jaguars last Sunday, that despite a 28-25 loss, they still earned a playoff spot in the mediocre NFC. Though they have more serious defensive issues to contend with, if they are to make a run in the playoffs, they may be best suited to run well and run more often.
A good place to start to get on a roll could be on Friday when the Packers play for the NFC North title at Minnesota.
"Being able to run the football has been big over there," said guard Mike Wahle.
As tempting as it may be to throw the football against the Vikings, who are 27th in the NFL is pass defense, the Packers have been successful pounding the ball in recent games against the Vikings that they have won. Earlier this year at Lambeau Field (Nov. 14), they piled up 206 yards on 35 carries against the Vikings. In their last two wins at the Metrodome under head coach Mike Sherman (2003 and 2000), they ran for 261 yards (on 34 carries) and 154 yards (on 31 carries). Another superior running performance on Friday will keep drives alive and keep the potent Vikings' offense off the field.
"We are a team that does like to run the football," said Sherman, "but if a situation occurs where a defense is taking that part of the game away, then we certainly have to lean in other directions. We've had our best success there when we've been able to establish the run game. There's no question about that."
In four of the Packers last five games (at Houston, at Philadelphia, vs. Detroit, and vs. Jacksonville), they have averaged only 22.3 carries per game against 42.5 pass attempts. They have gone 2-2 in those games needing last-second field goals by Ryan Longwell for the two wins. The exception among the past five games was the Nov. 29 game against the Rams when they rolled up 231 yards on 28 carries in a 45-17 victory.
More alarmingly, however, the Packers threw 80 times against just 50 runs in the past two weeks in brutal weather conditions seemingly well-suited for a strong running game. Both games were close, so the Packers were not necessarily forced to play catch up with the pass. Green did fumble once and missed an exchange with Brett Favre on another occasion against the Jaguars in the first half, but the Packers ignored the run in the second half. Green ran just five times for 43 yards while Favre was 16 of 25 with three interceptions and a numb hand.
By contrast, all seven teams who played similarly arctic climates in the Midwest last weekend chose to implement more of a running attack. The Bills (29 rushes, 30 passes), the Bengals (31 rushes, 32 passes), the Texans (34 rushes, 29 passes), the Bears (26 rushes, 35 passes), the Chargers (50 rushes, six passes), the Browns (28 rushes, 28 passes) and the Jaguars (36 rushes, 20 passes) all implemented much more of a running attack than the Packers (21 rushes, 44 passes).
After the Jaguars game, Sherman addressed questions involving his running game vs. his passing game and said he saw opportunities to take advantage of the passing game last Sunday. He said the Jaguars were coming hard to the line of scrimmage on play fakes and thought he was attacking the right parts of the Jaguars' defense. He also said he thought his receivers were catching the ball remarkably well under the frozen conditions.
The Packers certainly have their reasons for game-planning on offense like they do each week, but it was just a year ago that they had their best opportunity to get to the Super Bowl since the late 1990's thanks to a dominant running game with virtually the same personnel they have this year. They tallied 507 total rushes last season (vs. 473 pass attempts), the most since 1978. This year they have totaled just 377 rushes in 14 games (vs. 529 pass attempts) and are on pace to throw for their most pass attempts since 1999.
Injuries may have played some role in why the Packers running attack has not been so consistent or dominant like expected. Center Mike Flanagan was lost for the season after three games and Kevin Barry, an integral part of the U-71 power running formation, has missed the last two games with a quadriceps injury. Green and Davenport are both playing with injured ribs. Green missed one game and most of the Texans game (Nov. 21) and Davenport has been playing with his injury since the Rams game.
Davenport has been limited in practice and that has hurt the Packers' running preparations each week since he is a usually a big part of it, even as a backup to Green.
"It has been a little bit of a setback," said Sherman.
The Packers still have time to regain their prowess in the running game with the playoffs fast approaching. Whether or not they choose to use it more often remains to be seen.