Running Game Eyes Next Level

Lost amid a league-high 41 sacks allowed, the Packers' rushing attack has been rising up the charts. Ryan Grant, who rushed for 79 yards last week against Dallas, will be tested this week by the NFL's third-ranked run defense. Our Matt Tevsh has the story.

While pass protection problems linger for the Packers, their running game has quietly and patiently made some strides.

Over the past month, the Packers have climbed to a respectable 12th in the league in rushing (119.2 yards per game). Starting running back Ryan Grant has moved up to ninth in the league with 700 yards at 4.2 yards per carry.

While big games against doormats like the Browns (202 yards) and Buccaneers (170) have helped, the Packers showed promise last week against the strong front seven of the Cowboys (Grant carried 19 times for 79 yards for a 4.2-yard average).

This week, they will face another tough opponent in the 49ers, third in the league in run defense while allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per carry. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis gets much of the attention for the 49ers, but in reality, it all starts up front in their 3-4 scheme.

"Their down guys are very disciplined, do a great job of staying square to the football," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Their gap control is definitely probably one of the better or best defenses that we have seen so far this year, and that's a big part of it because it gives the linebackers and the support element of it the ability to run and hit."

One factor, more than any other, has helped the Packers' running game of late.

"We're running the ball more," said guard Daryn Colledge.

Colledge's answer sounds simple. More carries equals more yards. But it can be tough to commit to the run with a passing game led by Aaron Rodgers, and going against a team like the 49ers.

In the past four games, McCarthy has found better balance in his play-calling. Grant is up to 18.7 carries per game, seventh in the league, and the Packers are averaging nearly four more attempts per game. That might not sound like much, but it can make a big difference.

"It helps to get those reps up even if we have a couple plays that are bringing only 2- or 3-yard gains," described Colledge. "Every once and a while, one of those is going to break and give us the opportunity."

Patrick Willis
(Greg Trott/Getty Images
If the Packers have been particularly deficient in one statistical area of their running game, it is explosive gains. Two years ago, when Grant was the talk of the league, the Packers had bushels of them. This season, they have been few and far between.

Grant has just three runs of at least 20 yards, all coming within the past five games. With 168 carries, that equates to just one explosive gain every 56 carries.

By comparison, he averaged one every 52 carries in 2008 and one every 17 carries in 2007, his first season with the Packers.

To get more explosive gains, Grant will have to find the vision that made him a home-run hitter in 2007, but maybe more importantly, the Packers' embattled offensive line can help him, too.

"If we can get him to that second level to break that tackle instead of having him break one on the first level, then it's going to be much more explosive," center Scott Wells said. "Same thing if we can be more precise in our technique and fundamentals, it will make his read a lot easier."

Making Grant's job easier beyond the line of scrimmage includes help from the fullbacks, tight ends and wide receivers.

"It takes all 11 guys doing the right thing to get those big runs," Colledge said.

Getting the second level blocked will be especially important against the 49ers if the Packers hope to have success on the ground. The three down lineman in the 49ers' base package have shown good discipline in gap control, allowing inside linebackers Willis and Takeo Spikes to wreak most of the havoc. Willis' 88 tackles are second in the league, so getting him blocked will be huge for the Packers.

"I think he does a great job of playing behind the blocks in the zone schemes and things like that," McCarthy said. "He looks to be their leader on defense. He's a very instinctive, sure-tackling defender. He is definitely somebody that jumps out to you on film."

It will be imperative for the Packers to continue their progress in the running game into the final months of the regular season. The passing game only gets tougher considering four outdoor games at cold weather sites are scheduled in December. Three of those four games come against teams ranked in the top 11 in run defense.

The best the Packers have finished in rush offense during the regular season under McCarthy was 17th (112.8 yards per game in 2008). The last time they finished in the top 10 was 2004. They are hoping to do even better than that this season.

"It's something we have to establish," said Colledge.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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