Backs find room to run, especially going left

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Josh Sitton isn't quite sure why, but the Green Bay Packers guard believes he's a better run blocker now that he's playing on the left side of the offensive line.

And the Packers are taking advantage of it.

Their renewed commitment to the run game has paid dividends, perhaps sooner than anyone expected this season. Heading into Week 6, the Packers ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (141.0) and second in rushing average (5.3 yards per carry).

As impressive as those numbers look, especially for a unit that has not had a top-10 running game since 2004, they're even more remarkable when they run in the direction of Sitton, who played on the right side from 2008-2011, and left tackle David Bakhtiari.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Packers have averaged 8.4 yards per rush going left this season. Last season, they averaged 3.5 yards per rush toward that side. With four rushes of 20 yards or more to the left side, they have already doubled their total from all of last season.

“I think I'm a better run blocker from the left side for some reason,” Sitton said, “whatever it is.”

The impetus for moving Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, to the left side was to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers' blindside. But improving a running game that last season ranked 20th out of 32 teams also was a major focus.

“I just think that everyone's run blocking is getting better,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “If Josh thinks that (he's better on the left side), good for him.”

When Bulaga was lost for the season, it forced the Packers to go with a rookie, Bakhtiari, at left tackle. In Bakhtiari, the Packers have an athletic left tackle that is well suited for their style of running game.

“David's a finisher,” Campen said. “He may not be perfect in where you want his aiming point or where he's going, but he's going to finish. He's moving his feet, he's staying engaged, and he's staying engaged with people.”

The Packers have distributed their runs almost evenly from side to side. According to statistics compiled by the NFL, they have 41 rushes to the left, 40 to the right and the remainder up the middle. But in last Sunday's 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions, when the Packers rushed for 180 yards, they opened the game by running behind Sitton and Bakhtiari. Nine of their first 12 runs were to the left side of the formation, and those runs averaged 4.0 yards per attempt. Their longest run of the game, a 67-yarder by Randall Cobb in the third quarter, also went left. On the play, Sitton and Bakhtiari took care of the defensive linemen, and center Evan Dietrich-Smith pulled and led the way by blocking a linebacker in the hole.

“I felt really good at the start of camp with Bryan and then when Dave came in, it was a little bit of a learning curve right there,” Sitton said. “But we've come together and worked hard on communication and things like that to be able to get our combo blocks down and things like that.”

To be sure, some of those runs against the Lions were made because of blocks on the back side, and in the end their runs were distributed almost evenly from side to side.

“I don't think there's a concern for what side we run,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Now, sometimes we only rep plays one way just to cut down on the amount of preparation.”

Regardless of what side the Packers have run to this season, there's no denying that production has improved across the board. Against the Lions, Eddie Lacy came up 1 yard short of giving the Packers their third 100-yard running back of the season after James Starks gained 132 in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins and Johnathan Franklin ran for 103 in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. They entered the season with a streak of 43 straight games without a 100-yard rusher.

The Packers have made subtle tweaks to their blocking techniques and added a few variations to their old running plays, but perhaps the key to the improvement in the running game has been better communication between the key components -- the offensive line and the backs. Those two position groups began watching film together more than a year ago, and that has finally started to pay off.

“In a lot of our runs, we have a lot of options based on what the defenses does or what look they present,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We might call a particular play but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate to us, and we look at the pictures and say ‘OK we've done this once, let's try if we get that same look, let's use this other variation.' Because of the fact that we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they're doing a good job of it.”