GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Green Bay Packers lost receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones to injuries in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, they had the No. 1 offense in the NFC and were second in the NFL behind only the Denver Broncos in yards per game.
A week later, when they lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a neck injury, they still had the No. 1 offense in the NFC and were second in the NFL behind only the Broncos in yards per game.
Not one of those key playmakers has returned, yet here the Packers are still with the top offense in the NFC and the second-best offense in the NFL behind Denver.
“We’re getting better as a football team, particularly on offense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. “The way we’re playing, we’re utilizing our personnel. That’s the responsibility of our coaching staff. We have an outstanding coaching staff, and what they’ve done to this point has been very impressive. But our biggest challenge is ahead.”
Though Sunday’s games, the Packers ranked fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game. That’s nothing new; they have fielded a top-10 passing game in each of the last nine seasons.
But they’ve never had a running game like this -- at least not in McCarthy’s eight season as head coach -- and that’s why they’re second overall in the league and tops in the NFC in total offense (438.9 yards per game).
By matching their season high with 182 yards rushing in Sunday’s 44-31 win at the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers maintained their spot as the fourth-best rushing offense in the NFL at 141.4 yards per game. They have hit their average in four of their last five games.
The Packers have not finished in the top 10 in both passing and rushing since 2004.
Remember back in June, when McCarthy vowed his team would run the ball better and told reporters to put that in “big letters?”
Maybe he should have said big, bold letters.
“We haven’t run the football this well since I’ve been here,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It really takes a lot of pressure off of the passing game when we can open up those kind of holes.”
Still, McCarthy does not appear ready to put anything in permanent ink even though it appears his offseason desire to run the ball better has come to fruition.
“But has it come to fruition?” McCarthy said. “We’re not even halfway through the season. We’re getting better.”
Better might be an understatement, considering this team averaged just 106.4 yards rushing per game to rank 20th last season and didn’t have a single running back with more than 464 yards in all of 2012. Rookie Eddie Lacy needs just 18 more yards to match Alex Green’s team-leading total from last season, and Lacy has played in merely 5½ games.
“I just think it’s cool to be able to add another dimension,” said Lacy, who has run for 395 yards in his last four games. “We’re still going to pass the ball here. [Rodgers] is a great quarterback, and I’m happy to be alongside of him.”
With James Starks back from a knee injury that kept him out for three weeks, the Packers have a pair of running backs capable of big performances. Starks rushed for 132 yards in Week 2 after Lacy was knocked out against the Washington Redskins because of a concussion. He came back from his knee injury as good as -- if not better than -- than he was before.
“They’re statistics,” McCarthy said. “There’s one statistic that counts, and we’re working our way towards it, and we’re a long way from that. Running the ball’s part of it.”
When will McCarthy become convinced?
“When we’re talking about it February, right?” he said. “Isn’t that what this is all about?”
Meanwhile, he and offensive coordinator Tom Clements will have to continue to find the right mix of Lacy, Starks and the passing game. McCarthy said he wanted to get Starks more than the seven carries (for 57 yards and a touchdown) he had on Sunday against the Vikings. Lacy carried a season-high 29 times for 94 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown.
“You can sit here and draw the stuff up on a napkin, and you’d probably want to balance it out a little more,” McCarthy said.
Rodgers’ role in the running game shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Several times already this season he has checked out of a passing play at the line of scrimmage and handed the ball off, leading to big plays, including Lacy’s 13-yard run on third-and-5 last week against the Cleveland Browns.
“This year, especially, we probably have a little bit more, put a little bit more on him in the run game, and that’s been since the spring,” Clements said. “A lot of the great runs we get, obviously we’re getting great running and great blocking, but he’s making some adjustments on his own or talking with the line on the sideline to get us in the proper play.”