GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If the Green Bay Packers keep running the ball like they have in their first three games this season, opposing defenses may have to start to respect that aspect of coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
But that has not happened yet.
Maybe it never will as long as teams have to pay more attention to stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ prolific passing game.
So far this season, when Rodgers breaks the huddle, he rarely has seen defenders lining up in the box to take away the run.
“Not in a while,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said this week. “It’s been a while.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have faced six or fewer defenders in the box on 161 of their 201 snaps this season.
On those 161 snaps, they have run the ball on 56 of them, and have been productive, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on those plays. They have faced seven or more in the box on just 40 plays, fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They also have the fewest rushing attempts (14) against seven or more in the box and have averaged just 3.1 yards on those runs.
Even though it’s a small sample size, it appears McCarthy’s offseason insistence that his team would run the ball better in 2013 has come to fruition.
Through three games, the Packers rank second in the NFL in yards per carry (5.3), which is nearly a yard and a half better than their 3.9-yard average last season; and they rank ninth overall in rushing yards per game (128), which is nearly 22 yards more than they averaged in 2012.
The Packers have not ranked better than the 20th in the NFL in rushing since the 2009 season, when they were 14th – the highest ranking since McCarthy became the head coach in 2006.
In their last two games, they’ve had two different 100-yard running backs -- James Starks (132 yards in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins) and rookie Johnathan Franklin (103 yards in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals). Before that, they went 44 straight regular-season games without a 100-yard back. Perhaps their most complete back, rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy had a productive stretch from the second half of the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers until he got knocked out against the Redskins because of a concussion.
Whether it’s the result of better run blocking or more talented running backs, how long the running game will last and whether teams will begin to respect it all are topics open to debate. Let’s examine those aspects:
Is it the blocking or the backs?
That depends on who you ask.
McCarthy this week recalled a story from his early coaching days in Kansas City, when he worked with fellow assistant coach Jimmy Raye. They were discussing running back Marcus Allen, a future Hall of Famer, and Raye got up and wrote something this on the board: “Production of the run game is directly related to the runner.”
“Good runners make a run-blocking unit better,” McCarthy said. “That’s a fact, and I think our running back position is off to a good start, and we’ve been more productive in the run game because of it.”
Still, the fact that all three of the Packers’ running backs have been productive to varying degrees suggests that the blocking up front also has improved.
“You obviously have to have guys cover up up front,” Van Pelt said. “But good runners will find their way to the hole and get the yards. This season, it’s been both, which is great.”
Can it last?
With Starks out indefinitely because of the knee injury he sustained against the Bengals, it will be up to Lacy and Franklin to carry the load.
Lacy has been the least productive of the Packers’ backs so far. His 3.4-yard average per carry is well below Franklin (7.9) and Starks (5.5), but Lacy has only 15 carries after getting knocked out in the first half in Week 2.
The Packers have not faced a team currently ranked in the top 10 in the league in rushing defense, and they won’t on Sunday against the Detroit Lions (who are 20th in rushing yards allowed).
“You take it week by week; if we go out this week and lay an egg, nobody’s really going to remember the last two games,” Packers right guard T.J Lang said. “We understand we have to keeping building on it and making sure we’re consistent with it before you can really say we’re dominant running the ball.”
Will teams ever stack the box?
Teams have largely played the Packers one way over the last three seasons, leaving both safeties back deep in an effort to limit Rodgers’ downfield throws.
“They’ve been a little bit one-dimensional over the years,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said this week. “I think being able to go get a running back, drafting Lacy, getting Starks back from injury, drafting Franklin, adding that to the playmakers like [receivers] Jordy Nelson and [James] Jones and [Randall] Cobb.”
Perhaps the only way to know whether opposing defenses truly fear the Packers’ running game is if they start to consistently bring extra defenders near the line of scrimmage.
“You keep being productive in the run game,” Van Pelt said, “that will happen.”