Return of the NFC North running games

James Starks, left, and Mikel Leshoure have helped provide their teams with balance on offense. US Presswire

As the 2012 season dawned, we had a pretty good idea of what made our NFC North teams tick.

One of our quarterbacks was the NFL's reigning MVP, having set a league record with 45 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. Another had become the fourth quarterback in history to exceed 5,000 passing yards in one season. A third's value had risen after his team went 1-5 in his absence after a 7-3 start. And a fourth's development was considered the key to his team's progress.

The NFC North is still a passing division and quarterbacks remain its most important players. But at the rough midpoint of the season, I think we should acknowledge the substantial efforts under way either to build up running games or -- gasp! -- rely on them exclusively in all four division locales. If nothing else, as the weather turns cold in the Upper Midwest, we're reminded that the best teams have at least a capacity for balanced effectiveness. Based on what we've seen so far, it's safe to say that no one-dimensional NFC North team is going to win the Super Bowl.

That process is no more visible than with the Detroit Lions, who ran the second-fewest running plays in the NFL last season but have been more aggressive in 2012 in response to deep zones designed to limit downfield passes. Those efforts have only recently turned effective, culminating with a 149-yard, three-touchdown game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- which happened to be the Lions' most convincing victory of the season.

The Lions are so committed to making the running game work, in fact, that they have been willing to take a skill position player off the field in favor of a sixth offensive lineman. Rookie Riley Reiff played nearly half of the Lions' snaps Sunday and has been on the field for 87 plays this season. Their past five rushing touchdowns have come with him on the field.

"I think we've seen probably the most consistent and most productive run game since I've been here," coach Jim Schwartz said, "and a lot of it has to with attitude up front and Riley's a big part of that."

As the chart shows, the Lions aren't yet where they want to be. They don't have a single run of 20 or more yards, but their top two backs -- Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell -- are more powerful than they are explosive. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions' passing game will still account for most of this offense's explosive plays, but already the Lions have made substantial progress toward balance. They're now getting the yards defenses are handing them.

Like the Lions, the Green Bay Packers also found themselves unequipped to capitalize against opponents that took risks in run defense. We discussed their imbalanced play calling earlier this year, and through nine games quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on pace to throw more passes than in any season in his career.

Rodgers said last week on his ESPN 540 radio show that at the midpoint of a season, a team's offensive personality is usually set. He lamented the lack of quality and explosiveness in the running game and added: "I think that has directly affected the amount of 16-plus [gains] in the passing game. We've probably had less of that than in the past as well. Our yards per attempt passing the ball are obviously down from last season and I think a lot of that is due to the types of coverages we're seeing."

So it's worth noting that five days later, the Packers set season highs with 39 rushing attempts and 176 rushing yards in a 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The game featured a return to prominence of exiled starter James Starks, who more than tripled his season total for attempts with 17. The Packers still have time to rebalance themselves, and a more consistently productive running game almost certain will elevate their downfield passing success as well.

"Things happen," Starks said, "but I think we'll be fine. We're starting to get comfortable and I think we'll get this thing going."

The Minnesota Vikings are hoping to keep their thing going with tailback Adrian Peterson, who has emerged as strong as ever 10 months after major knee surgery. Peterson has rushed for 458 yards and four touchdowns over his past three games, and he is now the Vikings' only reliable playmaker considering receiver Percy Harvin's ankle injury and quarterback Christian Ponder's ineffectiveness. Only Peterson can prevent a complete offensive collapse at this point.

The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, might be the team with the best potential for a balanced offense, depending on offensive coordinator Mike Tice's play calling. Tailback Matt Forte is averaging 5.0 yards on 137 carries through eight games, while quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall already have combined for 59 receptions, 797 yards and seven touchdowns.

No matter how effective Cutler and Marshall are, the lesson of the Packers' and Lions' struggles remains relevant. The Bears will need Forte and backup Michael Bush to help control the tempo against some of the NFL's better defenses, especially those who will choose to take away Marshall rather than stack themselves to stop Forte.

The running game and the NFC North. Who would have thunk it? What is this, the Black and Blue division?