The same way Mike McCarthy believed earlier this season the Green Bay Packers’ offense wasn’t “far off” amidst some struggles, T.J. Lang said that very thing about the running game this past week.
Turns out he was right.
After scuffling along at well under three yards per carry the past two weeks, the Packers powered their way to 176 rushing yards on 39 carries, a 4.5-yard average that put a different sort of stamp on their 31-17 triumph over Arizona on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The 176 yards marked the Packers’ highest single-game rushing total since Week 6 of 2009 at Cleveland (202 yards), more than three full years ago.
“We had the confidence we can get it done, and it was good to go out there today and put up those numbers,” Lang said. “We have to make sure we stay consistent.”
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers got the strong statistical day going with some early scrambles, but take away his eight carries for 33 yards and the running backs still posted 143 yards and a 4.6 average.
Notice that’s running backs, plural, with significant production from three. James Starks had 17 carries for 61 yards, Alex Green had 11 for 53 and Randall Cobb added three for 29.
The blemishes were a pair of failed third-and-1 runs (one each by Starks and Green) and a fumble by Starks midway through the second quarter that fortunately was recovered by Rodgers.
Seeing his QB dive after a loose ball amidst multiple defenders “scared the hell” out of Mike McCarthy, the coach admitted afterward, and it prompted him to send Starks to the bench for the rest of that series and the next three possessions.
But Starks returned in the middle of the third quarter and had 10 carries for 30 yards in the fourth as the Packers were killing clock with a two-score lead.
“I was just hoping and praying I didn’t lose any opportunities,” Starks said. “It’s tough getting a fumble and then not going back in. But Coach has faith in me and put me back out there. I’m thankful for that.”
The Packers are also thankful their offensive line didn’t miss a beat despite dealing with its first notable injury of the season. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the game in the first half with a hip pointer, forcing Lang to move out to his spot, with Evan Dietrich-Smith coming off the bench to take Lang’s left guard position.
Interestingly, the Packers had worked Dietrich-Smith into the lineup as an extra blocker on four running plays the previous week, and he was ready for more of that, which probably helped smooth the transition.
“The funny thing was I was actually heading out there for one of those packages when Bryan started running off the field,” Dietrich-Smith said. “So I went out there, parked at the left guard spot and said, here we go.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing was the return of some explosive runs. Green blasted through the left side for 21 yards in the first quarter, Cobb ran around right end for 12 in the second and Starks turned the corner on the right side for 14 in the fourth.
“It’s all about keeping a defense unbalanced, giving them unscouted looks and keeping them on their toes a little bit,” Green said of the variety of ball carriers. “It doesn’t give them a chance to get comfortable in the running game, and it’s bringing different styles of running backs at them. Whether it’s Starks, me or Cobb, we all have different styles of running and it’s a change of pace for the defense.”
No one is a bigger change of pace than Cobb, who continues to make plays with fellow receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson out. Nelson started on Sunday but left early with an ankle injury.
Cobb had just three receptions, but two went for touchdowns. On the first, a 13-yard slant, Cobb said he actually took Donald Driver’s place in the formation at Driver’s urging, and then Driver and tight end Jermichael Finley threw the key blocks that left Cobb one-on-one with safety Adrian Wilson, who whiffed on a spin move.
“I went to line up in my spot, and ‘Drive’ pushed me over and told me to go get it,” Cobb said. “He gave me the opportunity.”
The second one was thanks in part to the productive ground game. A run was called, but Cobb said Rodgers checked out of it when he saw man coverage on the outside from cornerback William Gay. Cobb beat him on a straight go route to the end zone.
“Once we get things going in the run game, the pass game is going to be there,” Green said. “We have a great quarterback. Everybody knows that.” Additional coverage - Packers vs. Cardinals