GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy didn’t need a bye week to pinpoint what was missing from the Packers’ offense after the first two games of the 2016 season.
A quick analysis of road games in Jacksonville and Minnesota was all the Packers’ head coach required to realize the offense must run the ball more.
It’s not only about getting Eddie Lacy and James Starks more opportunities to touch the football, but also what a healthy running game represents – offensive efficiency and balance.
Since winning the Super Bowl, the Packers’ two most effective offenses came in 2013 and 2014 when the rushing offense finished seventh and 11th in total yards, respectively.
By establishing Lacy and Starks, the Packers weathered Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury for seven games in 2013 and provided the perfect complement to the quarterback’s second MVP campaign in 2014.
After emphasizing the run throughout the offseason, the Packers will be committing themselves more to the ground game after Lacy and Starks combined for only 37 carries in the first two games.
“The analysis of our offense after two games, the running backs have not been given enough opportunities, so that’s something that I need to focus on,” said McCarthy earlier this week.
The duo of Lacy and Starks previously averaged 23.3 carries per game in 2013 and 20.7 in 2014, which is a role both Lacy and running backs coach Ben Sirmans say they’re ready to fill again.
Of course, they also understand the need to play within the offense. As much as they’d love to run the ball 30 times per game, the flow of the game ultimately is what dictates McCarthy’s calls.
Lacy reported to training camp in better shape after retooling his offseason training and was one of the league’s most effective runners in the preseason in rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
While his opportunities haven’t been as plentiful on a per-snap basis since the regular season started, the fourth-year running back continues to produce on the same plane with 26 carries for 111 yards.
“If it’s just one game and you combined his stats, and saw 26 carries for 111 yards and averaging almost 4.4 yards a carry, you’d say he’s been relatively productive,” Sirmans said. “Each game he’s had an explosive run. Each game he’s had one of those runs where you’re like, ‘Dang, this guy is hard to tackle.’
“I think in terms of production and where he is physically right now, it’s just a matter of time for him to really start rolling.”
When the running game is rolling, it opens up one of the most effective components of the Packers’ offense – the play-action pass. By drawing the defense in, Rodgers can roll out of the pocket more easily and look downfield for a possible big play.
The Packers made a fairly significant change to their offensive line on cut-down day when they released veteran guard Josh Sitton, but Lacy said he feels comfortable working behind his replacement, Lane Taylor.
The fourth-year pro, who’s been praised by McCarthy in the past for his run-blocking, has fit in well next to left tackle David Bakhtiari, helping open a gap for Lacy on a 9-yard gain on fourth-and-1 in Jacksonville.
With the new-look line intact, Sirmans says he hopes to see Lacy get 20 or 25 carries in a game soon. So do the Packers, who were 4-0 last year when Lacy carried the ball more than 18 times in a game.
The more Lacy carries the ball, the harder he becomes to tackle.
“It makes it a little bit easier because those guys don’t want to hit anymore,” Lacy said. “So it allows for me more broken tackles and passes down the field because they’re playing up to stop the run. So it helps in a few different ways.”
Starks has been off to a slower start to his seventh NFL season in generating 10 yards on 11 carries, including a fourth-and-2 in Minnesota on which he was stopped short of the first down by a backside defender. Sirmans didn’t think there was much else Starks could have done on the play and credited the Vikings for simply winning the down.
The Packers remain confident in Starks, particularly in the passing game. They again turned to the veteran during their two-minute drives against Minnesota.
Starks improved significantly as both a pass-catcher and blocker in 2015, which set the table for a career year in which he amassed 993 total yards and five touchdowns.
“I think with what he’s been doing, the effort he’s been giving and analyzing his runs, physically he’s on point,” Sirmans said. “It’s just what the first two games have dictated for him.”
The Packers are only carrying three running backs at the moment counting fullback Aaron Ripkowski, but they like their options in the backfield when you add in Randall Cobb’s versatility.
The biggest key is establishing Lacy, who has the perfect blend of ability, instincts and toughness in Sirmans’ opinion. As much as people fixate on his size, Lacy’s brute strength often is what goes unnoticed.
“A lot of guys don’t want to tackle him,” said Sirmans of Lacy. “If you go back and watch some of the film, you see guys getting dragged. When you combine all of those different things … and put them together, you have a guy who has the potential to be very dynamic, which he has been around here.”
The common thread between the 2013 and 2014 offenses was the productivity of Lacy and Starks, who combined for 3,143 yards on the ground during those two seasons.
To get back to that production, Lacy understands it’s up to him to set that tempo early. If he does, the formula has been pretty academic for Lacy – the more first downs the offense generates, the more chances he’ll get to run the ball.
“Whatever opportunities I get, I make the most of it whether it’s 14 or 20 or whatever,” Lacy said. “I’m just happy when I get the opportunity to run.”