If ever a day tested Mike McCarthy’s patience with the running game, it had to be last Sunday.
Yet, the value of the Packers’ commitment to the run was all the more apparent, even when that commitment required obvious sacrifice.
In St. Louis, running back Alex Green broke free on one run for 15 yards. On his other 19 carries, he gained a measly 20 yards, or barely one yard per attempt. Randall Cobb and John Kuhn managed to surprise the Rams to the tune of 35 yards on four handoffs, but when the Packers played it straight with Green, the results weren’t there.
The Packers stuck with the run, however, and for good reason. By the end of the first quarter, which included three Green Bay possessions, quarterback Aaron Rodgers already had been sacked three times, with a fourth sack nullified by a defensive penalty. Meanwhile, Green officially had four carries for four yards, though he actually had three rushes for minus-two, with a five-yard gain coming on a swing pass that was ruled a lateral.
Despite a 10-0 lead for the Packers, the Rams’ pass rush was winning the early battle. The rest of the game, though, the Rams didn’t sack Rodgers once and he finished with 342 passing yards and three TDs.
Yes, the pass protection improved, and Rodgers made some of his nifty escapes, but just as valuable was the insistence on running the ball, with Green getting 16 more carries over the final three quarters even though little success was found.
“It’s about slowing down the rush,” Rodgers said of the ground game. “It’s about making sure they can’t just tee off and come up the field every single time and get a jump on the snap. We’ve got to stay with it. It’s actually more about quantity now than quality.”
Of course, the Packers would like to improve on that quality part. McCarthy made it clear earlier this week that blame for the rough day running the ball lay everywhere, from Green to the offensive line to the receivers blocking on the perimeter. McCarthy even challenged his players’ toughness a bit, expressing disappointment that no one was pushing the pile for the “hard yards.”
To their credit, they’ve all owned up to their part in the struggles.
“I probably could have pressed the holes a little more and done a better job of running downhill, making the right reads, making the reads quick,” Green said. “The one-, two-yard gains, I shouldn’t allow that. I take that very personal.”
So do the linemen.
“We need to start winning first downs, giving ourselves favorable down-and-distances,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “That comes down on the guys on the offensive line. We need to be able to create better lanes and give him more room to run. That’s on us.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing was that the biggest lane Green saw all day, he didn’t get through it. Late in the third quarter, just two plays after his 15-yard scamper, Green took a handoff to the right. With everything blocked perfectly, he had a huge cutback lane to the left with no defender in sight, but he stumbled on his own, turning a potential 49-yard TD into a measly 3-yard gain.
If the Packers had any thoughts of replacing Green or sharing the workload, it probably won’t happen this week. James Starks missed Thursday’s practice, the only one of the week in full pads, due to an illness, though he returned Friday as a limited participant.
In any event, the bungled opportunity only has Green more anxious to redeem himself on Sunday.
“Anytime you miss a wide-open hole, you’re definitely frustrated,” he said. “It doesn’t happen too many times in the NFL. When you look at the tape and see (that), it gives a bad taste in your mouth.”
A big run there would have made all the slugging away, with little to no success, worth it. That’s often the payoff to the commitment, a big one that comes out the back end when the defense is worn down.
Against the Rams, the payoff was keeping Rodgers upright and the passing game humming. For now, that’s good enough.
“That’s not our bread and butter,” center Jeff Saturday said of pounding the ball on the ground. “We have Aaron Rodgers and a lot of great receivers for a reason. But we have to be efficient with the run.
“Mike has done a really good job, even when it doesn’t look pretty, of keeping us in rhythm and keeping defenses off-balance, not letting them get accustomed to what we’re doing.”
Perhaps that means greater rewards are yet to come. Only time will tell, provided the patience and commitment remain. Additional coverage - Oct. 26