GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy had a message for his football team on the first day the Packers returned for the start of the offseason program in April.
If the Packers were going to have sustainable success on offense in 2016, they’d need to run the football more effectively.
Green Bay finished a respectable 12th in rushing offense a year ago thanks in part to Aaron Rodgers’ scrambling ability, but there were too many ebbs and flows in the coach’s mind.
During the 2015 regular season, the Packers scored five fewer rushing touchdowns, had five more fumbles and averaged 0.4 fewer yards per carry on 371 designed running plays than in 2014.
McCarthy came to two conclusions in reviewing the season: the Packers need to run the ball better in 2016 and must increase their overall commitment to the ground game.
That emphasis was evident throughout the offseason program and the team’s 16 public practices of training camp. It resulted in the Packers running 123 designed run plays in the preseason, their most since at least 1999.
“Preseason is about opportunities, whether we’re talking about running it, throwing it, stopping the run and so forth,” McCarthy said. “We had more opportunities to run the football this preseason and I think it’s definitely helped us prepare as we get ready for the in-season.”
An ankle injury to Brett Hundley altered the Packers’ plans for the preseason, requiring undrafted rookie Joe Callahan to take most of the snaps under center.
So the spotlight shined on Eddie Lacy, James Starks and the Packers’ run game with Hundley hurt and Aaron Rodgers sitting out all but one preseason game.
The Packers made their snaps with Lacy and Starks count this summer with the two running backs touching the ball on 39 of their combined 67 snaps.
Despite not having Rodgers or Hundley to scare safeties off the line of scrimmage, Lacy and Starks still combined for 205 rushing yards and 5.4 yards per carry.
“To be able to do that even without having the threat of Aaron … I think that shows a good sign of what we’re doing up front and our commitment to it,” said first-year running backs coach Ben Sirmans, who was hired in February.
“The guys in our room know that in order for us to have success, we have to have a very, very good run game.”
Lacy had one of the most impressive preseasons on the entire roster, which was exactly what the coaches wanted to see after a trying 2015 campaign for the Pro Bowl running back.
Working in concert with the starting offensive line, Lacy looked explosive and powerful in rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in three preseason contests.
Lacy worked hard in the offseason to improve his diet and conditioning in an effort to regain his 2013-14 form. Still only 26, he’s hoping for a turnaround in his fourth NFL season.
“Just get back comfortable and back to playing how I’m used to playing,” said Lacy of his goal for this year. “I think I’m there. There’s always room to get better, so I’m still continuing to do so. Just go out and play.”
One of the first things Sirmans did once he was hired was diagnosing the sudden spike in fumbles after Lacy and Starks had proven to be so sure-handed earlier in their careers.
A review of the film showed a trend in Lacy’s five fumbles (including playoffs) with the nose of the football being angled down when the defender made contact. That’s what made it more susceptible to being punched out.
Starks’ five fumbles were more mechanical. At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, the veteran running back often whips his arms and hands when making a sharp cut downfield to maintain balance.
That’s only natural for lengthier backs, but it also can leave the ball vulnerable to being stripped.
“I always talk to the guys, it’s like a cheetah,” Sirmans said. “When a cheetah is running full speed and he has to make these tight turns to catch his prey, its tail is all over the place because it helps it maintain his balance.
“You have some running backs who are like that when they’re going full speed. They have to make those sharp cuts and their arms and hands start go all over the place because it helps to keep them in balance. That’s something James has to fight.”
There were positives to be drawn from the 2015 campaign. Lacy came on late to rush for 6.3 yards per carry in the playoffs, and Starks made strides in both pass protection and catching out of the backfield en route to a career-high 993 total yards.
Now, the Packers want to see their top two backs put it all together and help the ground game recapture the success it had when the two combined for 4,056 total yards in 2013 and 2014.
The offensive line understands its role in that production. While the Packers will start the season with two new starters (JC Tretter and Lane Taylor), their expectations won’t change.
“Things aren’t always going to be perfect, but if you have an attitude you can run the football and hit your marks, and play a physical brand of football, I think it’s very important,” said offensive line coach James Campen earlier in camp. “It establishes a sense of urgency and also gets other areas of your football team ready to go and play.
“Linemen love to run the football, but whatever job they want us to do, pass block, run block, it doesn’t really make a difference, but it is exciting to run the ball and be effective doing it.”
The Packers have a track record for improving whatever areas McCarthy has pinpointed in the offseason. Look no further than Lacy’s rookie season in 2013 when the run game responded to McCarthy’s mandate for improvement.
McCarthy says the Packers are “still working to get to” the standard he holds for the backfield, but admits it’s off to a “solid” start based on training camp and the preseason.
Now, it’s on all 11 offensive players on the field to make sure the run game gets to where the Packers want it to be this season.
“Coach talked about it the first day we got back in April. We have to be a running team to have success on offense,” said guard T.J. Lang last month. “We take a lot of pride in that up front. I think everyone has really bought in.”