On the list of sensitive topics for Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, establishing a more physical, consistent running game is No. 1 this offseason.
Green Bay’s ground game has been spinning its wheels for three seasons and people keep asking McCarthy if it’s going to improve. Although he won’t put a number on what he expects from the running game and won’t even have a firm idea until the Packers put on pads in training camp, McCarthy last week made his most definitive statement yet on the subject:
“We’ll be better, I can promise you that,” he said. “You can write that down, in big letters.”
Green Bay already took a significant step in the right direction when it drafted two running backs — Alabama bruiser Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA change-of-pace back Jonathan Franklin in the fourth — in April. If anything demonstrated the Packers’ desire to run the ball, it was using so many draft resources at a position where they had tried to get by with marginally talented or past-their-prime players for years.
But getting proven running talent was only a first step. The better news is the Packers aren’t fooling themselves into thinking their worries are over simply because they drafted two high-profile backs. Despite a reluctance to talk about the running game, they appear to have a comprehensive plan in place to make it a larger factor in the offense.
In addition to importing running backs, there is intent, scheme and attitude to consider. Until the games begin, we won’t know if McCarthy truly intends to make a greater commitment to the running game, nor will we see any schematic changes. As for blocking, the Packers are quietly putting a long-overdue emphasis on becoming more physical along the flip-flopped offensive line.
“I think as a unit we just need to approach it with a different mindset this year,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga, who has switched from the right to the left side. “Week in and week out, we need to bring the same attitude every week and play hard, tough and physical the way we know we can. I think that was our mindset going into the OTAs and, going into training camp, that’s got to be the mindset.”
Offensive line coach James Campen said the Packers were making some schematic improvements in the running game as well, but in the end put the onus directly on the blockers.
“We’ve given them all the tools, now let’s bring some attitude with it,” Campen said. “A lot of it comes down to attitude and putting your face in there and blocking people, staying engaged and finishing. They know it has to be better. You get the run game going, you’re helping yourself with (slowing) the pass rush. I’m looking forward to that.”
So, no doubt, is Aaron Rodgers. He was sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL last season and a good running game would force defenders to at least make a decision before rushing the passer.
McCarthy has made it clear he likes to play fast and give his offense plenty of chances to score, so the Packers aren’t going to revert to Lombardi Era power football. But he also knows the running game needs to be enough of a threat to make opponents defend it instead of virtually ignoring it like they did last season.
Lacy practiced at 238 pounds this month and that’s probably a bit too heavy, but having a big back who can make his own holes will help. So will a line with a nastier disposition and more power up front.
“I just think really the physicality has always been there, but it’s just the finishing, the attitude to finish, to extend plays in the run game, to stay engaged with your man when the whistle is blown,” Campen said. “I think those are the things that are most important.”
The massive line shuffle — Bulaga traded places with Marshall Newhouse at tackle and right guard Josh Sitton switched with left guard T.J. Lang — was made so the Packers could get their “two most accomplished players to protect the backside of the quarterback,” according to Campen. It will also make the right side of the line bigger, which could help in the running game, too.
“Marshall is a 325-pound man and T.J. is 320 and taller,” Campen said. “You’ve got bigger people now, so I think it’s going to help in both areas.”
It had better help because the Packers need both areas functioning smoothly after falling off a bit on offense last season. Although still highly productive, they ranked 13th in the NFL in total yards, the first time in McCarthy’s seven seasons they hadn’t been in the top 10. With no fear of the running game, opponents geared their defenses to stop Rodgers and had slightly more success than they had in the past.
McCarthy tried to run the ball at times but seldom succeeded because he simply didn’t have the ammunition he needed to be more physical on offense. With two fresh backs and a new attitude on the line, it finally looks like he might.
Just don’t ask him about it.