GREEN BAY, Wis. — There was an emphasis on running the ball all week in practice. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was searching for a way to get the ground game working after consecutive weeks of Alex Green struggling to provide the offense with the balance that it needed to be successful.
Though Green hadn’t been getting the job done by himself, the trio of he, James Starks and wide receiver Randall Cobb provided Green Bay with its best rushing performance in more than three years. In the Packers’ 31-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the team finished with 176 yards on the ground, the most since Week 7 of the 2009 season.
“That’s the way you want to run the ball,” McCarthy said. “I was very pleased with the rushing effort.”
Starks led the way with 61 yards on 17 attempts (3.6 average), Green had 53 yards on 11 carries (4.8 average) and Cobb ran the ball out of the backfield three times for 29 yards. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also scrambled five times for 36 yards. It was the first time since Nov. 2, 2003 that Green Bay had four players rush for 25-plus yards.
“Inside this locker room, we had the confidence we could get it done,” offensive lineman T.J. Lang said. “It was good to go out there and watch both those guys put up good numbers. We have to make sure we’re staying consistent with it.”
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a hip injury in the second quarter and Lang slid from his natural spot at left guard into that role. Backup Evan Dietrich-Smith then entered the game at left guard.
The Packers’ running game this season was supposed to be completely focused on handing the ball to veteran Cedric Benson and letting him take over. But when Benson suffered a Lisfranc foot injury in Week 5, McCarthy turned to Green as the feature back.
McCarthy repeatedly insisted that Green had earned those opportunities, even as the results weren’t showing up. But Starks was given a chance Sunday and, on many drives, was the first- and second-down back, while Green was only in on third down.
“It’s just nice to get the ball again and do what I have to do,” Starks said. “It felt good.”
Starks’ one major setback in the game was a fumble. Rodgers recovered it, but McCarthy immediately pulled Starks off the field and sat him for several drives.
“I was just hoping and praying that I didn’t lose any opportunities (after the fumble),” Starks said. “It’s tough getting a fumble and then not going back in, but Coach had faith in me by putting me back out there and I got to contribute. I’m thankful for that.”
Green had carried the ball at least 20 times in the previous three games, but he didn’t seem upset whatsoever that he had to share the load.
“As long as we’re successful in the run game, whether I get two carries and he takes 15 or whatever, as long as we’re successful, that’s a great thing,” Green said. “One back does good, we all do good. We have a tight-knit group.”
The running plays to Cobb, whose elite speed provided three nice gains on the outside, also opened up more room between the tackles for Green and Starks.
“That package makes matchup problems for defenses,” Cobb said. “We just try to exploit them in different ways. We were able to make some big plays out of the package today, and I think it opened up the run game a little bit more.
“They (the Cardinals) were looking at where we’re going to be on the field, where we’re going to line up, what package we’re in, so it made it a little tougher on the defense.”
Cobb had three running plays this season prior to Sunday, with the worst of those being a 19-yard pickup. But McCarthy went to it three times in this game, a trend that will likely continue until defenses prove they can stop it.
Rodgers only threw for 218 yards against Arizona, but he acknowledged that his 72-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tom Crabtree was open downfield mostly because of the Packers’ threat to run the ball.
It was the type of game McCarthy had been looking for since Benson’s injury. Green Bay’s offense presented a more balanced attack, and it worked really well.
“We all know if we’re trying to get to where we’re trying to go, we’ve got to have a run game,” wide receiver James Jones said. “When we’re able to run the ball good and keep the defense honest, it helps our offense.”