GREEN BAY, Wis. — Commitment to the running game? Check. Production in the running game? Not so much.
The Packers’ 26th-ranked rushing attack has been trending in the wrong direction over the past three weeks. Since Cedric Benson’s Lisfranc foot injury in Week 5 against Indianapolis, it’s been mostly a struggle for Green Bay to get anything going on the ground.
Second-year running back Alex Green has stepped into the starting role, less than one year after tearing his ACL as a rookie. But in his three starts, plus the second half against the Colts, Green is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.
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“Coming in, the guys don’t really have a good feel for me yet,” Green said Wednesday. “We’re definitely making steps forward. Obviously the production isn’t there, but we’re making positive steps forward and that’s the biggest thing.
“I think it’s close. It takes time.”
The lack of success hasn’t been for a lack of trying, though. After several Packers offensive linemen complained publicly following the Indianapolis game that coach Mike McCarthy’s play-calling diverted from the run too much once Benson was out, changes have been made.
In each of Green’s first three career NFL starts, the 2011 third-round pick has been handed the ball at least 20 times. His best performance came in Houston, running for 65 yards on 22 carries. Based on that game, it looked like the Packers wouldn’t be losing much going from Benson to Green.
But over the past two games, Green’s 20 carries for 35 yards (1.8 average) in St. Louis and 22 carries for 54 yards (2.5 average) against the Jaguars have given plenty of reason for concern.
“I think I’ve been doing OK,” Green said. “A lot of room for improvement, to say the least. There’s areas that I’ve done good at, not great, and areas that I’ve done poor at, as well.”
There have been several running plays in which even elite NFL running backs would have had a difficult time breaking through for a big gain. That’s where some blame falls on Green Bay’s offensive line to perform at a higher level and give Green a chance to see some open field.
“We have to be better, all of us,” starting right guard Josh Sitton said. “Everybody needs to do better in the run game. We have got to get on our guys and create holes for him and create movement. We just all need to be more consistent.
“There’s going to come a time where we have to win games running the ball. We definitely have to improve.”
A strong running game would have been very helpful this past weekend when the Packers barely snuck by the 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars at home. With top wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson out due to injuries, Aaron Rodgers had a season-low 186 passing yards in that game. But the longest gain that Green could muster was seven yards, also running for two yards or less on 11 other attempts.
“For Alex, that was not his best game (Sunday),” McCarthy said. “He’s seen the film and I think the corrections for a young player will definitely be applied as we move forward.”
To try to create some positive results in the running game, McCarthy sent backup offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith in for four plays Sunday as an eligible tight end and fullback. It worked, to an extent, totaling 15 yards.
“I think the guys get a kick out of running those plays,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I think everyone is kind of like, ‘OK, let’s go hit these dudes in the mouth real quick.’ It’s taken on a new identity and we all like it. I’m just hoping we keep going with it through the season because I think it’s a good addition to what we do.”
Whether McCarthy goes back to the running package with Dietrich-Smith remains to be seen, but he’s not going to stop running the ball, even if it’s not overly effective.
“I think there’s definitely value in running the football because everything you do is off of the run game as far as the play-action passing game,” McCarthy said. “The way we do it is when you throw the football, there’s two ways of throwing it: you drop back and throw it or you have some form of action that fits some segment of your run game. As long as those are tied together, they look the same, then there’s definitely some benefit.”
Rodgers sure wouldn’t mind if the running game started to open up more.
“It would take some of the pressure off of the passing game if we could have a little more balance there in the run game and just be a little more effective,” Rodgers said. “We have to do a better job of running the ball when we get those clean looks.”
Facing the Arizona Cardinals this weekend, a team ranked 21st in rushing defense, the Packers should have their opportunities to get Green going out of the backfield.
“I don’t think I need a big game to boost my confidence,” Green said. “I wouldn’t say pressure, but I would definitely say there’s a sense of urgency to get it done. We’ve had two games at a standstill and that’s unacceptable in the offense. We have to keep the defense honest and to do that, you have to run the ball.”
So far, McCarthy has chosen not to split carries between Green and third-year running back James Starks. However, McCarthy said that Starks will get to carry the ball more in practice this week, which could soon make him part of the rotation on game day.
Whoever it is, the Packers will keep running the ball this season. Now McCarthy just needs to find a way to make it a successful part of the offense.
“There’s a point in every game you need to buckle down and run the ball,” McCarthy said. “That’s a philosophy of mine.”