The Packers Running Game Needs to Get to the ‘Next Level’


Eddie Lacy works out during organized team activities at Clarke Hinkle Field in Green Bay. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph

In his press conference to open this year’s training camp, Green Bay Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy made it clear that improving the running game will definitely be an emphasis for the team this year.

One major area McCarthy emphasized was doing a better job as a team getting to the second level of the defense. “Frankly, we need to be a better second-level run team. Our issues are not as much on the first level as the second level.”

Watching last season, it was evident the Packers struggled breaking through the first line of defense. Effective running teams break through the line and get into the second level of the defense on a regular basis. The second level of the defense starts five yards beyond the line of scrimmage where linebackers, and at times safeties, typically line up before the snap.

If the Packers running game wants to earn respect from opposing defenses this is one area where they will need to improve.

Alex Green rushes with the football during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

In 2012, Green Bay only had 35 runs over 10 yards and 8 runs over 20 yards. If you take away the seven runs over 10 yards from Randall Cobb and the nine from Aaron Rodgers scrambling, that means the Packers running backs only produced 19 runs over 10 yards. Compare that to Adrian Peterson last season who had 61 runs over 10 yards and 27 runs over 20 yards.

Yikes! That’s quite the difference.

In fact, Peterson’s 27 runs over 20 yards last season is more than the entire Green Bay team has had from the past three seasons combined (19). I know it’s Peterson, but it still shows the glaring difference in the Packers running game compared to one of the top running teams in the league.

You can see why McCarthy wants to make the running game a central focus this season.

Last year, the Packers increased their rushing attempts from 395 in 2011 to 433 in an effort to create a more balanced offense, but it didn’t work. They still finished the season twentieth in the league in rushing, and even that ranking is skewed by the 259 yards Rodgers picked up scrambling. Also, take away the 132 yards from Cobb running out of shotgun formation, and it’s evident the Packers needed to do something differently at running back this season.

The picture continues to look bleak if you take a close look at the team’s rushing average per attempt from the past few seasons. In 2011 and 2012, the Packers averaged 3.9 yards per carry (ypc), and in 2010 averaged 3.8 ypc.

DuJuan Harris during the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 24-10. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Again, these numbers are slightly skewed from Rodgers’s 4.8 ypc and Cobb’s 13.2 ypc in 2012. If you just look at the Packers running backs in 2012, their rushing average was 3.6 ypc, which would have ranked them 30th in the league last year. Only DuJuan Harris had a rushing average (4.6 ypc) to write home about.

The Packers top three rushers from last year—Alex Green (3.4), Cedric Benson (3.5), and James Starks (3.6)—were less than impressive when it came to making the most out of their opportunities. These pedestrian rushing averages ranked the Packers running backs toward the bottom of the league. Out of backs with more than 30 carries last season, Green ranked seventy-ninth, Benson seventy-sixth, and Starks seventy-fourth in yards per carry.

The Packers have averaged less than four yards per carry as a team the past three seasons, putting them toward the bottom of the league in this statistical category for three consecutive years. The lack of second level runs also reflects these poor rushing averages.

Last season, the Packers tried to bring balance to their offense and re-emphasize the running game by increasing the number of rushing attempts per game. This still wasn’t effective because the Packers lacked a legitimate running threat in the backfield. Opposing defenses weren’t falling for it. They didn’t have to fear the Packers ground game, and as a result, we all saw how defenses placed most of their focus on stopping Rodgers and the passing game.

So what will the Packers do this year to fix the problem?

Green Bay drafted two of the nation’s top running backs coming out of college in Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin in hopes they’ll bring new life to the Packers running game.

This season the Packers need to get more bang for their buck when running the football. Simply, increasing the number attempts per game won’t do the trick. For opponents to respect the run Green Bay needs to establish an effective running game.

Johnathan Franklin works out during organized team activities at Clarke Hinkle Field in Green Bay. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph

“Effective” being the key word here. They don’t necessarily need to put the brakes on their passing game and become primarily a running team, but when they do run this season, they need to make it count. That means increasing the number of runs reaching the second level of the defense and improving their overall rushing average.

Lacy and Franklin should help with this. Lacy averaged an incredible 6.7 yards per carry in his final season with the Crimson Tide, and Franklin averaged 6.1 yards per carry in his standout senior year at UCLA.

I know it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the same type of production from these backs in the NFL, but remember these guys posted these rushing averages against the toughest divisions in college football, the SEC and PAC-12.

Needless to say, Lacy and Franklin will add new dimensions to the Packers offense this season and should help Green Bay get over the four yards per-carry mark this season.

If Lacy and Franklin can even average close to the 4.5 yards per carry mark, then the Green Bay offense will be in good shape. Throw in Harris’s 4.6 average from last season, and it looks like 2013 may just be the year things change for the Green Bay Packers ground game.

By bringing in backs with the talent that can reach the second level of the defense and make something happen, the Packers will improve their overall rushing average, and consequently, make opposing defenses respect the run, for once.