By Jim Owczarski
GREEN BAY — In the Green Bay Packers’ Sunday night demolition of the Minnesota Vikings, the striking images were not of Aaron Rodgers’ pinpoint passes to Jordy Nelson over the horned emblem on hapless, albeit well-positioned, defenders. Nor were they the sight of defensive lineman Mike Daniels wrangling Christian Ponder twice, giving the Packers 20 quarterback takedowns over the last four weeks.
No, it was running back Eddie Lacy taking toss sweeps behind the pulling of guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton. It was the heavy package Packers head coach Mike McCarthy unveiled in short yardage, with backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse checking in to add extra weight to the line. It was James Starks, fresh off a knee injury, bursting up the sideline as Lacy caught his breath.
Make no mistake — the train that is the Green Bay Packers, winners of 14 of their last 15 against NFC North opponents and six straight against the Chicago Bears — is still conducted by Rodgers. The engine has been changed however, from Rodgers’ clean and efficient passing games to a chugging, dirty ground game led by Lacy, a second round pick out of the University of Alabama, and a re-tooled offensive line.
The Packers welcome the Bears to Lambeau Field on Monday night with the third-ranked rushing offense in the National Football League, averaging 141.4 yards per game on the ground.
“I wouldn’t have believed that one,” said Sitton, the lone Pro Bowler on line, of that ranking. “Not with Aaron Rodgers and coach McCarthy. You have the best quarterback in the league; you use him. That’s what we’ve done around here. We’ve thrown the ball so much and have been very successful around here. We’ve done something a little bit different this year and part of that is just doing it and part of that is because of injuries and it’s been fun.”
In McCarthy’s previous seven years in Green Bay, which includes a Super Bowl championship, the Packers have never finished higher than 17th in the league in rushing.
Last year, the Packers were 27th at 97.4 yards per game and Alex Green led the team with just 464 yards while Rodgers, Grant and DuJuan Harris tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with two. The year before, Starks led the team with 578 yards.
Since 2006, only Ahman Green and Ryan Grant (twice) have rushed for at least 1,000 yards.
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Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy saw a deficiency in that aspect of the offense and addressed it in two ways in the offseason.
First, they made the decision to flip the offensive line, moving Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the left side. Lang moved from the left guard spot to the right, while Don Barclay and Newhouse would battle for the right tackle job. Evan Dietrich-Smith, who took over for the now-retired Jeff Saturday at center last year, remained there.
Then, in the draft, the Packers selected Lacy and UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin. Starks was retained, as was Harris.
McCarthy's original game plan was amended before the regular season even began however, as Harris — the projected starter at running back — and Bulaga were lost for the year with knee injuries. In comes rookie David Bakhtiari, a fourth round pick out of Colorado, to start at left tackle. Lacy was then thrust into the starter's role in Week 1 as well.
“I think with Evan and T.J. and I, we knew that we needed to have a bigger role in this offense and take over a little bit more, and we talked about that in the offseason, and I think that’s happened,” Sitton said. “We’ve put more on our backs as an offensive line. If you were to have asked me a couple months ago I would have said the running game would be a lot more successful this year.”
The game plan has been continually updated as Rodgers’ passing targets have fallen away to injury, too. Tight end Jermichael Finley is out with a severe neck injury, Randall Cobb is out with a fractured fibula and James Jones will likely miss his third straight game with a sprained knee.
“Due to injuries we’re running the ball a lot more, but it’s just the success we’ve been having,” Lacy said about the balance the Packers have shown of late. “It’s starting with the offensive line and Starks and I, as long as we can continue to run the ball (McCarthy will) call more run plays and it’ll bring that balance in.”
Lacy, who has missed one game due to a concussion, is 13th in the NFL in rushing yards with 446 and is fifth in attempts per game at 18.7. He rushed a career high 29 times Sunday night against Minnesota for 94 yards and has topped 90 yards on the ground in three of his last four games.
“He runs hard,” Lang said of Lacy. “If he misses a hole he’s still OK. He’s going to get a couple yards.”
Starks and Franklin also have 100-yard rushing games under their belt.
This isn’t to say the passing game has gone away — that is ranked fifth (297.4 yards) — it’s just that the Packers can now rely on its offensive line to create a push, and they now have running backs that not only can make defenders miss, but run them over.
This could pose a problem for the Bears, who enter the game 25th in the NFL in rush defense, allowing 117.3 yards per game. The Bears have also given up eight rushing scores, tied for sixth worst in the league.
With the Packers receiving corps still decimated by injury, this new-look, run-oriented Packers offense that averages 4.8 yards per rush should be on full display on Monday night.
“We want to get to number one (in the league) so we’ll have to work a little harder on that,” Bakhtiari. “It’s good to have a good running game. It’s a tribute to everyone, from the running backs to our scheme and us coming together.”