Running game takes more positive strides for Packers
CINCINNATI—As long as Mike McCarthy has been around, the Green Bay Packers may have had a crisis in available backs, but they’ve never missed their running game the way they did Sunday.
It would have helped to have a healthy running back for the better part of their last series just to keep the Cincinnati Bengals honest, but what they missed down the stretch of their 34-30 loss at Paul Brown Stadium was the production.
Once a complete afterthought in the McCarthy offense, the running game is what is fueling the Packers’ offensive success in 2013. And when they ran out of it starting with a failed fourth and 1 at the Cincinnati 30, they were doomed.
“We were running it well,” receiver James Jones said, reflecting on the 30 consecutive points the Packers scored. “(James) Starks came in running it well; (Johnathan) Franklin came in and made his mark with some big runs. The running game got us in that rhythm early in the second half.”
The way the Packers have been running it you never would have thought they couldn’t get a few inches against a team that had allowed them 172 yards on 28 carries at the 4-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Even with no Eddie Lacy (concussion), no John Kuhn (hamstring) and no Starks (knee sprain), they seemed to be OK.
Franklin had replaced the injured Starks in the second half and in his first game playing from scrimmage rushed 11 times for 98 yards and a touchdown heading into the fourth-and-1 play. The Packers were averaging better than 6 yards per carry when McCarthy decided to go for it at the 30.
“We had a good play call,” Rodgers said.
Except Franklin, who had darted all around the field in gaining a total of 103 yards on 13 carries on the day, was not the right man to blast it up the middle. The 240-pound Lacy had dived over a pile of 49ers in the season opener for a touchdown, but the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Franklin proved no match for the rugged Cincinnati defense.
On his way up, defensive end Michael Johnson drove his helmet into the ball as Franklin reached his peak and the ball popped loose.
“Our D-line did a great job of stuffing the line and the linebackers did a great job coming over the top,” Bengals safety Reggie Nelson said. “I saw the contact and the ball came out. I scooped it and I saw Aaron coming and I tried to spin and tried to switch hands, but in the process somebody hit me from behind.”
Receiver Randall Cobb’s hit at the 36-yard line caused Nelson to cough up the ball and as it bounced forward, where cornerback Terence Newman picked it up and raced 52 yards for the touchdown. The Packers, who could have kicked a field goal to go ahead, 33-27, with under 4 minutes left, were suddenly down, 34-30.
“I have to make a play for my team,” Franklin said. “I have to do my job.”
The odd part is that Franklin had been doing it every step of the way until then. The coaches had shown some reluctance to play him previously and were riding the hot hand of Starks, who followed his 132-yard performance against Washington with 55 yards on 14 carries in the first half Sunday.
When he hurt his right knee on an ordinary inside zone on first and goal at the 5 with 2 minutes left in the half, Starks looked like he might be wearing down the Bengals defense. But that all ended when Johnson slipped under tight end Ryan Taylor’s block and hit Starks in the knee just as he planted both feet on the ground.
“It’s just frustrating,” said Starks, who has spent the past three seasons fighting the injury bug. “I was kind of getting in the groove. I started feeling like myself, breaking tackles and seeing things a little smoother.
“I started getting used to the defense. They were getting tired down a little. It was old style the way we were running.”
If the Packers had Lacy, the 6-2, 218-pound Starks or Kuhn available, getting the first down on fourth and 1 probably would have been easier. Franklin would have been better served putting his head down and driving behind center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard T.J. Lang and tackle Don Barclay, who had all gone low to try to create some push.
When Franklin went high, it allowed Johnson to hit him from the side and the linebackers to jump and stuff him over the top. It was blocked a lot like a quarterback sneak, but Franklin has the option of taking it high or low.
“Kind of looked like it, right?” Dietrich-Smith said of a sneak. “It was one of those upfront deals. The defense made a good play and got the ball out. (It was) goal-line, that type of thing. You get them on their side of the marker and you should get the first down.
“I don’t know if we did or did not. I couldn’t tell what happened. I was on the bottom of the pile.”
The very fact the Packers were successful until then with their No. 3 running back reflects on how much better their running game is this year. Through three games, the Packers have rushed 73 times for 384 yards (5.3 average) and three touchdowns.
Last year, they had 235 yards after three games (3.7 average) and in 2011 they had 327 (4.2 average).
“We’ve been working on it, it’s been coming along,” Dietrich-Smith said of the running game. “We make a few more plays here and there, (have better) ball security and maybe this score looks a little bit different.”
As deflated as the offense was over the fourth-down failure, Franklin’s overall numbers showed that all of the backs they have stuck in there can have success. Franklin proved to be a different kind of runner than Lacy and Starks, using his quickness to dance around defenders.
“I think he did well,” Starks said. “He came in there unexpected and did a great job gaining yards, hitting holes right, having some explosive plays. He’s a young player. I think he did a great job of showing great effort; he’s just got to hold the ball a little tighter. He’ll be fine.”
Lacy shook off a poor start against the 49ers to have a better second half and ripped off a 10-yard run against Washington before suffering a concussion that kept him out of this game. Starks had been all but forgotten before carrying 20 times for 132 yards last week, and Franklin hadn’t even seen the field in the offense until the second half Sunday.
Now all have a chance to be factors.
The bad news for the Packers is that Starks couldn’t finish the game and Franklin suffered an ankle sprain that kept him out of most of the last series. He was the last back on the roster after McCarthy decided not to add practice squad prospect Michael Hill and go with just two backs.
More will be known Monday about the extent of their injuries heading into the bye week. The one thing the Packers do know is they can’t afford not to produce yards on the ground.
It’s now a big part of their offense.