10/03/2013 02:11 PM
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson hasn't been very good to coach Mike McCarthy when it comes to stocking the roster with running backs.
From 2006 through 2012, Thompson only spent four of his 65 draft selections on halfbacks and of that group none was taken in the first round and two were taken after the fifth round.
After taking Brandon Jackson in the second round in 2007, he didn't pluck a halfback out of the draft until James Starks was taken in the sixth round three years later. In between the selection of Jackson and Starks, Thompson drafted 30 players.
He went just three picks after that before selecting Hawaii's Alex Green in the third round in'11, but it was another 16 picks before he chose Alabama's Eddie Lacy in the second round this past April. He followed up that selection with UCLA's Johnathan Franklin two rounds later.
Now, three games into the season, the Packers are running the ball as well as they ever have under McCarthy, ranking second in the NFL in average per carry at 5.3 yards and ninth in rushing yards per game at 128.0.
Thanks to a revived Starks and the contribution of the two rookies, people are taking notice of a feature of their game that previously had been ignored.
"They ran the ball very well against Cincinnati," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, whose team comes into Lambeau Field on Sunday. "They racked up a bunch of yards in that game. It's not just stopping the pass, you have to stop the run on those guys.
"They have some guys that are good physical runners and other guys that are better breakaway guys. We're going to have to defend everybody."
In assessing the Packers' run game, Schwartz said the difference begins with the players who are lining up behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"I think they made a concerted effort to ramp up the personnel with the running back position," Schwartz said. "They drafted (Eddie) Lacy pretty early. They drafted (Johnathan) Franklin. They got Starks back from injury; he had been injured for a couple of years.
"Those are some good players. They spread some teams thin in the passing game. As a result, there are some opportunities in the run game."
With Starks out several weeks due to a knee injury he suffered against the Bengals two weeks ago, the Packers are going to find out whether the improvement they've seen on the ground is related to the additions they made to their backfield. The two rookies are going to have to handle the bulk of the carries.
In McCarthy's mind, they have already made the run game better. The blocking has been better, but it takes more than average running talent to produce the numbers they have so far.
"When I look at a running back (it's) really in the same way I look at a quarterback," McCarthy said. "They're decision-makers. They have to run through the right hole and set the blocks. Good runners make a run-blocking unit better.
"That's a fact and I think our running back position is off to a good start and we've been more productive in the run game because of it."
McCarthy said he began to understand the importance of having natural, instinctive runners during a discussion about the great Marcus Allen with fellow Kansas City Chiefs assistant coach Jimmy Raye in 1993. The two were debating the relevance of scheme and blocking to pure rushing talent when the well-traveled and highly respected Raye went up to the blackboard and wrote:
"Production of the run game is directly related to the runner."
It might seem like a "duh" moment to outsiders, but in the coaching and personnel ranks, offensive line play and scheme are often given as much or more weight than the sheer natural talent of the guy toting the ball.
Thompson hasn't rejected that theory completely.
He would have taken Marshawn Lynch in '07 had he fallen to the Packers and was very interested in Mark Ingram in '11 before New Orleans scooped him up. He had a chance to trade for Lynch two years ago but passed for a number of reasons, including Buffalo's asking price and Lynch's pending free agent status.
Most of the resources Thompson has acquired have gone toward feeding McCarthy's high-octane passing game, and McCarthy's lack of interest in running the ball has led his offense to finish 20th or below in rushing five times and no higher than 14th in his seven previous seasons.
There is no guarantee Lacy and Franklin will keep up the pace Starks established with 187 yards on 34 carries in six quarters, but the fact Lacy rebounded well from a terrible start against San Francisco before suffering a concussion and Franklin rushed for 103 yards on 13 carries in the second half of the Cincinnati game has led to the belief that they can.
Rookie mistakes like Lacy's early miscues in the no-huddle offense and Franklin's game-turning fumble on a fourth-and-1 play are things they're going to have to avoid. But the Packers are willing to put up with those growing pains in exchange for a more productive running attack.
"We ran the ball good, and we're going to continue to run the ball good, and it's going to make us two-dimensional and it will be a pretty hard offense to stop once we're clicking on both cylinders," said Lacy, who practiced Wednesday and has been cleared to play against Detroit.
"We were drafted to come in and play. What order we play in, that's not up to us. But once we get in, we just have to do what we were drafted to do."
Neither back has earned his NFL spurs yet, but more than any of the Packers' draft choices, the two have the ability to make a difference right away.
Rookie defensive linemen rarely make an impact and first-round pick Datone Jones has not so far. Fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari has been a godsend, but the Packers need him to play up to the level of injured Bryan Bulaga not be the guy who lifts the offense to another level.
A really good running back can improve an offense right away, especially when it's a unit that hasn't been exactly wearing out opposing defenses the past seven seasons. Lacy and Franklin are trying to be that back.
"I think we're blocking a little bit better upfront and I think we're reading the blocks better than we have in a while," Rodgers said. "I think Eddie (Lacy) made some good runs and then obviously a big game from James (Starks) and then last game we played, Johnathan (Franklin) was able to break out for a 50-plus-yarder and those definitely help the average.
"Those guys (have) been running the ball hard and reading their blocks well."
And so far, that has made a big difference