GREEN BAY - Mike McCarthy was finally rewarded for sticking with the running game.
After spending much of the past month, and especially the past two weeks, slamming his play-calling head against a brick wall – insisting all along that the quantity had value, even while the quality was lacking – the Green Bay Packers head coach’s patience and commitment paid dividends in Sunday’s 31-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field.
“I think we were confident the whole way that we weren’t far off from having a solid performance running the ball,” said left guard T.J. Lang, who had to shift to right tackle after Bryan Bulaga suffered a first-half hip injury. “I think the last two weeks we kind of struggled a bit. We weren’t finishing blocks as well. The execution was just down a little bit, but we put a big emphasis in that this week that we’ve got to make sure we’re out there finishing blocks, giving those running backs clear holes to run through.”
And the line delivered.
McCarthy’s persistence resulted in season-highs for carries (39) and yards (176) yards. After the Packers averaged 2.6-yards per carry over the past two weeks while gaining only 126 yards, the Packers had their most productive day running the ball since rushing 41 times for 202 yards against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7 of the 2009 season.
While quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 37 yards on four carries (including a 25-yarder and not counting four 1-yard losses on kneel-downs) helped the numbers, the performances of previously forgotten James Starks (17 carries, 61 yards, 3.6-yard average), Alex Green (11 carries, 53 yards, 4.8-yard average) and Randall Cobb (three carries, 29 yards, 9.7-yard average) were impressive. It was the first time since their 2003 game in Minnesota that the Packers had four players with at least 25 yards rushing in a single game.
“It shows the confidence (the coaches) have in us,” Green said of the high number of attempts. “We know what kind of backs we have in the backfield here. We know what kind of O-line we have. It’s just a team effort. The coaches know what’s going on down here. They know we have a chance to be great in the run game as well as the pass game and that’s what they’re trying to get through our heads and emphasize.”
Starks, who entered camp as the starter before a turf toe injury in the preseason opener, got his first start of the season and wound up with the most carries despite a fumble that Rodgers saved him on by recovering.
“I was pleased with the rushing effort today,” McCarthy said. “We went with tandem backs with James Starks and Alex Green and played them in different situations. We just tried to make sure we were able to get those guys prepared during the week for today’s game. We had a number of snaps back there also for Randall and I thought he was definitely productive in his opportunities. That’s the way you want to run the ball. Aaron obviously made some plays with his feet and added to the total, but I was very pleased with the rushing effort.”
The payoff to McCarthy’s commitment to the running game was probably best seen on tight end Tom Crabtree’s 72-yard touchdown to end the third quarter.
“Oh, 100 percent that was the reason,” Rodgers said of the run game’s impact on the play. “I’ve got to give Mike (McCarthy a lot of credit for a great call in that situation. The way they were playing, they wanted to keep a two-shell but to add an extra guy in the box area, they were creeping their corner in there on run action. We saw it and we talked about that play at halftime and were able to call it and dial it up in a perfect situation. The corner crashed, we made a fake, (Crabtree) did a nice job of bluffing (Cardinals linebacker) Paris (Lenon) there and I was able to put the ball in a good spot.”
“It was something we talked about all week,” Crabtree said of running the ball. “The run game and you guys talked about it. It’s something we take pride in. And ourselves we were upset about it because we know we’re better than what we’ve been doing in the run game. At times we made some good plays in the run game today and kind of got things rolling and that helped out.”
It wasn’t all pretty. Twice the Packers tried to run the ball on third-and-1 and were stopped short both times.
“We’ve just got to make sure we keep working on the third and short runs,” Lang said. “I think we were 0-for-2 today with those, so we’ve got to continue to work on that.”
Still, averaging 4.5-yards per carry was a step in the right direction for an offensive line that’s been put under the microscope by fans and the media this year.
“I think the coaches stuck with getting a lot of run calls,” guard Josh Sitton said. “And Aaron has done the same when we’re in the no huddle offense. They’ve made it a point to get the amount of runs up. Really, since the Indianapolis we’ve really stuck with, had 20 plus runs a game. We executed better up front. I think we played a more physical game today. Pushed the pile a little bit better. Played fundamentally better and we were successful.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.