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Mike Vandermause column: Run game doesn't need to be pretty to be effective

Oct. 20, 2012
 
Green Bay Packers running back Alex Green carried 22 times for 65 yards against the Houston Texans. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers running back Alex Green carried 22 times for 65 yards against the Houston Texans. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette

Never trust statistics.

That’s a lesson to be learned from the Green Bay Packers’ victory last Sunday against the Houston Texans.

No matter what the numbers say, the Packers were very effective rushing the football. Although their running backs averaged just 2.8-yards per carry, it was an effective, efficient and winning performance.

“I really don’t look too much what running backs average per carry,” said guard T.J. Lang. “That stat to me is irrelevant.”

What the Packers’ running game did was keep the Texans’ defense honest, which freed up Aaron Rodgers and the passing game to explode for six touchdowns.

If those results are any indication, the Packers can overcome the loss of Cedric Benson and function just fine with Alex Green carrying most of the load on the ground.

While no one will mistake Green for Walter Payton or Barry Sanders — he rushed 22 times for 65 yards last Sunday — the Packers got exactly what they needed out of him.

“I think three yards per carry doesn’t sound like a lot, but those 8-yard runs, he got a number of 8- and 9-yard runs and one of the things you also look at is the number of attempts we had during the game,” said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements.

“The defense has to be aware of it and because they were aware of it, it slowed their rush down some.”

The last thing Rodgers needs to see are defenders licking their chops, pinning their ears back and making a jailbreak toward the quarterback. One of the best ways to prevent that is to mix runs into the offensive package.

“We’re not a 50-50 team by any stretch,” said Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt. “But it is important to have an effective run game. It doesn’t have to carry the load in (producing) a ton of yards but you have to be able to run the ball, to change the defense to defend the run.”

This season the Packers have run on 36.5 percent of their offensive plays, which dips below the single-season low under McCarthy of 39.4 percent in 2007. The previous four seasons ranged between 40 and 43.2 percent.

As long as Rodgers is under center, the Packers will feature a pass-first offense. With NFL rules that favor the passing game, that’s the way it should be.

But if the Packers can run the ball effectively enough to set up their aerial attack, that will make Rodgers even more dangerous.

“When teams have to start coming up in the box respecting the run it opens things up for him in the secondary to make some big plays and it allows the receivers to get into some open space and make plays,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional 2-yard run, which helps loosen up the defense.

“It gives that (defensive) line a different look,” said Van Pelt. “They can’t just tee off and rush the passer all day. It slows the rush down.”

Green ripped off runs of 7, 10, 8 and 9 yards against Houston. But he also had three rushes for no gain, a pair of 1-yard runs and three 2-yard gains. Those numbers aren’t flashy, but they served as body blows against the Texans’ defense.

Van Pelt said: “It may not be an effective run in the sense of yards but it is in the sense of their mentality, ‘Hey, they’re going to run the ball as well as throw it so we have to be a little more careful of our rush.’ You can’t just pin your ears back and go after the passer.”

The Packers are asking for trouble when they abandon the running game.

They got shut out in the first half against Seattle when their pass-run ratio was a lopsided 23-4. With no regard for the Packers’ run game, the Seahawks came after Rodgers with a vengeance and sacked him eight times.

At Indianapolis two weeks ago, the Packers managed to score just one touchdown during a second-half collapse when their pass-run ratio was 28-6.

“It’s hard on Aaron when we put that much pressure on him to make 50 throws a game and expect all of them to be perfect when they’re dropping seven guys into coverage,” said Lang. “So last week I think that showed, when we were running the ball and being effective with it, they had to start respecting it a little bit.

“When we’re balanced it allows us to open up the playbook a little bit more and be more effective.”

In the Packers’ three playoff victories leading to the Super Bowl two years ago, James Starks rushed 23, 25 and 22 times. In only one of those games was his average above 3.4 yards per carry.

Green could prove to be an upgrade over Starks. “He’s an explosive guy,” said Lang. “He’s got an opportunity to break a big one any time he touches the ball.”

But even two yards and a cloud of dust isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The key for the Packers is to make sure Green touches the ball enough times to keep defenses guessing.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause

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