It took the second-quarter ankle injury to right tackle T.J. Lang to convince Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy to keep in extra blockers and use a fast-paced, quick-hitting short passing game.
It was designed to help rookie offensive lineman Don Barclay, who played the final 2½ quarters in Lang’s place.
Operating that way, the Packers’ reconfigured offensive line kept quarterback Aaron Rodgers relatively clean. He was sacked twice and hit four times, a major improvement from the pounding he took a week earlier in the blowout loss at the New York Giants.
And lo and behold, the running game took off, too. A near evenly balanced distribution of carries between James Starks and Alex Green led to the Packers’ second-most productive rushing performance of the season, a total of 152 yards on the ground on 36 attempts (a 4.2-yard average). Until the final series, when Starks carried three times for nine yards, the two running backs’ numbers were nearly identical. Green started the game and carried 12 times for 58 yards, a 4.8-yard average. Including his final three carries, Starks rushed 15 times for 66 yards, a 4.4-yard average.
“We ran the ball more effectively than we had all season,” Rodgers said. “Good combination of James Starks and Alex Green running the football, doing a nice job. I’m not sure what the final numbers were, but I think we had over 150 yards rushing, which probably hasn’t happened in a while.”
In fact, it happened only once previously this season, when the Packers rushed for 176 yards on Nov. 4 against Arizona.
What’s more, the Packers ran effectively to Barclay’s side of the line. On almost every play, run or pass, McCarthy either lined up a tight end on the line next to Barclay or shaded a back with specific blocking orders to that side of the formation.
“That definitely helped me stay comfortable,” said Barclay, who before Sunday had played only on special teams. “Running the ball to our side, that kind of wore them down a little bit so when we did pass the ball, (the Vikings) weren’t as fresh.”
By late in the third quarter, the Packers noticed that the Vikings’ front seven was crashing hard to the inside in an effort take away runs between the tackles. So McCarthy called a toss play for Starks on first down from Minnesota’s 22-yard line. Tight end Ryan Taylor, who was lined up to Barclay’s right, blocked down on defensive end Brian Robison, while Barclay kicked out and got just enough of linebacker Erin Henderson to clear a path for Starks down the right sideline. His 22-yard touchdown was his longest gain of the season.
“The outside was definitely there,” Green said. “That was something we watched on tape and kind of leaned toward in our running game. It definitely helped us out a lot.”
Barclay was called for two holding penalties and had his share of problems with Robison at times but did nothing that resulted in anything catastrophic.
“I thought Don did a good job,” McCarthy said. “Actually, I thought the confidence in the play-calling reflected that. When he first went in the game, I tried to take care of him and play it smart. Frankly, after halftime, we just really played a basic, clean football game.”
Though McCarthy wouldn’t commit to anything, Barclay may have given the Packers reason to keep him at right tackle even if Lang can return this week from an ankle injury that was not believed to be serious. If the Packers feel good enough about Barclay, an undrafted free agent from West Virginia, then perhaps they can move Lang back to his natural left guard position. Lang bounced outside after regular starter Bryan Bulaga sustained a season-ending dislocated hip against Arizona.
“There’s no surprise for me to see him play well, especially (play) as physical,” McCarthy said. “He’s a physical guy. He’s a tough guy. He’s what you’re looking for as far as your right tackle, as far as your attitude, and he gave us a chance to just keep playing today, and that’s all you ever ask for out of a young rookie when he comes in.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.