Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) looks for running room against the Arizona Cardinals during Friday night's preseason game at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
Coach Mike McCarthy has two rookie running backs and a bigger commitment to running the ball, but the run game isnít going to show up until the offensive line gets it together.
Halfback James Starks played a lot Friday night against Arizona with rookie Eddie Lacy out because of a hamstring injury, and the team knows what it has there. But fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin is a quick, fast guy, and if you wondered why he didnít have any explosive plays ó the Packersí halfbacks averaged 2.7 yards a carry ó it was because of the blocking.
Itís not like the whole line is falling apart, but one or two pieces do on too many plays. A few plays illustrate the point.
One was with 2:30 left in the first quarter. It was a double- tight end and I-formation backfield, a classic running formation for the Packers. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and the tight end get good push, everything looks great except that left guard, undrafted rookie Patrick Lewis, who gets pushed back. That knocks fullback John Kuhn off track as the lead blocker because has to go around Lewis. Franklin has the ball and has to go around Lewis, too, and what could have been a big play is only a 4-yard gain.
Three plays later, same formation. Tight end Matthew Mulligan blocks well, the guards and center (Lewis, Lane Taylor and Greg Van Roten) are blocking, and thereís a beautiful alley for Franklin. Except right tackle Marshall Newhouse canít block his guy. Franklin has to bend the run back into the pursuit and is tackled for a 3-yard gain. If Newhouse at least stalemates his guy, thatís a 10- or 15-yard run, the lane is there.
Also, when the starters had fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line on the Packersí first offensive series, a couple linemen are in the end zone watching when Starks was tackled just inside the 1. Bakhtiari and left guard Josh Sitton rode their guys to the outside, but right guard T.J. Lang is on the ground, and Newhouse and center Evan Dietrich-Smith are standing in the end zone looking at the play, they got beat.
The offensive line plays too high too often, which prevents them from being physical. On fourth-and-2 at the goal line, the linemen should be like root hogs, nobody gets leverage on them. They know the snap count, get down low and root guys out. They didnít do it, they stood up. Theyíre good players, but as a group they play too high.
I understand itís the first game, and letís not overreact and all that. Remember, McCarthy places zero emphasis on winning preseason games ó after the game he talked about getting everybody in the game, getting videotape on everybody and getting nobody hurt. Goals accomplished.
But the line at least needs a stalemate to help the run game go.
Another thing you notice in the Packersí run blocking is the need to get off combo blocks better to get a piece of the linebacker. That zone run scheme starts with a double team on the tackle or end, or both. If Lang and Dietrich-Smith are blocking a tackle, whichever side the linebacker steps to, that lineman has to step off and get him. Thatís not happening consistently enough.
In the one-back formation, which is the personnel group McCarthy uses most, the running back is having trouble because the linebacker is in the gap. The first defender is the running backís responsibility to run over or around, but the line has to give the back a chance to get downfield. Theyíre getting 2 or 3 yards, thatís OK, but when Lacy is back from his injury, the guard or center can help him a lot by getting a piece of that linebacker.
O-line bright spots
Bakhtiari made his first start at left tackle, and if he can keep his hands a little higher, it looks like the rookie will be in good shape replacing Bryan Bulaga, who is out for the season. Bakhtiari has quick feet and sound technique. He gets his weight in front of his toes more than you want, but that will improve when he gets stronger. Heís a 21-year-old rookie playing against guys who have been in the weight room several years longer than he has. Big difference. The strength will come. He seems to have the things you can teach, and he has good feet.
A lineman whoís growing on me is center-guard Van Roten. The second-year pro has figured out how to snap the ball, and his feet and balance look better, heís on the ground less than Dietrich-Smith. Van Roten also is a younger guy who needs to get stronger, but if he can keep improving his technique and making the calls at the line of scrimmage, he could become a starting center down the road.
Also, the new tight end, Mulligan, is a nice run blocker, heís really good on the outside zone plays.
■ Tight end Jermichael Finley has all the talent in the world: speed, long arms, strength. He just hasnít put it all together. He had a good chance for a touchdown catch on third-and-goal from the 2 that he needs to convert. When you first watch it itís like, OK, good play by safety Rasheed Johnson to knock the ball away just as Finley was catching it. But really good tight ends step toward the ball and make the play, they use their body to shield the defender from the ball.
■ The Packersí running backs, and Franklin in particular, did a decent job picking up the blitzes. Thatís big for Franklin, he isnít a big guy but he stepped up and picked up some blitzes.
■ The secondary was torn up a little ó Davon House gave up two deep throws ó but some of that was Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, heís not bad. That 38-yard touchdown to receiver Andrew Roberts that House gave up on the far sideline, that ball couldnít have been thrown any better. Not a lot the defender can do there.
■ Third-string linebackers Terrell Manning and Sam Barrington have a chance of moving past Jamari Lattimore and Robert Francois for the backup jobs. Francois had a clean shot at a sack on backup quarterback Drew Stanton but missed it. When Barrington got his chance to shoot a gap on the goal line, he made the play. Manning and Barrington are quick, fast guys. They need to be better taking on blocks, be more physical, whereas Francois is a bigger, stronger guy. But heís not as rangy as the two young guys.
■ Andy Mulumba, an undrafted outside linebacker, has leverage and long arms. I think heís going to make the 53-man roster. Heís very good in the run game, and I think heíll come along as a pass rusher. Also, outside linebacker Nick Perry is a huge asset in the run game, there were times he caved in that side of the line.
■ If defensive lineman Johnny Jolly is going to win a job, he has to drop some weight fast and improve his endurance. He always was a player that disappeared and showed up, disappeared and showed up, but the time between disappearing and showing up is longer than in the past. He doesnít move as well as some of the younger guys.
■ You can see why they picked rookie defensive lineman Josh Boyd in the fifth round. Heís a big body, strong, can move a little. Playing at the NFL level is a tough transition, but there are times when heís explosive, and there just arenít that many large guys like him that move OK.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.