Green Bay Packers running back DuJuan Harris (26) struggles to find room in a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
The running-game performance in Friday’s 17-10 loss to Seattle didn’t go far to inspire confidence, but the Green Bay Packers aren’t scrapping their plan to establish a revitalized rushing offense in 2013.
The Packers’ revamped backfield took a step back against a formidable Seahawks’ front line by combining for 32 yards on 18 carries against the toughest run defense it’s seen this preseason.
Not counting a lateral pass to Eddie Lacy that went for minus-6 yards, DuJuan Harris, Lacy and fullback John Kuhn combined for only six yards on 11 carries running behind the first-team offensive line.
Packers’ players and coaches were quick to caution following Monday’s practice that it’s still the preseason and summer stat sheets don’t go far in determining December outcomes.
However, the quiet performance served as a lesson that there are no short cuts for rewiring a running game that finished 20th in the NFL in total rushing in 2012 and hasn’t averaged 4.0-yards per carry as a unit since 2010.
“I think if you would’ve asked anyone on the offensive side, we have to run the ball better,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “They didn’t do a good enough job upfront lead blocking as fullbacks. We have to clean that up and be more physical up front and move some people out of the way.”
Backs need help
By the looks of it, the selection of Alabama’s Lacy in the second round of April’s draft was a good first step, but even his swelling expectations were tempered against a strong Seahawks’ defensive front that played into the third quarter.
After establishing himself with an eight-carry, 40-yard performance in a 19-7 win over St. Louis two weeks ago, Lacy struggled to find daylight en route to finishing with eight carries for minus-five yards. His final six carries all went for zero or negative yardage.
Lacy’s best run came on his first carry when he followed left tackle David Bakhtiari’s pancake block for 11 yards before referees whistled the 21-year-old rookie for holding on what looked to be a clean effort against Seattle linebacker O’Brien Schofield.
In team meetings this week, Bakhtiari said the coaching staff threw out the play instead of slapping it with a traditional plus or minus grade, but offensive line coach James Campen said the play stands as another learning opportunity for Bakhtiari and the rest of the offensive line.
“There’s always different ways of looking at it,” Campen said. “They called the penalty; what could he have done differently to avoid that type of thing? You’re already driving a guy back, release your hand. There’s something always to learn from that. From that standpoint, that’s a technique, too. Release your hand, he was clearly in front of him, but the guy is going down, there was no reason to have two on him. Release your hand and keep going. He can improve on that.”
Injuries a factor
Starters right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Don Barclay had mixed emotions following Friday’s showing, but nobody’s tossing out McCarthy’s manuscript for building a respectable run game to complement one of the league’s most-prolific passing offenses.
The challenge of doing so grew in difficulty when a fundamental element of that plan, fourth-year tackle Bryan Bulaga, tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the Packers’ annual Family Night scrimmage earlier this month. He’ll miss the entire season.
If that weren’t enough, Harris was sidelined throughout the entire offseason program and first month of camp with a knee injury that he aggravated in Friday’s game. He’s currently getting a second opinion, according to McCarthy.
For the time being, that means the Packers are back to square one with rookie backs Lacy and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin, and returning contributors Alex Green and James Starks, who played only four snaps against the Seahawks.
It’s uncertain if both veterans will survive the week with roster cuts looming — a mandatory reduction to 75 players Tuesday and 53 by Saturday — but Green has pushed ahead of all rushers this preseason with 14 carries for 62 yards following a 31-yard gain on a fourth-quarter pitch out against the Seahawks.
Meanwhile, Franklin has admitted to pressing and not being patient enough during his own sluggish start (13 carries for 24 yards). Lacy’s average per carry dropped to 2.2 yards (16 rushes for 35 yards) since returning from a hamstring injury.
Although the Packers are rushing for only 3.1-yards per carry in the preseason — the second fewest average in the league — there’s still more than what meets the eye from Van Pelt’s point of view.
“You have to be able to be effective to do it rather than running into the wall,” Van Pelt said. “Never to make an excuse, but these preseason games we’re looking at scheme and not scheming the defense. We’re looking at what we do. A lot of the stuff isn’t maybe what you will see in the regular season. We’re evaluating guys with basic schemes right now. We’re really not trying to game plan a defense. Hopefully, that will improve.”
Gearing up for 49ers
The three veterans of the Packers’ offensive line — left guard Josh Sitton, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and Lang — likely will see only a series or two Thursday against Kansas City, but competing tackles Bakhtiari, Barclay and Marshall Newhouse could be in line for a full helping of snaps.
Whatever plays out, both the offensive line and running back rooms understand how important it will be to develop a more consistent ground attack than last year, when the Packers failed to generate a 500-yard rusher for the first time since 1998.
There’s bound to be challenges with Bulaga’s and Harris’ injuries at the top of the list, but the Packers still feel like they have some tricks to unveil with less than two weeks until the regular-season opener against San Francisco.
“I don’t think we’re too concerned,” Bakhtiari said. “We watched the film. It was just missed keys on the offensive line and with the running backs. We weren’t always on the right page. We’d have a good open hole on the front side and they’d be cutting back, and sometimes the front side wasn’t open at all and we’d want them cutting back when they’re trying to press front side.
“It’s just kind of meshing and getting more run plays in and feeling more comfortable and cohesive. I’m really not too worried.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.