Packers look for answers in running game
Too many drops, too few rushing yards and a decent showing in pass protection.
Those were the three bullet points the Green Bay Packers' coaching staff jotted down after spending their Monday morning picking up the pieces from Sunday's 19-7 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
Three weeks into the season, the negatives have outweighed the positives for the NFL's 28th-ranked offense. Although the Packers have bounced back from 1-2 starts to make the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, last year's offense was third in the NFL total yards and 10th in rushing yards after their first three games.
On Sunday, Packers coach Mike McCarthy made it a point to establish the ground game against Detroit, but admitted it might have come with a cost as quarterback Aaron Rodgers (16-of-27 for 162 yards and a touchdown) finished with only 15 fewer passing attempts than last week's 31-24 win over the New York Jets.
Meanwhile, Eddie Lacy and the Packers' rushing offense settled for 77 yards on 26 carries.
"Obviously we went into the game wanting to be balanced," McCarthy said Monday. "And obviously the angles and the way their defense played, the production in the run game was clearly execution. The ability to attack any coverage, particularly with Aaron, the only correction I would make as a play-caller is, 'Do you go to it sooner as far as just attacking their coverage, attacking their two-deep?' Once again, we have good players. We didn't play very well in the run game, and it definitely factored in the game."
The inconsistency of the run and pass games have been equally perplexing. The weapons are misfiring. Lacy is averaging 3.1 yards per carry and No. 2 receiver Randall Cobb is off to a slow start. Jordy Nelson actually has more receiving yards (351) than the rest of the team combined (346).
Even Rodgers was off his game Sunday in underthrowing a fourth-and-5 slant to Nelson with the game hanging in the balance. His 697 passing yards through three games is the fewest of his seven years as a starter.
McCarthy believes the road to correction begins with righting a running game that's averaged only 78.7 yards per game so far this season, good for 27th in the NFL and nearly 60 yards per game off last year's pace.
Lacy, the NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year, took ownership for the team's backfield struggles following his 11-carry, 36-yard performance. McCarthy wasn't handing out Week 3 report cards, but he made his point clear Monday.
"Eddie needs to play better," McCarthy said. "Am I'm not going to do this anymore. I don't correct individuals in the media. We've seen the film, corrections have been made, our running game wasn't nearly what it needed to be. Not even close."
The Lions kept two safeties back to take away Nelson's deep threat and challenged the Packers to run against the same defensive front that held Lacy to 16 yards on 10 carries in last Thanksgiving 40-10 blowout.
After Lacy fumbled on his second carry, the Packers nearly split reps down the middle between him and James Starks, who's averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season.
Starks' eight carries for 38 yards actually led the Packers in rushing for the second time in three weeks, though offensive coordinator Tom Clements said it wasn't an emphasis to incorporate the veteran more this week after he didn't receive a carry against the Jets.
Regardless of who's in the backfield, the Packers must eliminate negative plays. Lacy lost 2 yards on his first carry of the second half when right tackle Bryan Bulaga was driven back by Lions defensive end Jason Jones, who also blew up tight end Richard Rodgers' block en route to a safety in the second quarter.
With the Packers trailing 19-7 with less than 8 minutes left, Lacy tried turning an inside draw to the left side on second-and-1 only to be taken down by Lions defensive George Johnson for a 4-yard loss. It was Lacy's final carry as the drive stalled two plays later following back-to-back Rodgers incompletions.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers rushed for 17 yards on nine carries outside of the tackles.
"Well, we obviously didn't play as well as we needed to play," Clements said. "In the run game, we missed some holes. There were some holes there, and we need to finish better. You can't start the game the way we started off."
Despite the ground struggles, the Packers actually felt pretty good about their pass protection. Rodgers was sacked twice, but Pro Football Focus credited the offensive line for allowing a manageable four hurries with an allowed sack.
On the perimeter, the Packers' receivers weren't as fortunate. McCarthy, Clements and Nelson also said the receivers dropped six passes Sunday, though Pro Football Focus hit them for only five.
Two belonged to Cobb, who called his performance "embarrassing" in the postgame locker room. Two others went to Boykin and another to Starks off a botched check down in the first quarter.
After watching the no-huddle sputter, Rodgers told reporters after the game he didn't think the offense made enough adjustments. McCarthy didn't expound on theory but said the offense must take what the defense is providing.
On Sunday, it was rushing yards that never found their way into the game book.
"The fundamentals and the things we do from an execution standpoint were not good enough, clearly, on offense," McCarthy said. "He's in a best-play available mindset, not on every single play. But let's be honest, if you have a run and they're playing two-deep, you should be running the ball. I think that's elementary football there. The decision to attack two-deep shell defenses really comes from the boundary in the passing game."
The Packers understand they'll probably see more Cover-2 looks, possibly as early as Sunday's next NFC North game in Chicago. To solve it, the offense either will have to run out of it like in 2013 or pass over it like 2012.
The team hasn't lost faith in the supporting cast, though. James Jones and Jermichael Finley might not be in the locker room anymore, but the Packers still feel they have the weaponry needed to get the offense back on track.
"We have plenty of talent on this team," Nelson said. "We believe in one another. We know they can make plays. They'll get another opportunity this week to improve and to go out there and play. We have the guys to do it. A lot of them are the same ones from last year that did it. We just have to go out there and perform to our ability."
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