GREEN BAY - Sometimes it’s before the leaves turn color, sometimes after and quite a few times it’s during that Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy talks about needing to get his running backs involved more in his offense.
It was the case Monday, on a summer-like September day, that McCarthy was back where he seems to be every year, admitting he needs to run the ball more.
After two games, the Packers (1-1) rank tied with two other teams for 18th in rushing attempts per game (24), positioned just ahead of some of the worst teams in football in this very early stage of the 2016 season. The combined record of the teams behind them was 5-19 heading into the Monday night game between Chicago and Philadelphia.
In the Packers’ 17-14 loss to Minnesota on Sunday night, he trio of Eddie Lacy (12 carries for 50 yards), James Starks (seven carries for three yards) and Randall Cobb (one carry for one yard) combined for 20 rushes for 54 yards, a 2.7-yard average. The overall numbers – 23 carries for 83 yards -- were boosted because quarterback Aaron Rodgers ran three times for 29 yards and a touchdown.
“The analysis of our offense after two games, the running backs have not been given enough opportunities, so that’s something that I need to focus on,” McCarthy said. “Our perimeter players, we need to get them more opportunities too. We’re not getting the ball (for enough plays), and it really goes back to the efficiency, execution and flow of our offense.
“We’ve got to convert first downs. Frankly, our problem in the first half was we didn’t generate enough first downs. And the production reflected it. So I thought the second half we played more like we want to play.”
If you want to know how important it is to run the football, consider the results when the combination of Lacy and Starks rush at least 20 times.
Since Lacy joined the team in 2013, the Packers are 24-7-1 overall when either one or both reach that mark, including an impressive 12-1 on the road. When the two combine for less than 20, the Packers are 8-13.
Of course, teams that are ahead tend to run the ball more, so no 20-rush game is the same as another, just like no sub-20-rush game is like another.
But the way Rodgers and the passing game have looked since the start of last season, it seems logical that McCarthy needs to take pressure off them with his 1-2 punch at running back.
It almost seemed Sunday night that McCarthy and Rodgers were trying to open up the run game with long passes instead of the other way around.
“Big-play production is a necessity to win in the National Football League,” McCarthy said. “We treat it as fundamental. That was one of the emphases we made for the second half. As far as throwing the ball down the field we had some opportunities, we weren’t as efficient as we’d like to be.”
McCarthy and Rodgers are partners in determining what plays are run. McCarthy sends them in from the sideline and Rodgers often has an option to change it to a better play based on what the defense is doing.
In the first half of the Vikings game, Lacy and Starks combined for seven carries for 18 yards, which didn't instill a ton of confidence in the run game. Still, it helped create manageable third downs of five, two and four yards and each time Rodgers went for the home run.
Once he threw over receiver Jordy Nelson’s head down the left sideline, once he gained a pass interference call that set up the first touchdown and once he threw incomplete down the sideline to rookie receiver Trevor Davis.
It’s not so much that Rodgers needed to run the ball on those downs, but he needed easy first downs so Lacy could keep pounding the Vikings' defense.
“How we want to play is a focus that we need to do a better job of moving forward,” McCarthy said. “I think when you look at how you lay out a game and how it unfolds, we’ve played in two games now (and) I think the Jacksonville game definitely getting behind, particularly in the time of possession in the first half, we had to play a little differently than we wanted to going into the game.
“Really, our inefficiency on third down this past game in the first half got us a little behind, and we went to some more basic things there in the second half.”
To open up the third quarter, McCarthy lined up with double tight ends and let Lacy pound the ball for nine yards. He ran it again on second down and Lacy gained foue, but tight end Richard Rodgers negated the latter with a dumb holding penalty that made it second and 11 instead of first and 10.
Rodgers threw deep again on second down and on third down tight end Jared Cook made the egregious error of losing yardage after already having crossed the first down marker after a catch. From that point until a critical fourth and 2 at the Minnesota 14 with 5 minutes, 4 seconds left in the third quarter, Lacy carried just twice for 11 yards.
“Obviously I think we have a goal to get rushes in, but there’s always things,” center JC Tretter said. “It’s easy to say, but game flow, every game is different. So you can go in wanting to run the ball or wanting to get a certain amount of attempts, but all of a sudden you fall behind or things like that, they stack the box.
“Then all of a sudden those numbers, you don’t want to stick to them because then you’re not doing what’s best for the team. All that stuff changes.”
When Starks got the ball on the ill-fated fourth and 2, he had carried just once. It would be hard to say either him or Lacy had worked up the kind of lather that sometimes allows a back to get a first down when there isn’t a hole.
Asked if Starks made the right read on the play, Bennett said, “We had an opportunity. But unfortunately, we just didn’t convert.”
As for the next game, the home opener against Detroit, McCarthy and Bennett said they’re not going to forget Lacy and Starks.
“We do have a plan in place,” Bennett said. “We feel like Eddie and James, they’re a tremendous 1-2 combo and we definitely need to get those guys more involved. We have a plan in place and it will work itself out.”
Staff writer Michael Cohen contributed to this story.