Stubborn Packers cling to running game

Ryan Wood
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Green Bay Packers' James Starks (44) takes the hand off from Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers (12) Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They fancy themselves a balanced offense. The Green Bay Packers will run the football, come hell or high water, because that’s what the Packers do.

So when they marched out for Sunday’s opening possession — gifted to them at the Tennessee Titans’ 49-yard line after an unsuccessful onside kick — old habits took root. The Packers lined up in their traditional three-receiver, one-running back formation.

Because that’s what Mike McCarthy’s offense does.

James Starks ran twice into the offensive line, three yards apiece. Aaron Rodgers missed a wide-open Randall Cobb on third down. A long day started with an embarrassing three-and-out.

“It’s the first drive of the game,” receiver Davante Adams said. “You can’t say anything about that having anything to do with the rest of that game. It doesn’t matter if something happened in the fourth quarter. If there’s still time on the clock, then we have time to fix it. We just didn’t do that."

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Adams is right, technically. The Packers' 47-25 loss to the Titans at Nissan Stadium had nothing to do with that initial three-and-out. Their offense was actually the bright spot on this day, which isn’t saying much.

This was a blowout. A fundamental collapse in all three phases. But there was a time when it was winnable.

In the first quarter, the Packers' offense didn’t merely serve as a bystander, watching the Titans beat their defense without mercy. Nine games into the season, they had an identity crisis.

The Packers ran traditional handoffs five times on their first 12 plays. Their first three drives yielded three punts, and only one first down. By the time the Titans led 21-0, the Packers had just 15 yards.

They finished with 402 yards.

No, this wasn’t a case of the Titans going into a prevent defense. Not this early. Facing a three-touchdown deficit after three quick possessions, the Packers ditched their original game plan.

“We were way behind today,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t really run the offense that we prepared to run. When the score gets to the position it was today ...”

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When the score gets to the position it was Sunday, it gives the Packers no choice.

Starting with their fourth possession, the Packers were a different offense. They called eight pass plays and two traditional handoffs on that fourth drive, marching 75 yards in a little more than four minutes. The drive ended with Rodgers finding receiver Jordy Nelson for a touchdown from the half-yard line.

From there, the Packers' offense had a decent day. The Packers outgained the Titans 376-215 over the final three quarters. After starting the game with two three-and-outs in their initial three possessions, the Packers had only three full drives end without a first down the rest of the game.

Backs against the wall, the Packers changed their entire offensive approach. After their first three possessions, they were forced to quit striving for balance.

The result: 58 pass calls and seven handoffs over the final 10 drives.

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Rodgers finished 31-for-51 with 371 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Packers had a pair of 100-yard receivers with Adams (six catches, 156 yards) and Nelson (12 catches, 126 yards).

“You have a game plan each and every week,” McCarthy said. “The way the game goes dictates the way it goes. So we went to probably, I’d say, second quarter, more exclusive the no-huddle. We don’t want to play that way.”

They don’t want to play that way, but it’s been the best version of this offense. This was what worked in the second half against Chicago. This was how they scored 33 points against the Atlanta Falcons. This was how they almost pulled themselves back into the game late vs. Indianapolis.

“I think we can do multiple things,” Nelson said. “I think we’ve got talent across the board. I think we can run the ball, especially now that we’re getting some depth back at running back. I think we can throw the ball, especially with our quarterback. We have depth across the board and anyone out there can make the plays.”

Only they can’t run. That didn’t change Sunday with Starks’ return from knee surgery. The lone tailback activated on their game-day roster finished with seven carries for 33 yards, a healthy 4.7-yard average.

Yet the Packers entered Sunday ranked 19th in the league with 106.6 rushing yards per game, production inflated by Eddie Lacy’s solid start. Lacy is now on injured reserve. Their second-highest rusher? Rodgers with 226 yards.

Perhaps most telling, Rodgers is the only Packers player with a rushing touchdown.

“Just kind of the way it goes this year, unfortunately,” Rodgers said. “But we’ll figure that out.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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