Silverstein: Packers can make statement by running down Seahawks

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) breaks into the clear on a long run against the Miami Dolphins at Lambeau Field Sunday, November 11, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis. Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wis

SEATTLE - Mike Sherman’s legacy with the Green Bay Packers might be that he couldn’t win a Super Bowl with quarterback Brett Favre still in his prime, but as an offensive head coach with a master’s degree in West Coast philosophy, he left more than fourth-and-26 behind him.

In fact, if his successor, Mike McCarthy, wants to remove the aura of invincibility the Seattle Seahawks seem to have when it comes to playing the Packers at CenturyLink Field, he might want to draw from Sherman’s game plan that helped his 2003 team turn its season around.

Here’s what Sherman was facing going into a do-or-die meeting with the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome that season:

Starting with the arrival of Mike Holmgren in 1992, the Packers had gone 1-7 in what was then the loudest venue in the National Football League. Holmgren used to say that there were ghosts inside the dome that made his team fall on its face even in the best of times.

Sherman was on Holmgren’s staff for some of those losses, but on Dec. 17, 2000, he broke a two-game Packers losing streak at the Metrodome with a 33-28 victory. Favre was dominant, completing 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

Just as importantly, however, was that running back Ahman Green carried 25 times for 161 yards. Most of that yardage came while the Packers were in the lead, but Sherman never forgot what Green was able to accomplish that day.

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After losing at the Metrodome in ’01 and ’02, Sherman’s ’03 team headed back desperately needing a victory. The Packers had lost two straight to fall to 3-4 and had to figure out a way to beat the Vikings on the road or kiss their season goodbye. With a bye week giving him more time to draw up a game plan, Sherman decided to put the game on his offensive line’s back.

He had a pretty good unit with Chad Clifton at left tackle, Mike Wahle at left guard, Mike Flanagan at center, Marco Rivera at right guard and Mark Tauscher at right tackle. During the week, he had the first-string offense and second-string defense go at it in pads during an extended short-yardage period to prepare the line for a run-oriented plan.

Sherman wound up running the ball 34 times against the Vikings, and led by a trio of backs — Green (21 carries for 137 yards), Najeh Davenport (six for 43) and Tony Fisher (four for 38) — the Packers ran for 264 yards. With each first down they gained, the crowd and the Vikings’ pass rush became less of a factor.

Favre completed 18 of 28 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

The Packers won, 30-27, improved to 4-4 and went 6-2 the rest of the way to win the division. Their season ended in Philadelphia with fourth-and-26 after Sherman forgot what got him there and decided to punt late in the game rather than go all-in with his offensive line and run on fourth-and-1 near midfield.

McCarthy’s team enters its game against the Seahawks with a 4-4-1 record. All the victories have occurred at home and it too is facing a critical midseason game in the loudest venue in the NFL.

Just like the Metrodome was Holmgren’s house of horrors, CenturyLink has been cruel to McCarthy. He is 1-3 there, including the blown NFC Championship game during the ’14 season and the “Fail Mary” loss in ’12 that cost the Packers a playoff bye and allowed the San Francisco 49ers an extra week to install their read-option surprise attack in the divisional playoff round.

Crazy things have happened there — albeit many of them were self-inflicted and preventable — and if you don’t go in trying to turn the game into a battle of wills instead of a battle of skills, you’re probably going to continue down the same path.

Just like Sherman did 15 years ago, McCarthy should put his trust in his offensive line and one of the hottest runners in the NFL, Aaron Jones. And while he’s at it, convince quarterback Aaron Rodgers that his life will be a lot better if the Packers are running the ball more than passing it.

It has been generally assumed that the Packers’ offensive line is better at pass blocking then run blocking, but can anyone say that unequivocally without seeing the Packers run the ball more?

“Our job is to protect the highest-paid guy in the league,” tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “We understand that. To take pressure off him, we need to be able to run the football, do it effectively.

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“I think this year we’ve shown we can do that. We get our opportunities, we’ve got to make the most out of it.”

Opportunities is the operative word.

There’s a danger McCarthy will get snookered into believing he can throw the ball against the Seahawks after watching the Rams, Lions and Broncos put up nice passing numbers. Everyone thinks they can pass against the Seahawks because they play the same coverage down after down, have young cornerbacks and are missing all-world safety Earl Thomas.

But even with the Seahawks consistently playing a safety in the box and possessing one of the best inside linebackers in the game in Bobby Wagner, teams have been successful running on them.

They rank tied for 18th in rushing yards allowed, which isn’t horrible, but they’ve allowed 140 or more yards rushing in five games this season. They rank 29th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (5.0) and are allowing an average of 5.39 yards per carry on first and 10.

More so, this is about the Packers building on their 195-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance against Miami. It was the sixth time this season they’ve topped the 100-yard mark rushing but remarkably the backs finished with fewer than 20 carries, the sixth time this season that has occurred.

It’s almost unfathomable that the Packers rank first in the NFL in yards per carry (5.2) and 27th in average rushes per game (22.3).

If they really want to make a statement Thursday night that they’re more than a one-man offense, they should line up and run the ball against the Seahawks even when the numbers say they shouldn’t. Jones seems to get better with each game he runs behind an offensive line that has had all five starters present most of the season and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to improve.

“The more you do something the better you should get at it, correct?” offensive line coach James Campen said last week.

Whether it means playing Marcedes Lewis more or inserting guard Justin McCray as a blocking tight end from time to time or playing with Lance Kendricks at fullback on every first down, this is the time for McCarthy play to his strength.

Rodgers will get his opportunity to save the day again. But this week it’s someone else’s turn.

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