Compass points Packers toward ground game

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers' Eddie Lacy raises his helmet in victory against the Dallas Cowboys.

The frustration was evident in Aaron Rodgers’ voice shortly after the Green Bay Packers’ 30-20 win over Oakland on Sunday.

As Packers coach Mike McCarthy tried to emphasize the positives – including another 10-win season – his quarterback didn’t mince words about the offense’s persistent struggles when Rodgers said, “We just don't really have a clear-cut direction.”

On Wednesday, Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy sounded more on the same page when reflecting on a narrow win over the Raiders, which required 14 points from the defense and a litany of second-half adjustments to hold on for the Packers’ third consecutive win.

Rodgers wasn’t alone in his opinion. Several players, including right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, acknowledged how frustrating the start-and-stop offense has been this season. McCarthy also could sense it in talking with his coaching staff.

McCarthy understands how high the bar is in Green Bay, especially after the Packers came within five minutes of the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl appearance last year. This week, his message to the team was to remember it's 10-4 for a reason.

“There was a sense of we really didn't play as well as we're capable of playing,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, Aaron is definitely at the forefront of that being our quarterback and what he’s accomplished in the past. So, my understanding is he didn’t feel very good about the way the game went, but I think to a man we all kind of felt that way. The fact is winning is very difficult in this league. I’m never going to apologize for it.”

McCarthy points to a trying schedule, which began last month when the Packers played three NFC North games in 12 days and four games in 19 from Nov. 15-Dec. 4. Still, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact the Packers’ offense hasn’t been itself all year.

It culminated in McCarthy taking over the offensive play calling from associate head coach Tom Clements two weeks ago. There already are noticeable differences in the team's game planning, with fullback John Kuhn and receiver Jared Abbrederis taking on larger roles in the offense.

The running game – a three-headed monster of Eddie Lacy, James Starks and even Randall Cobb – has produced 100 yards in each of the last two games. With receivers’ inability to get open, it’s looking more and more like the key to a lengthy postseason run will come through the Packers’ backfield.

Left guard Josh Sitton believes the “formula for success” and finding consistency on offense is getting the featured back 20 carries and the next guy getting 10. That was the blueprint when the Packers put up 230 rushing yards in a 28-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago.

Oakland tried to slow down Green Bay’s running game by loading the box Sunday and keeping one safety high. The Packers weren’t able to run or throw out of it until they put Cobb in the backfield with Kuhn and brought Abbrederis into the slot.

Despite having only nine carries for 29 yards in the first half, the Packers stayed committed to the ground game and finished with a respectable 28 carries for 103 yards.

“Their main goal was to stop the run and they put us in jam fronts and base fronts pretty much the entire game,” Sitton said. “It was tough sledding. I think if you look at our numbers, they’re probably a little better than you might think. I think Randall averaged over four yards a carry and James averaged over five yards a carry. I think it was a little bit better than it may have looked.”

Rodgers had more optimism in his voice when discussing the offense Wednesday, though his work still might be cut out for him the rest of the season unless his receivers start getting open. The Packers recently have dusted off a couple of old tricks, including more play-action passes and back-shoulder throws, to gain rhythm.

What will it take to develop a clear direction? Rodgers points toward consistency and doing a better job of converting third downs. The Packers are 24th in third-down conversions (36 percent). Their next opponent, Arizona, leads the NFL at 47 percent.

“I think we have a couple of games to continue to iron it out,” Rodgers said. “A couple of weeks ago we had a great game running the football and then this last week we didn’t run the ball as well. I think the key to having that direction is to be more consistent with that balance. I think we have the opportunity to have great balance with the two backs we’ve got and our line probably more than ever this year than years past. It’s just finding ways to convert those third downs and give us some opportunities to have that balance.”

As much as the team was tested midseason, the Packers still have everything in front of them. A win over the Cardinals (12-2) would keep their chances at a first-round bye alive and help them clinch the NFC North should Minnesota (9-5) fall to the New York Giants on Sunday.

“The expectations around here are what they are. We all understand that,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had a lot of success around here. It’s become the norm, but that’s why you have to be on top of … the bottom line is, you have to win. Now, if you’re into style points, fine. I will just stay true to the video. That’s why you have to come in and take the emotion out of professional decisions and keep plowing forward. This is a tough gig, especially in December.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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