Ground Game Making Progress


The Green Bay Packers haven't cured all the ills of their ground game yet, but the rushing attack is definitely coming around.

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin often looks at the number of negative yardage plays and the number of explosive gains to assess just where the ground game is. Which makes sense, because after all, an average of 4 yards per carry rarely if ever means a team is getting 4 yards every time it runs the ball. But if a team is getting enough explosive runs to offset the forgettable plays, the rushing average will reflect it.

Three weeks ago, the Packers' ground game was somewhat stagnant. Against the Dallas Cowboys, the offense rushed for a respectable 84 yards on 21 carries but didn't have a gain of 10 yards or longer, nor a negative rush. That meant things were about to head one direction or the other - the running backs were on the verge of busting loose, or defenses were going to start crashing gaps and stuffing the run.

Unfortunately, the latter happened in Week 4 at Tampa Bay. The Packers didn't record a single explosive run for the second week in a row (8 yards was the game long), but seven of Ryan Grant's carries went for zero or negative yards. Brandon Jackson's lone carry also went for zero, so exactly half (8-of-16) of the two primary backs' attempts produced a debilitating minus-9 yards.

But that trend started to turn around last week against Atlanta. In 18 carries, Grant had just one negative play but had three explosive gains of 12, 14 and 13 yards. He and Jackson also added runs of 9 yards apiece.

With the ratio of explosive gains to negative plays finally in the Packers' favor, it's the best sign yet that the ground game can be counted on to produce sooner rather than later.

"Obviously there was a lot of progress made but we're not hitting on all eight cylinders, so to speak," Philbin said. "There was better movement at the point of attack, there was better blocking at the second level, and we thought (Grant) was able to press his aiming point a little better, so he looked like he was playing a little faster.

"There were certainly some signs of progress, yet we're still a long way from being where we hope to be."

One key factor is that Grant continues to get healthier by the week. Battling hamstring trouble since training camp, Grant said after Wednesday's practice this week that this is the best he's felt as far as his speed and burst through the hole.

Couple that with the fact that the Packers hope Sunday's game in Seattle will be the third straight they have their offensive line from 2007 intact - with Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton at the tackle spots, Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge at the guards, and Scott Wells at center - and there's reason to think the needed continuity is around the corner.

Wells didn't start until Week 4 because of a back problem, while Clifton is now having hamstring problems of his own but is expected to play. Also, fullback Korey Hall, who hasn't played since injuring his knee in Week 2, is expected to return to the lineup. John Kuhn has filled in adequately for Hall, but if both are healthy, the Packers might be able to run more of their full-house backfield, with both fullback split wide in front of Grant, which was so successful a year ago.

"We're feeling more comfortable," Grant said. "We didn't have as many reps as people might have wanted, but (last week) I know the line felt like they were getting into kind of a rhythm, and I felt like I was getting in a rhythm. But we need to get even better collectively as a group."

If they can be, it should only help the offense's play-action game. A perfect example of that came last week in the second quarter on back-to-back third-and-short calls.

With the Packers down 10-0 and facing third-and-3 on their own 20, Jackson ran around right end for 9 yards and a first down. Then, five plays later, on third-and-1 from the Atlanta 44, the Falcons had to respect the run and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to run play-action and hit Donald Driver over the top for a touchdown.

{sportsad300}"Everything kind of works together," Philbin said. "The better you're able to run the football, the more they may have to commit somebody else to stopping the run, which obviously gives your perimeter guys opportunities on the outside. It helps the offensive balance.

"When you have two dimensions to defend, you're giving the defense that much more to think about. Your play-calling is easier, your down-and-distance situations are a little bit easier when you're running the ball well. It's a big part of it."

The Packers had their best rushing game of the Mike McCarthy era against Seattle last season in the playoffs, when they posted 235 yards on the ground, including a franchise playoff record 201 from Grant. But that doesn't necessarily mean another big game on the ground is in the offing.

The Seahawks surely have studied that film from last January, and their defense was struggling on a snow-slicked field that day, whereas they'll be on their home turf with their crowd doing all it can to disrupt the Packers offense on Sunday.

In the end, the ground game will come down to what it does every week - limiting the negative plays, and getting the explosive gain when it's there. And with each attempt, there's a fine line between production and frustration.

"It's a matter of everybody going out every play and executing the way they're supposed to," Hall said. "When everybody does their job, the play works the way it's supposed to. All it takes is one person not doing their job, and we don't have a running game at all."

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