Ground Game Needed To Finish

For all the angst over the Packers’ 32nd-ranked running game, it’s worth pointing out that the rushing struggles haven’t been all that damaging with the team off to a 5-1 start. But that said, one area in which the Packers’ unreliable running game has nearly proved costly, and in which the Packers would benefit greatly from more rushing production, is at the end of games. - More Packers-Broncos Game Center


For all the angst over the Packers' 32nd-ranked running game, it's worth pointing out that the rushing struggles haven't been all that damaging with the team off to a 5-1 start.

And with one-third of the league's top nine ground games belonging to teams with records of .500 or worse (Minnesota, Oakland and this week's opponent, Denver), there's no magic to be expected if and when the running game gets going.

But that said, one area in which the Packers' unreliable running game has nearly proved costly, and in which the Packers would benefit greatly from more rushing production, is at the end of games.

In each of the Packers' last two victories, at Minnesota and vs. Washington, the offense has been on the field with the lead in the closing minutes, with a chance to pound the ball on the ground for a first down to kill the clock and seal the game.

But that hasn't been accomplished, and in both games it gave the opponent a chance it probably shouldn't have had to come back and perhaps tie or win the game. For all the times this season the offense and quarterback Brett Favre have substituted short passes and quick-hitters for running plays, closing out a victory has to be the responsibility of the running game, and the Packers need to find a way to make that work.

"Certainly for our players and our coaches it's a major source of frustration," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "You're asked to do different things at different times in the ballgame, in different situations. At that particular time you want to keep the ball from your opponent, and to do that you have to keep the clock moving, keep the ball in the field of play, and the safest way to do that is run the football.

"So yeah, it's been disappointing we haven't been able to get that done."

At Minnesota back on Sept. 30, the Vikings had just scored a touchdown to pull within 23-16, and the Packers recovered an onside kick and had the ball on the Minnesota 43-yard line with 1 minute, 55 seconds left. The Vikings had one timeout, so the Packers couldn't take a knee but needed just one first down to ice the win.

Instead it was close to a disaster. A 2-yard carry by Ryan Grant was followed by a fumbled exchange between Grant and Favre and the Vikings recovered, putting them 54 yards from the tying touchdown with 1:40 to go. Atari Bigby's interception off a deflected Kelly Holcomb pass four plays later saved the day.

Then in their last game against the Redskins, the Packers led 17-14 and got the ball on their own 42 with 2:44 left, and Washington had one timeout. But three DeShawn Wynn carries gained a total of 3 yards, and the offense punted the ball back to the Redskins with 1:13 to go.

Again, the defense came up with a key stop to preserve the win, but the offense would much rather grind out that final first down and take a knee to finish it off.

The difficulty late in those games to run the ball is certainly a reflection, if not a microcosm, of the season-long struggles.

"It's simple execution," Philbin said. "I wish I could give you a real enlightened answer, but it's guys getting the right aiming points, guys finishing blocks, guys getting better pad level on a particular block. It's all the things when we install the run game that we talk about from Day 1, and it's the basics that are not getting done in that situation very well."

{sportsad300}Perhaps adding to the frustration is that the Packers have shown the capability, at times, to run the ball late even when the rest of the day produced nothing dynamic on the ground.

In Week 2 against the Giants, the Packers led 28-13 with less than 5 minutes left and had just 47 yards rushing in the game to that point when Wynn broke off a 38-yard TD run to clinch the win.

And against the Redskins, on the possession before the one described earlier, Wynn had back-to-back runs of 5 and 6 yards to pick up a first down with just over 5 minutes to go before Favre took a shot deep down the sideline that was picked off.

The offense has had its share of injury issues at running back and on the offensive line, which will contribute to inconsistency, but no one is using that as an excuse. As Favre said back when Head Coach Mike McCarthy took over in 2006, and hinted at again on Tuesday in his weekly press conference, it's a matter of finding something to "hang your hat on" to use when the situation calls for it.

"My only thing would be to keep it simple, and not that we're not keeping it simple, but limit the amount of plays that you have, not only in the running game, but the passing game," Favre said. "Be very good at those and kind of go to bat with that. It's kind of like pitching. Don't have six different pitches, have two or three and be very good at them."

If the Packers can do that, it would certainly help their offense's chances of protecting leads late in games, and relying less on the defense. While it's not likely the league's second-ranked passing offense will undergo a major transformation at this stage of the season, an effective running game could still play that critical role.

"We've had spurts and signs of a running game, but the volume hasn't been enough and the consistency hasn't been enough," Philbin said. "It's safe to say in the running game our identity is yet to be established."

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