The Green Bay Packers' on-again, off-again running game appears to be off again, and the most distressing part about it is the struggles in the ground game trickled down to the rest of the offense in last Sunday's loss at Tampa Bay.
The Packers posted just 28 yards rushing against the Buccaneers, the lowest in Mike McCarthy's 36 regular-season games as head coach. The total matched the output in the NFC Championship loss last January to the New York Giants, but with four more attempts (18 at Tampa, 14 vs. NYG).
The struggles have many wondering whether the Packers are back to where they were in the early going last year, when they ranked last in the league in rushing through the season's first 10 weeks.
The situation isn't that dire - the Packers rank nine spots higher than last year at this time, and have a per-carry average of 3.9 yards versus the 2.7 mark through four games in 2007, mostly thanks to productive rushing games the first two weeks (139 yards vs. Minnesota, 123 at Detroit). But offensive coordinator Joe Philbin did say it's similar to last year in that it's not one simple issue that needs fixing.
"There's universal problems," Philbin said. "There have been some execution problems up front, there have been a couple decisions by the running backs we felt could be better, there's blocking on the perimeter.
"As always, we say if it was just one person, we could make a real quick switch and we'd be all set and off and running. But it's a cumulative thing. Everybody plays a part, all 11 guys."
There's no doubt injuries have contributed, but no one is using them as an excuse. Starting halfback Ryan Grant has battled a balky hamstring since training camp, while preseason injuries to Josh Sitton and Scott Wells created constant shuffling on the offensive line.
Sunday's game at Tampa was the first time the Packers used the same line that was employed most of last season, with Wells at center and Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz at left and right guard, respectively. And it appears even though Sitton, a preseason starter at right guard before going down with a knee injury, is on the mend, the Packers may stick with the current group for now.
"Personnel changes is really not on my mindset right now," McCarthy said. "I'm more focused on the meeting (Monday) and make sure they clearly understand exactly what went wrong and what we need to do to fix it. It's not about changing parts. It's about getting the parts cleaned up and working in a better fashion."
What really bogged down the Packers at Tampa, where they posted just 181 yards and eight first downs on offense, was that the breakdowns in the running game with Grant seemed to carry over to the rest of the offense.
Contrast that two Week 2 at Detroit, when Grant posted the same numbers - 15 carries for 20 yards - that he did in Tampa.
Against the Lions, fellow running backs Brandon Jackson and Kregg Lumpkin offered effective change-ups, each busting runs of 19 yards and combining for 80 yards on eight carries. Meanwhile quarterback Aaron Rodgers was having a field day through the air, throwing for 328 yards and three TDs while getting sacked just once in 38 pass attempts.
But that compensation elsewhere wasn't to be found against the Buccaneers. Credit their defense, which continues to be one of the better units in the league, but in addition to the ground game struggles - Grant had just one carry for positive yardage over the final three quarters - the Packers also had trouble protecting Rodgers (three sacks and six QB hits), and everything seemed out of sync.
There was a cumulative effect that didn't allow the Packers to establish any kind of rhythm running or throwing the ball.
"When it rains it pours," Philbin said. "Sometimes when you have a negative play in the running game, then all of a sudden in pass protection you may have one mistake or miscue there and all of a sudden the quarterback maybe doesn't feel quite as safe sitting in that pocket, and he's feeling things that maybe aren't there on occasion.
"Unforced errors multiply sometimes. You can create some of your own problems. I think that's kind of what happened (Sunday), but we have to battle through that better. I don't think it's at the panic stage, or, 'Oh my gosh, we can't do anything.' We've got good players, and we have to get them to play better."
The Packers know they can. Rodgers, for instance, has been sacked eight times in the last two games. The Packers allowed just 19 sacks in 16 games a year ago despite the fact the ground game didn't get going until midway through the season.
"Anytime you can get the quarterback pretty much running for his life, you're in a bad spot," receiver Greg Jennings said. "Your back is kind of up against the wall. That's when mental mistakes happen. False starts, holding, guys trying to press through. It's all about execution and fundamentals, and that's across the board."
The hope is that if the offense can get the ground game going, the reverse of the current cumulative effect will occur. Get the ground game in sync, and the Packers can control the line of scrimmage and truly get into an offensive rhythm.
To get that to happen, McCarthy is going to focus a portion of the practice week on fundamentals, with the expectation those fundamentals (and hence fewer missed assignments and penalties) will show up on Sunday.
"It's nothing that can't be fixed," McCarthy said. "Their pads were lower than ours.
"Our footwork needs to be better. Our finish needs to be better. They did a better job of that than we did, and we need to go back and rep it and spend a little more time in pads and individual work this week than we have the last two weeks, and that's how we'll go about it."