BY NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Even the Green Bay Packers recognize their running game is sluggish.
It’s not that they don’t want to run. Despite having Aaron Rodgers and his seemingly endless options at receiver, the Packers doggedly cling to the idea of a balanced offense, handing it off about 25 times per game.
They just don’t have much, if anything, to show for it.
“You don’t want teams just to commit to the passing game. You’ve got to get respect in the running game,” tight end Jermichael Finley said Thursday. “Right now, we’re doing an OK job, under average. So we’ve got to pick it up.”
The Packers (5-3) are averaging a measly 3.7 yards per carry, with only Dallas, Arizona and New Orleans worse in the NFC.
Their two rushing touchdowns are tied for fewest in the NFL. Not only have they not had a 100-yard rusher in, well, pretty much forever, they haven’t had anyone come close since workhorse running back Cedric Benson went out with a foot injury in the fifth game of the season.
In fact, the entire team has cracked the century mark in yards rushing just three times this year, and not since Oct. 7 in Indianapolis.
“We just have to be more consistent,” offensive guard Josh Sitton said. “Sometimes, we’re creating holes and they’re not hitting them. Sometimes, we’re just getting stuffed in the middle. It’s a group effort and it hasn’t been as consistent as it needs to be.”
Now, with a quarterback like Rodgers, some might wonder why the Packers even bother with a ground game. After all, when the Miami Dolphins had Dan Marino, they ran the ball about as often as it snows in South Beach and that worked out pretty well for them.
Rodgers ranks second in the NFL in both completion rate (69 percent) and passer rating (107.9), and is fourth in passing yardage (2,165 yards) and interception percentage (1.35).
He has 18 touchdowns in the last five weeks alone, more than 15 teams – yes, you read that right, 15 – have managed over the entire season.
“When you’ve got a quarterback like that, who I think is one of the best in the NFL, who can – regardless of what you’re doing, he can put the ball in places that are hard to defend,” said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose Cardinals visit Green Bay on Sunday.
But defenses have evolved since Marino’s playing days, becoming more and more specialized, and teams can’t afford to be one-dimensional. If all Rodgers and the Packers do is throw the ball, it’s a no-brainer for opposing defenses to throw extra bodies into the secondary. Being able to mix it up keeps defenses off guard, allows the Packers to open up their playbook a little more.
“It would take some of the pressure off of the passing game if we could have a little more balance there in the run game and just be a little more effective, put us in better down-and-distances there on second and third downs,” Rodgers said. “Now some defenses will come in and play what they want to play, but you’ve seen a couple times teams that just sat back in cover-2 and have been able to stop us with their front four, six and seven. So we have to do a better job of running the ball when we get those clean looks.”
And because the Packers play in Green Bay, there’s going to come a time in the year when the snow will be falling, the wind will be howling and they’ll have no choice but to run the football.
“There’s going to come games where we have to close out games with the run game,” Sitton said. “We need to be more consistent, for sure.”
It’s not as if the Packers have a running back in storage. Benson is on injured reserve, eligible to return, meaning he’s out until mid-December at least. James Starks, Green Bay’s leading rusher last season, has recovered from the toe injury that cost him the first five games and the preseason, but coach Mike McCarthy does not seem inclined to give him a larger role. Fullback John Kuhn is nursing a hamstring injury.
That leaves it to Alex Green, a second-year running back.
“I see the holes are there. I have to do a good job pressing the holes and make quicker reads,” Green said. “That’s one thing I have to work on, making quicker reads and getting into the hole. The holes are there. The line’s doing a great job. I just need to do my job and be a great running back.”