In the running: looking at Green Bay?s backfield as the regular season starts
As the Green Bay Packers’ offense has evolved into the whirring aerial attack it is today, the running game has at times been its area of weakness. But, because of that aforementioned passing game, their flimsy rush has also been a soft spot they’ve largely been able to live with. It’s a bruise that could either be written off due to the exacting brilliance of Aaron Rodgers, considered a welcome surprise when it does produce – pinballing DuJuan Harris last season being the most recent example – or an area the team simply had to improve in, but maybe some other time when they’re not already scoring in the 30s.
And yet, Rodgers was sacked more times than any quarterback in the league (51) in 2012. Part of the problem was a given defense’s ability to know that, without a reliable running game or sometimes even an attempt to fake it, the Packers would be dropping back often, making Rodgers the lone and oft-hit target. Some semblance of balance is always preferable than not at all, especially with a franchise cornerstone, newly extended and paid unlike anyone before him, under center. It makes sense, then, that the running game, seemingly more or less considered an added bonus over the last few years was addressed in a big way this offseason. Two high-to-mid round draft picks showed the front office addressing a crucial need with major collegiate talents.
The Packers also have returning rushers that make up a crowded backfield of players with different styles and ways they can contribute. Health, as always, is one of the more important factors here, but Green Bay appears to have a group of running backs that could have a real and lasting impact on the continuing evolution of the offense. What remains to be seen is their implementation and effectiveness; still, the running game got some much-needed love, and that’s a good thing. Here’s a look at the Packers’ rushers of note (who may or may not be around) as regular season play begins.
Eddie Lacy: rising tide
Eddie Lacy is on a bike, nearing the gate that stands next to the practice field’s entrance. In the throng of autograph-yellers along the gate, behind a salt-and-pepper-haired autograph seeking guy sprinting across the street, literally sprinting, after Graham Harrell on a bike, and a bunch of other green and gold-clad fans of all ages, the high-pitched voice of a young boy rings out clear as day: “Roll tide!”
Arguably Green Bay’s buzz-worthiest pick in this year’s draft, you know Eddie Lacy by now. You might have known him earlier because he already played in perhaps the NFL’s unofficial minor league affiliate, Alabama, but you know him because the Packers wanted more options at the position and addressed it with Lacy and then again with UCLA’s multi-faceted Johnathan Franklin.
Now, we might have seen or heard that Lacy was out of shape to start training camp. There was a picture that, as Randall Cobb said at the time, was “just a bad angle.” It got people talking and wondering, until you watch Lacy run because watching Eddie Lacy run grinds wonder and doubt into chalkdust. Fans do not have to try squaring up the rookie for a tackle. And we do not want to do that, I assure you. Lacy, as I wrote in my notes watching him one day at practice, is a demonic bowling ball of a running back with surprising quickness because of his frame – which isn’t out of shape, just his own personal shape – and Rhinoceros-ian power going through holes, or, lacking those, defenders’ chest plates.
Eddie Lacy’s only shape is that of a punishing runner. A name-brand threat that, so far, has backed up the post-draft hype. As advertised, as expected. The way you knew him before? Before the Oh My God Is He In Shape? non-story story? Before the little injuries sidelined him a bit during training camp? When he was just “Roll tide!” and excitement? That’s the Eddie Lacy we know, and it hasn’t changed.
Johnathan Franklin: home run power
Before the dust could really settle on Green Bay’s selection of Lacy in the second round, the team doubled up on rushers in the fourth by taking Johnathan Franklin. Franklin, however, should not be an afterthought in any way. Franklin is shifty and dynamic on the field, a more-than-viable receiving threat (an example: he ran under and caught an Aaron Rodgers deep ball in stride on a wheel route down the right sideline in one practice session) and patient runner between the tackles.
But, when asking Franklin about that patience, he believes he’s got plenty of room for improvement, basically the same way he thinks about the rest of his game in general.
“I actually think I need to learn to be more patient,” Franklin said. “But I always say, ‘Patience to the hole, speed through it.’ It’s very important, playing this game and being a running back, and especially at this speed and how things are moving so fast. Patience is very important.”
Franklin is adjusting to the new offensive system in Green Bay with the help of fellow running backs Alex Green, James Starks and DuJuan Harris. Rodgers has helped too, but Franklin said of the former NFL Most Valuable Player: “It’s more of an expectation with him. He expects you to understand what you have to do and understand the offense.”
You don’t have to watch Franklin long to see the flashes of big-play ability crackle and pop in his sharp, decisive movements. As he shifts through the rubble around the line, you notice he’s always going forward. You don’t have to listen to him long to understand he expects a lot from himself. He’s always thinking about and planning ways to improve.
“Just relaxing and just playing this game and not thinking too much,” Franklin said of his biggest challenge in training camp. “Football is going to be football no matter what level it is, so just relaxing and going out there and playing this game.”
Johnathan Franklin will likely get his share of opportunities to showcase his still-developing game as a rookie running back. It wouldn’t be shocking, given those chances, to see him contribute for the Packers. And he certainly seems to appreciate what that would mean in a place like Green Bay.
“I love it,” Franklin said of his first offseason in Wisconsin. “I was just talking earlier about how it’s so much different out here compared to Los Angeles. These fans are so committed and dedicated to this team and in love with this team. This whole community and their love for this game and the Green Bay Packers is amazing.
“… the people are great and nice, very approachable, very welcoming, and they love football out here and there’s no traffic, so it’s great. I’m just trying to get used to the weather and I’m all good.”
James Starks: back under the radar
When thinking of physical running backs, especially with Eddie Lacy etching his shoulder pads into defenders, James Starks often doesn’t come into the picture first. His playing time consistently hampered by various injuries, Starks hasn’t been available – a trait head coach Mike McCarthy stressed more than ever this offseason – often enough. But when he has, Starks is a bruising, violent runner, slamming himself into defenders as often as they do him. It is easy to forget, because of the injuries, but Starks and his vertical running style have been effective on the field, when he’s there.
He started the offseason almost a forgotten man, but Starks impressed in training camp because his ferocious way of running the football was back on display ailment-free. With the drafting of Lacy and Franklin, Starks, like every other rusher, could be a candidate not to make the 53-man roster. In his case it’s because he hasn’t been available enough.
Because the thing is when he’s active and healthy Starks’ value is obvious. His talent all-too-apparent and thus all-too-tantalizing for those who worry when the next injury shoe will drop. If he’s shown anything to this point, James Starks has shown why the Packers have yet to give up on him. He’s that talented, his contributions late in 2010 one of the extra shoves Green Bay needed at the time to break through to a championship.
If Starks is healthy, this should be a no-brainer. He should be a lock for providing a punch in the backfield. That ‘if’ is also why it’s not that easy, and why it’s still a little too surprising to remember what he’s capable of, unhindered and upright and looking for contact.
Alex Green: always in the mix
Note: Green was released as the Packers whittled their roster down to 53. We’ll keep the original portion on him here even though he’s not quite in the mix anymore, but we wish him well.
“I think it’s very important to go out there and prove that I have that edge, you know, and go out there and show that I can be a back in this system and prove it to myself and prove it to my coaches.”
That is Alex Green, acknowledging the need more than ever this season to show out amongst a swelling backfield of runners pushing for carries. Appearing in 12 games in 2012, Green averaged 3.4 yards per carry and didn’t score – in his defense, Green had more than 13 carries in a game only three times over the season. Still the Packers, looking for a jolt, eventually ended up divvying the rushing load between Green and DuJuan Harris down the stretch, and the back out of Hawaii entering his third NFL season didn’t play in any of Green Bay’s final three games.
Green is a consummate teammate – you’ll find a lot of those in the Packers’ locker room – and hasn’t shied away from both aiding the newly-drafted backs while also using the competition to try and better his own standing.
“I think we’re all meshing pretty good together, we’re all rooting for each other, we’re trying to make each other better,” Green said of the running backs group.
Alex Green has been in the mix in the Packers’ backfield, but with these new additions may need to send a jolt or two of his own to avoid getting lost on the depth chart, or worse. Time will tell where he might be deployed in the offense this season – he also caught 18 balls for 125 yards in ‘12 – but Green believes that rather than looking up and down the rest of the roster, he can only work on making himself more noticeable.
“I can only control what I do, and I think that I’m doing pretty good,” Green said. “I’m never satisfied with where I’m at but I just continue to get better everyday and I continue to work out everyday and I’ll see where it plays out … I’m focused on getting better every day.”
DuJuan Harris: more than a stopgap?
Sigh, another note: this was also written prior to Harris being placed on injured reserve near the end of training camp. Sad news, but we’ll go ahead an keep our original thoughts here too, just in case he returns.
Running backs, like basically every other NFL position group, are constantly fighting for a job, for the next contract. They can emerge like deer on a darkened country road for a season or part of one, then disappear or scatter to another squad. Last season DuJuan Harris jumped from the unknown woods of the Packers’ practice squad and directly onto the highway of a playoff run. He was thought, at the time, to be the potential They Have To Respect The Running Game guy that would make Green Bay’s offense a monster to face.
At the time Green Bay desperately needed him. Harris was fresh, untapped energy, especially for December and January. He bounced off tacklers and scored four touchdowns over the team’s last six games. Through and after the season, there remained a general feeling of uncertainty as to where Harris would stand with the Packers. Had they capitalized on some short-term electric current with Harris, or was he a more permanent plug-in for the running game?
Despite the team’s draft and despite the fact that Harris was – at least for a good chunk of the start of training camp – on the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury, he remained atop the depth chart for a time when he was mostly playing catch with linemen on the sidelines.
Can this last if Eddie Lacy and James Starks and Johnathan Franklin get more and more comfortable as the season goes on? Harris came off the PUP list in August and has the chance to make himself less of a mystery and more of a mainstay on that crowded depth chart.
By the time you read this we’ll know who above remains on the roster. But that doesn’t take the uncertainty out of how the Packers’ rushing offense will look this season.
A good amount of carries, first, have to be allotted to whomever will be getting them. It can’t work without opportunity. There will undoubtedly be some shuffling and some mixing and matching because of the variability of these backs, which is why any or all of them have been added into this promising-looking medley in the first place. Being in the mix is good. As we can only see in the regular season though, it’s good to be an option but better to have a role.