Very little digging is required to unearth statistics showing just how improved the Green Bay Packers are at running the football in 2013.
Through seven games, the Packers are averaging 141.4 rushing yards a game and 4.8 yards per carry, which rank third and fourth in the NFL, respectively. Compared to last season, Green Bay is averaging 35 more yards a game and almost a full yard more per carry.
If the Packers keep up their current pace on the ground, the 2013 offense would finish with almost 2,300 rushing yards, or the fifth-most in franchise history. The only Packers teams that have rushed for more than Green Bay's 2013 pace are the clubs from 1961, 1962, 1964 and 2003. And only the 1978 team had more rushing yards through seven games.
The turnaround has been drastic.
For an offense that didn't have a 100-yard rusher in over 40 straight regular-season games, the Packers have featured three different running backs hitting that milestone in 2013.
Rookie Eddie Lacy, who has played all of five games (and one carry versus Washington), is just 18 yards behind Alex Green's team-leading total of 464 rushing yards from last season. In fact, over the last month, Lacy's 395 rushing yards lead all NFL running backs.
Since Week 3, only the San Francisco 49ers have averaged more rushing yards per game than Green Bay's 157.6. During that span, the Packers have posted three different games with 180 or more rushing yards—something never done during a season in the Mike McCarthy era.
Maybe it wasn't so ridiculous this summer when McCarthy confidently said to count on his offense being better at running the football in 2013.
With almost half the season in the books, the Packers have made good on McCarthy's prediction. This is no fluke—game in and game out, Green Bay has proved its ability run the football this season. Numbers can have a tendency to lie, but the Packers' rushing total don't.
The harder question to answer is how Green Bay has become so dominant running the football in such a short time.
Adding a talent like Lacy is the easy answer, but there are so many moving parts to a running game that just one player can't be the only acceptable solution. After giving Green Bay's running game a full examination this season, it's clear the improvements are a collective effort—from the running back, to offensive line, to playcaller and even to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Running Back
A season ago, the Packers received a combined 1,251 rushing yards from five different running backs: 464 from Green, 248 from Cedric Benson, 255 from James Starks, 157 from DuJuan Harris and 127 from Ryan Grant.
In just seven games this season, Green Bay's trio of backs already have 797—446 from Lacy, 244 from Starks and 107 from Johnathan Franklin. The three are currently on pace for 1,821 rushing yards, or 570 more than the running backs in 2012.
Clearly, part of the improvement is the overall talent level at the position. Green, a 2011 third-rounder, was just a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery. He didn't even make the final cut this August. Benson and Grant were both well past their best days last season, and Harris only came on late.
Each of the 2013 backs brings a little something different to the table.
Lacy is 235 pounds and will never be confused for Chris Johnson. But his vision is so disciplined, and few backs of his size have the kind of lateral agility he possesses. Lacy also rarely goes down on the first contact, pushing piles and falling forward.
The following play shows all of Lacy's skills in action.
In the screen shot below, we see Lacy taking a shotgun handoff from Rodgers. The play calls for right tackle Don Barclay to pull down the line and create a cutback lane. DeAndre Levy (circled, orange) is the linebacker Green Bay will go to work on.
Watch as Lacy sets up Levy with patience. He stays behind his pads—allowing Barclay to flash into the hole—before making one sudden cut to get upfield. Lacy easily gets to the second level, where he meets and drives safety Louis Delmas backwards for a eight-yard gain on first down.
When healthy, Starks combines with Lacy to create a tough one-two punch. The former playoff hero can be an explosive back when he's playing with confidence and not fighting an injury. Just ask the Washington Redskins or Minnesota Vikings; neither team could tackle him.
Franklin hasn't been on the field much, but he did rush for over 100 yards—including a 51-yard dash—when called on against the Cincinnati Bengals. He's more of a shifty, jitterbug type, which actually compliments the power game of Lacy and Starks well.
A season ago, injury decimated the Packers at running back. The situation forced a merry-go-round of players receiving handoffs, and the results were mostly predictable.
Injuries have happened again in 2013, but the Packers have been able to push through without a hiccup. Credit is due for the three current running backs, who have each brought the talent level at the position to place not seen in the Mike McCarthy era.
The Offensive Line
Ask Evan Dietrich-Smith if it matters who is getting the carries at running back, and the Packers center will give you a simple answer.
“To be completely honest, we don’t really notice who’s back there,” Dietrich-Smith said, via Mike Spofford of the Packers' official site. “We just make sure we’re blocking whatever’s called."
He isn't kidding. While the Packers are more talented at running back, a big percentage of Green Bay's improvement in the run game has come from the offensive line.
Rearranged this offseason, Green Bay's front five were supposed to be better at protecting the quarterback. Bryan Bulaga, formerly the starting right tackle, was moved to the left side, and he brought with him Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. In theory, the Packers would better protect the blindside and allow Rodgers to deal with the rush from his right side.
That plan went out the door less than a week into training camp when Bulaga tore his ACL. In his place, the Packers called on rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari.
The pass protection has improved through seven games, even with a first-year player manning the left side. And somewhat incredibly, so has the run blocking.
The Packers are mauling front sevens at the line of scrimmage. And these aren't your bottom-of-the-mill defensive lines; Green Bay has faced the likes of San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland this season. Each week, the offensive line has stepped up to a new and bigger challenge.
The running backs have been the biggest beneficiary. Just look at some of the holes created for Lacy in recent games.
Against the Ravens, Lacy is asked to do very little on this 37-yard run:
Facing the Browns, Lacy runs through a gaping hole for 13 yards on third down:
Last Sunday night, Lacy took an inside draw and galloped 17 yards before any Vikings defender laid a finger on him:
Just as often as Lacy has made the offensive line look good this season, Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang and Don Barclay have repaid the favor. Together, the results have been almost five yards per carry in 2013.
“We’ve put together seven straight games where we’ve been productive on the ground, but the thing with us is guys are never satisfied,” Lang said, via Spofford.
No run game can get off the ground without a play-caller who game-plans for running the football and then sticks with it during the 60 minutes every Sunday.
For all his positive attributes as an offensive mind, Mike McCarthy hasn't always been committed to the run.
Partly to blame for his pass-first philosophy has been a consistent lack of talent at running back and offensive line in Green Bay, plus a wealth weapons in the passing game, including two elite quarterbacks. And to be clear, the Packers are still a team that wants to lean on Aaron Rodgers and a group of receivers that, when healthy, is among the best in the NFL.
Yet from the get-go this season, McCarthy has made it a point of emphasis to establish and work off the run.
Green Bay's 29.6 rushing attempts per game are seventh in the NFL, and only eight teams have rushed at a higher percentage than the Packers' 43.8. If continued for the rest of the season, both the number of attempts and run percentage would set new highs for McCarthy.
The Packers are also on pace to use play action roughly 30 percent more in 2013 than 2012. Overall, Rodgers is receiving about two more play-action opportunities this season.
Injuries to Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley have forced McCarthy to become even more balanced. Cobb and Jones were both injured in the first half against the Ravens, and Finley went down with a scary neck injury against Cleveland. In those three games since Baltimore, McCarthy has called 50.5 percent passes and 49.5 runs.
In McCarthy's mind, there's nothing fancy about what he's doing as a play-caller.
“The way we’re playing, we’re utilizing our personnel," McCarthy said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN. "That’s the responsibility of our coaching staff."
There are reasons for every offense to establish a running game. Some want ball control, others need to lessen the impact of a pass rush.
For the Packers, running the football has just as much to do with taking pressure off Rodgers as any other factor. Since posting one of the greatest quarterback seasons in recent history during a MVP season in 2011, Rodgers has faced more and more two-deep shells, where defenses sacrifice a player in the box to protect against the vertical passing game.
Defensive coordinators were able to stick in those schemes because the Packers proved incapable of running against seven-man fronts. Those days are no longer. Teams are playing Green Bay with eight players in the box at a higher rate in 2013 than any other time in 2012 or 2011.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Packers are no longer seeing soft fronts. Rodgers is still one of the most respected and feared quarterbacks in the game, and defensive coordinators have no other choice but to occasionally play weaker in the box to protect the back end.
But with confidence from Rodgers has come a greater tendency to check into a running play when the defense dictates such an audible. Maybe the best example of that came in a screen shot above, when Rodgers checked to a run on third down against the Browns.
Rodgers may not run the entire show like Peyton Manning does in Denver, but he still gets to make many of the run-pass calls at the line of scrimmage. Most quarterbacks will still prefer to throw, but Rodgers appears more and more comfortable checking into a run in 2013.
Why are the Green Bay Packers so improved running the football in 2013?
For McCarthy, that's a relatively simple riddle to solve.
“It’s a two-part answer: the players and the scheme,” McCarthy said, via Jason Wilde of ESPN.
It's actually the meat and potatoes of everything in the NFL that is successful: Find talented players, and then use them in the correct ways.
The Packers have done exactly that with their running game through seven games this season.