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Packers: Shoring up running game remains a priority

December 30, 2016 GMT

GREEN BAY — There was a school of thought at one point this season — never for coach Mike McCarthy, mind you — that the Green Bay Packers could survive without a running game.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers starting to get into a groove and the short, dink-and-dunk passing game seemingly serving as an effective substitute, more than a few folks thought they could get by without a traditional run game.

In fact, when the Packers put up a whopping 226 rushing yards on Dec. 18 in Chicago — led by wide receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery’s 162 yards on 16 carries, with Christine Michael chipping in with a 42-yard touchdown run — it felt like there might be enough there for McCarthy to take a more balanced approach to his play-calling moving forward.

Then came last week, when Montgomery and Michael combined for just 27 yards on 13 carries, and Rodgers was again the offense’s most efficient rusher (two carries, 13 yards, a 6-yard TD).

After that, McCarthy countered by spending more time in game-planning meetings Monday and Tuesday on the run game — “You have to run the ball this time of year regardless of who you’re playing and where you’re playing them,” he said — because he believes a respectable run game will be vital in Sunday night’s de facto NFC North divisional title game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

Of course, he also pointed out his Eddie Lacy- and James Starks-less offense isn’t going to morph into the glory days of running Vince Lombardi’s power sweep, either.

“I think it’s like everything in life. You have to have realistic expectations,” McCarthy said. “I have a realistic expectation of how much, or how we’re going to try to run the football each and every week. The totals have been lower than expected, but nothing outrageous.

“You go into a game and would like to run it 30 or 35 times, but we haven’t been in that mode for quite some time. That’s all part of your game plan, part of understanding who your players are, what suits them best, where they are in their development. More importantly, how they fit their run-blocking unit, and what’s going to work in a crowded, noisy dome stadium in Detroit.”

Understanding where players are in their development might be the most important part of that list. With Montgomery, the Packers have essentially a rookie running back, even though he’s a second-year player. Not only that, but considering how little time he saw at running back — 39 rushes in a four-year college career at Stanford — the learning curve remains steep, despite his unexpected production (64 carries for 407 yards and three touchdowns over the past nine weeks).

“Obviously is there a learning curve? There is,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “But we continue to emphasize certain things with him and we feel he has a really good understanding of the scheme and what we’re asking him to do in his role in that.”

Feelin’ fine

Rodgers remained on the injury report with his calf issue, but to hear him tell it, he will be removed from the report on Friday, just as he was last week.

Not only will he be playing against the Lions, but he doesn’t think either of his injuries — he hurt his left hamstring at Philadelphia on Nov. 28 and hurt his right calf against Seattle on Dec. 11 — are a factor anymore.

“My injuries have definitely subsided,” Rodgers said. “The rehab has continued, but I’m healing up at the right time.”

That’s in stark contrast to two years ago, when Rodgers’ left calf injury was an issue heading into the regular-season finale and the playoffs.

“Obviously, a couple years ago, the calf injury was very disappointing, because we went into the playoffs not having (scrambling) as part of our offense,” Rodgers said. “I stand here today obviously feeling a lot better, being able to run the way I was accustomed to last week and looking forward to continuing to do that moving forward.”

No more rookie mistakes

McCarthy had a message for his young players on Wednesday: Raise your level of play. The Packers coach saw too many mistakes from his younger players during last Saturday’s win over Minnesota, and those mistakes stood in contrast to the way his veterans played. With the stakes even higher Sunday night, McCarthy made his point in Wednesday’s team meeting.

“That was a topic on my PowerPoint in the team meeting because I felt last week’s game was a great reflection of that,” McCarthy explained. “You look at your veteran players, the ones that played the bigger roles in that game and you look at the production that they had. What we will improve on — and we’ll make sure of it this week — the role players, particularly the guys that had a limited number of snaps need to do a better job. We had too many guys that played six, seven, eight, nine plays and had a mental error and a penalty. We can’t have that, especially this late in the season. That was part of an emphasis today.”

Extra points

Wide receiver Randall Cobb (ankle) did not practice for the second straight day, putting his availability for Sunday night’s game in question. … Michael returned to practice after being excused for a personal matter Wednesday. … Veteran outside linebacker Julius Peppers was given practice off for the second straight day. … Inside linebacker Joe Thomas was added to the injury report with a back injury after practicing on a limited basis. … Starks (concussion) is attending meetings but remains in the concussion protocol, McCarthy said.