At first it’ll be bad, but then it’ll get better.
That’s the hope for the entire Green Bay Packers offense right now, under scrutiny for a string of lackluster performances. But it more specifically applies to the running back situation, which seemed to hit a disaster zone Thursday when Green Bay decided to place workhorse Eddie Lacy on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
With long-time backup James Starks out potentially for several weeks with a meniscus injury, make no mistake about it: Thursday night against the Chicago Bears will be a disaster for the Packers running game. Knile Davis has only been in town for a couple practices after being acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. If he’s able to master more than a few packages against the Bears, it will be a surprise. The second-string back, Don Jackson, has yet to have a carry in his NFL career, preseason or regular season. Short weeks are already difficult on offenses, particularly struggling and injured ones, and especially against a run defense that’s playing as well as the Bears have been as of late.
The Packers will probably spend a good amount of time this week with Ty Montgomery in the backfield. In Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the second-year receiver had more snaps than Randall Cobb in the backfield, which was a change from Mike McCarthy’s usual love of moving his slot man to running back for a handful of plays in a game. A struggling Packers passing game needs Cobb running routes more than it does Montgomery, and the latter is better built to handle contact at 6-foot, 216 pounds.
Cobb and Montgomery have combined for just 18 yards on 10 carries this season. Nobody outside of Lacy has been able to run the ball for the Packers this season, which speaks more to the abilities of the ball carriers than to the offensive line, which ranks just below league average (17th) in adjusted line yards created, per Football Outsiders.
Where it gets better is with time and continuity, presuming the rash of injuries can slow down. The Packers have only had five games with this current set of offensive linemen, which is the result of the strange timing of their release of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. The group has been among the league’s best in pass protection, but run blocking is the part of line play more dependent upon continuity and cohesion. It’s not a coincidence that Lacy’s most productive games, when he averaged better than 6 yards per carry per contest, came in Weeks 3 and 4. Those were before the ankle injury and after Sitton’s replacement, Lane Taylor, had had a little time to gel with the linemen around him.
Time will also give Davis the chance to learn the playbook and Jackson the opportunity to practice in it. It doesn’t mean either will be special. Jackson went undrafted and remained on the practice squad last week despite the injuries that were developing. Davis has never averaged better than 3.5 yards per carry in any of his four seasons and has been buried on a Chiefs depth chart where so many other players have gotten ripe opportunities.
But a great offensive line can elevate a subpar group of running backs, as the Washington Redskins are showing this season and the Cowboys showed last year. Also helpful in Green Bay is Jordy Nelson’s ability to demand deep safety attention, given that he is now the only Packers skill player who really scares defenses.
Still, the pass is only going to really open up the run in Green Bay if they start to do it well. That hasn’t happened this season. Receivers not named Nelson have struggled against man coverage, leaving a seemingly frustrated Aaron Rodgers to try to generate big plays that his receivers and his accuracy haven’t been capable of.
You can brainstorm for hours about what the Packers are going to do to try to generate a running game now, but the way up for this struggling offense was always going to come in fixing the part of the game it lives and dies with. To get back to winning the way they want to, the Packers don’t need Lacy back nearly as much as they need the Aaron Rodgers they used to know.