Taking stock of the running game
It all makes sense. Two young quarterbacks. A pair of established tailbacks. The bright lights of national television.
Yes, it's only natural to assume that Monday night's game between Green Bay and Minnesota will be a typical NFC North slugfest -- a ground lover's delight with an occasional screen pass to keep everyone honest. So we're sorry to introduce reality to an annual a day of insanity in the Upper Midwest -- but it's only fair to point out that neither the Packers nor the Vikings will enter Lambeau Field with a well-oiled running game.
Green Bay's Ryan Grant played one down this preseason after a holdout and subsequent hamstring injury. He hasn't been tackled since the NFC Championship Game, and Monday night he will run behind a patchwork offensive line that includes backups at both guard positions and, likely, center as well.
The Vikings, meanwhile, ostensibly dedicated their preseason to improving the passing game around quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. In the process, their running game produced less yards than all but one NFL team. Tailback Adrian Peterson managed 51 yards on 20 carries in about four quarters of work, while backup Chester Taylor rushed 14 times for 35 yards.
Preseason statistics aren't usually a reliable indicator of regular-season results, and the Vikings scoffed last week at questions about their rushing totals. It's not exactly a crisis, but the numbers might be worth a raised eyebrow when you recall Peterson's second-half drop-off in 2007.
In the final four games of last season, Peterson ran for a total of 144 yards. Counting the 2008 preseason as one full game, Peterson has averaged about 37 yards per game over the equivalent of a third of an NFL season.
Peterson recently told Minnesota reporters that "there's no concern at all about the running game," and he has spoken openly about the steps he has taken to learn patience at the line of scrimmage. One observer compared the Vikings' preseason approach to the methods a pitcher uses in spring training starts: He works on refining his stuff rather than trying to get batters out.
The Vikings called plays for Jackson to develop his passing skills. Peterson's top priority as a runner was to practice patience and reading his blocks. The quantitative result was 79.2 rushing yards per preseason game, but coach Brad Childress said: "We just look at things more fundamentally."
To be fair, the Packers' running game should cause more concern than Minnesota's. Along with Grant's relative inactivity and the injuries on their line, the Packers also must face a defense that ranked No. 1 against the run in each of the past two seasons.
Moreover, the Vikings are vowing revenge for Grant's 119-yard performance against them last season at Lambeau. It was the only 100-yard game against the Vikings all year.
"People ask me if we're going after Aaron Rodgers in this game," Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams said. "We're going after him, but we're going after Ryan Grant, too. He had 100 yards on us last year, and I've been thinking about that all summer. That's all I'm thinking about going into this game, is stopping the run."
The Packers, however, are more likely than the Vikings to adjust their offensive game plan if the running game falters early. Coach Mike McCarthy's offense has thrown nearly 1,200 passes over the last two seasons, an average of nearly 37 per game. Last week, McCarthy downplayed the conventional wisdom that suggests he would pull back his passing game following the departure of Brett Favre.
"If I had my druthers," McCarthy said, "I'd be running 40 times a game. I think that's the way football is meant to be played. But that doesn't always give your team the best chance to win. We're going to take the same approach we took last year. We're going to do whatever it takes to put the ball in the end zone."
Ironically, their path might be more secure through the air. Sorry to disappoint the blackest and bluest fans of the NFC North. As the regular season opens, neither the Packers nor the Vikings are hitting the ground, er, running.