MINNEAPOLIS -- For much of the decade, NFL teams have worked tirelessly to catch up to the Green Bay Packers' passing game. Now, at a time when the league is throwing better than ever, the Packers have reached into the prehistoric age to maintain an edge.
Namely, the Packers have a running game -- a real, old-fashioned running game where the quarterback takes the snap from center, turns and hands off to a burly tailback who powers through off-tackle holes. There are no read-option looks, no Wildcat runs and no gimmicks to speak of.
The shift has capped a longtime intent to surround quarterback Aaron Rodgers with more balance, and it arrived just in time to mitigate injuries to pass-catchers Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley. The offense you'll see on "Monday Night Football," when the Packers host the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, has taken a decidedly different track in the sixth season of the Rodgers era.
This chart, culled from the vast database at ESPN Stats & Information, illustrates the frequency of use and subsequent success for Packers running backs during the first seven games of each season since Rodgers assumed the starting job in 2008. (I thought it was important to remove Rodgers' scrambles and even the occasional pitch to Cobb in order to analyze the team's "traditional" runs.)
You'll see the Packers are far ahead in each category this season. They have given their running backs 19 percent more carries than their average for the previous five years, and those backs -- led by rookie Eddie Lacy -- have produced 42 percent more yards than the five-year average.
Lacy, in fact, has rushed for more yards (395) than any NFL running back over the past four games. His emergence, combined with coach Mike McCarthy's play-calling patience and Rodgers' audibles, amounts to an unprecedented development (at least in Green Bay) as the Packers approach the midpoint of their season.
Speaking after Sunday's romp over the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers smiled and acknowledged the trend is "foreign for our team" after Packers running backs gained 151 yards on 36 carries. He added: "We have not been doing that much in the last few years. It gives us a lot of confidence in the passing game, getting a lot more one-high [safety looks] and running the ball against some tough looks and making them count."
According to guard T.J. Lang, opposing defenses have brought a safety close to the line of scrimmage "more than usual" in recent weeks to fortify against the run. That decision might also be connected to the Packers' depleted group of pass-catchers, but leaving Rodgers to operate against one deep safety -- regardless of whom he is throwing to -- is a risk we once figured few teams would take.
"We saw it a lot [in Week 7] against Cleveland," Lang said. "They were playing sometimes with two safeties in the box. Teams are going to do that, especially with Randall and James being out and obviously the production we're having on the ground. They're going to have to change the way they play us. It's going to be tough for teams to play us with two deep safeties with this run game. That's something that definitely benefits us. You put the safety in the box, and it open things up for play-action passes and receivers."
To this point, however, it has worked the other way around. Most of the Packers' rushing success has come against "small" fronts (six or fewer defenders in the box). Below is the breakdown to this point, remembering that seven is considered "even" and eight or more is "stacked."
Six or fewer: 135 carries for 806 yards
Seven: 47 carries for 159 yards
Eight or more: 16 carries for 35 yards
The Packers' performance against stacked boxes includes some goal-line and short-yardage situations, naturally bringing down the average per carry. But the first and most important step is running well when defenses are conceding (or at least encouraging) it, and the Packers are doing that better than at any time in their recent history.