From the first time that the Packers had the ball, it was apparent that they were working on changing their approach to the running game. The Packers have had seasons where the running game was strong enough to carry the offensive load. Up until yesterday, there was no reason to think that this would be one of those seasons. It probably still is not destined to be one of those seasons, but the difference yesterday is that the Packers clearly had decided to make a strong commitment to the running game. When is the last time you can remember the Packers starting out the game with 10 of the first 11 plays being runs? The stats of the game tell the same story. The Packers had as many first downs by rushing as by passing. They had more net rushing yards (202) than they have had in any game this year. The closest they have had to this total was in the Rams game, where they had 152. In the other four games, they never had more than 107.
This is welcome, on a number of fronts. It is getting to the time of year when it is more important for an outdoor team like the Packers to have a running game. It is a great time for Ryan Grant to start looking like the Ryan Grant of a couple of years ago. It gives the receivers a better chance to make a play, when the defenders have to worry more about the running game. Most importantly, it gives Aaron Rodgers a better chance of avoiding getting killed back there. It is surely not just a coincidence that Rodgers was not sacked a single time in the game.
The game itself was fun to watch. The 71-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver was my favorite play. The 34-year-old was in a footrace to the end zone, and it was clear that the defensive back was faster than Driver. But Driver used a combination of a stiff-arm, and a changed angle to the end zone, to stay just enough in front to score the touchdown. Driver found Packer fans in the first row to greet, and then Rodgers came over and tossed a ball into the stands.
But despite all the positive developments in this game, there are still reasons for concern. The cavalcade of penalties continued, with the Packers racking up 8 of them in this game. And the red zone difficulties have not gone away, either. It took the Packers 6 plays from inside the 5 yard line to score the touchdown toward the end of the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Brett Favre magic peeled away, just a bit, in the Vikings game at Pittsburgh yesterday. I have been waiting all year for one of those games where the Vikings lose, and it is at least arguably attributable to a Brett Favre mistake. Yesterday doesn't quite fit that mold, but it comes close. Favre had the ball knocked out as he was back to pass, and the ball was returned for a touchdown. But hey, that could happen to anybody. And then the Vikings returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, which effectively eliminated any benefit from the fumble return. Then, Favre had a ball intercepted and returned for a touchdown, to seal the victory for the Vikings. But the ball was tipped, so again, it is hard to really pin it on Favre. For now, this will have to do. But this past weekend's games can't help but improve the confidence of the Packers, and remove the aura of invincibility around Favre.
Bring on Favre and the Vikings. We have been waiting for this game all season. We know Favre has been waiting for it. And what a surprise to learn that Favre's family reserved rooms in Green Bay for this weekend, a couple of months before he un-retired and joined the Vikings (see here).