Injuries may force Packers to change plans
Mike Conklin, Packers contributor
Tackle Bryan Bulaga (injured reserve).Photo: Image by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
CREATED Sep. 5, 2013
"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." --Robert Burns, 1786
The events of the past month have not exactly played out according to Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy's plan. It was etched all over his face last week when he talked about DuJuan Harris' season-ending knee injury.
"It's a tough one," said McCarthy. "He's definitely a young player that I felt was going to be an impactful player for us on offense."
McCarthy went on to give a rare glimpse into his mindset going into this season.
"Every offseason, you go through evaluations of your offense, you do offseason studies, you project how you envision your offense looking and then you kind of confirm things after the draft. You have a vision, packages in place on how you're going to start the season.
"I'll just tell you this: DuJuan was a big part of particularly my individual focus for this season."
Even as Eddie Lacy emerged with a strong performance against the St. Louis Rams in the second preseason game, McCarthy never wavered from his stance that DuJuan Harris was still the starter. It seems that McCarthy liked the idea of a thunder-and-lightning duo at running back. He said as much after Harris saw his first action, only to suffer that injury.
"Last week was really the first opportunity to play DuJuan and Eddie Lacy in a game as kind of a one-two type punch format, and that has now changed," McCarthy said a week ago.
It may have gone unnoticed, but McCarthy increased his focus on running the ball more and more as last season went on. In fact, Bill Huber of Packer Report revealed that over a seven-game stretch last season, the Packers had the sixth-highest run percentage in the National Football League.
That goes against the notion of the Packers always wanting to air it out with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. McCarthy gave defenses a steady dose of running plays, even though his running backs lacked much of a punch last year.
In limited duty at the tail end of the season, Harris emerged as a bona fide threat to defenses. It was apparently enough to make Mike McCarthy decide that he wanted to make the running game one of the biggest priorities of the offseason.
A case could be made that this was at least part of the reason McCarthy flip-flopped the offensive line.
When Bryan Bulaga suffered a hip injury, Don Barclay was pressed into duty at right tackle last season. The Packers ran to his side early and often, and fared relatively well behind his blocking. If Bulaga came back this season and filled his normal spot at right tackle, there would be no room for Barclay's gritty style. (It is clear that Barclay is not a prototypical left tackle.)
McCarthy sent Bulaga over to left tackle, and declared right tackle an open competition. Given all the noise throughout the offseason about improving the running game, it seemed like the deck may have been stacked in Barclay's favor all along. Marshall Newhouse has never been known as a road grader of a run blocker.
The first blow to McCarthy's original plans for this season may have come during the Family Night scrimmage, when Bulaga suffered a season-ending injury to his knee. At that point, the Packers were forced to put fourth-round draft pick David Bakhtiari in at left tackle.
Bakhtiari has played better than anyone expected, particularly considering his draft position. But given his inexperience and lack of bulk (Bulaga weighs about 15 pounds more), it is unreasonable to expect that he will run block as well as Bulaga.
The next crack in the foundation of McCarthy's possible plans may have happened when Matthew Mulligan injured his elbow early in the second preseason game.
Mulligan had been brought in as the only free agent signing this spring. Weighing in at 267, he had already made a name for himself in the NFL as a solid blocker. When the Packers signed him in April, many observers pointed to the signing as more evidence that the Packers were trying to become more physical and a better run-blocking team.
Mulligan's elbow injury caused him to miss a good portion of training camp, as the Packers were continuing to work on establishing their offensive identity.
Then the Packers lost Harris for the year, as mentioned previously.
Could the way these events transpired in the last month cause Mike McCarthy to change the course he had been following throughout the entire offseason? It seems possible.
Eddie Lacy has shown a physical, punishing style of running that has not been seen often in Green Bay the last several years.
While he may be able to emerge as a bell cow running back, it is clear that McCarthy liked the idea of using him in tandem with Harris. Lacy has shared carries in the past, going back to his time at Alabama. Whether or not he can withstand the pounding of being the primary ball carrier all season remains to be seen.
The loss of Bulaga means also means that there will be times when an extra blocker will be asked to help out his rookie replacement. Both James Starks and Johnathan Franklin have been a liability in pass protection at times. That is another factor that may throw a wrench into the types of packages Mike McCarthy may choose to run.
It came as a mild surprise when Mulligan didn't make the final roster. Even though he had missed portions of training camp, he had already proven earlier in his career to be an NFL-caliber blocker. Since Mulligan's signing initially seemed to be an indication that the Packers were serious about running the ball more, his release may possibly indicate that such a focus may be shifting. It may be a bit of a leap, but within the realm of possibility.
We will never see McCarthy's plans come to fruition exactly as he imagined. As one of the more innovative offensive minds in the league, he will make enough adjustments that the offense should continue to thrive.
At this point, however, it seems possible that the Packers may end up running the ball less often that it once appeared they would.