The Packers' Running Game - Part 1: A Look Back at 2012

USA TODAY Sports

The latest in our statistical analysis series takes a look at the way the Packers used the run in the first half of the 2012 season compared to the second half.

Under coach Mike McCarthy the Packers have been known as a throw-first, run-second team. With each passing year that reputation is tossed around and pitched by experts as common knowledge. Looking back at the 2012 rushing numbers for the Packers, those statements to peg the Packers as a passing only team appear to be only partially true.

2012 Rushing Summary

Last season for the Packers was a season of two halves (interesting, I know). The first half of the season saw the Packers perpetuate their reputation and continue to throw the ball at unhealthy levels, highlighted by the first half of the week three struggle against the Seahawks. In that half alone, the Packers called three run plays (and of course one was to wide receiver Randall Cobb), 27 pass plays, and allowed eight sacks. That half and other similar games are what form opinions around the country about the Packers' play calling, run game, and overall offensive line performance.

However, the basic statistics show that the second half of the 2012 season actually saw the Packers run the ball and run it a lot. All together, the Packers finished the season ranked right in the middle of the NFL in rushing attempts (16th), a mediocre ranking but still a stat that would surprise a lot of the pundits. Even more surprising, entering the final game of the regular season the Packers were tied for 5th in the NFL in rushing attempts per game in the second half of the year. To put that into perspective, they were tied with the run-heavy Minnesota Vikings with 31.7 rushes per game. However that is brushed aside and not noticed by major analysts because Aaron Rodgers is very good at throwing the ball and the Packers still ranked poorly at 22nd in yards per attempt on the season. Below is a chart of the Packers' running statistics in the first and second half of the season.

Packers' 2012 team rushing stats by season half

Games 1-8 Games 9-16
Avg. Rush Att/game 23.13 28.75
Att/game NFL Rank 24 11
Yards Per Carry 3.92 4.30
YPC NFL Rank 29 18
Games with >40% run plays 2 7
Run Play % 35.9% 42.6%
Rushing TDs 2 7

The Packers saw themselves improve on their running game in essentially every important category from the first half of 2012 to the second half. Not only did the Packers improve their attempts by five attempts per game, they also upped their yards per attempt by almost 0.4 yards per attempt, improving their NFL rankings from 24th to 11th and 29th to 18th in attempts per game and yards per carry, respectively, from the first half to the second half of the season.

As mentioned above, on the surface the Packers appeared to run the ball a lot more consistently and efficiently in the second half of the season. While this is true, the majority of those carries came in the 4th quarter of games as the Packers tried to sure up a win. The first half of the season the Packers had a record of 5-3 and ran the ball 38.5% of the time in the 4th quarter. In the second half of the season the Packers went 6-2 but ran the ball 55.2% of the time in the fourth quarter. That 17 percent discrepancy between the first and second halves of the season explains why the Packers suddenly became a top five team in rushing attempts in games 9 through 15 last season.

Despite the jump in fourth quarter rushing attempts, though, the Packers did make a larger effort to run the ball throughout in the second half of the season. As shown in the tables below, the Packers ran the ball more often every quarter in the second half of the season than they did in the first half of the season and when looking at wins and losses, the discrepancy in run percentage by quarter is even larger. It is simple: the more often the Packers ran the ball to balance out the offense, the more likely they were to win.

Percentage of running plays

Full Season Games 1-8 Games 9-16 Wins Losses
1st Quarter 40.0% 36.5% 43.9% 40.3% 39.0%
2nd Quarter 30.0% 29.0% 30.8% 32.7% 24.4%
3rd Quarter 41.0% 39.2% 42.8% 41.1% 40.7%
4th Quarter 46.8% 38.5% 55.2% 56.2% 26.2%
Total 39.3% 35.9% 42.6% 42.5% 31.9%
Quarters 1-3 36.8% 35.0% 38.4% 37.9% 33.9%

Even without accounting for the large 17% difference in run percentage in the 4th quarter between the first half and second half of the season and the even larger difference in run percentage in the 4th quarter of wins compared to losses (30%), the numbers show that the Packers still made an effort to run the ball more during every quarter of the game as the season went on.

The extra rushing attempts appeared to greatly improve the Packers in other areas as well. The Packers not only carried the ball more in the second half of the season, they improved their passing yards per attempt by 1.28 yards per attempt and an even more impressive 2.11 yards per completion. They also improved their time of possession, point differentials, and most importantly, they improved upon the number of times Aaron Rodgers was sacked by 18 percent.

Packers' offensive differentials, 1st half of season vs. 2nd half

Pass Yds/Att Pass Yds/Comp Sacks/Game Time of Poss Points For Points Against
Games 1-8 6.77 9.81 3.50 29:40 26.0 21.3
Games 9-16 8.05 11.93 2.88 31:13 28.1 20.8
Difference 1.28 2.11 0.62 1:33 2.1 0.5

What changed?

The 2012 Packer rushing attack was seemingly in-flux all year long. All together, five running backs shared the load for the Packers with only Alex Green playing substantially in both halves of the season. While Cedric Benson and Green were the primary runners in the first half, the stable included Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant, and DuJuan Harris over the second half of the season.

Of course, there's also the fact that the Packers lost RT Bryan Bulaga at the halfway point of the season and benched center Jeff Saturday a few games later. Each of those moves along the offensive line affected the running game as well.

Conclusions

We know that the Packers were more effective at running the ball in the second half of the 2012 season than the first half. Whether Mike McCarthy used it more because it was more effective or if it was more effective because it was used more, we can't be sure yet. Still, we are confident that with improved talent at the running back position and a clear commitment to using the run in 2013, the running game and the offense as a whole will be much more effective.

Coming up next week, we'll take a look at how each of the running backs fared on runs in different directions.

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