Beefing up the run adds key dimension to Packers' offense Improved offensive line gives impressive results; SUPER BOWL XXXI

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The best-kept secret in the NFL is finally out in the open.

The Green Bay Packers have a running game.

And a pretty efficient one at that, even if the names of the principals are hardly recognizable.

Unlike past seasons, when the Packers' offense operated almost solely on the passing arm of quarterback Brett Favre, this year's team can count on the rush to move the ball.

It did in an NFC semifinal victory over the San Francisco 49ers, when Edgar Bennett sliced through the muck of rain-drenched Lambeau Field for 80 of the Packers' 139 rushing yards.

It did again in the NFC championship game against the Carolina Panthers, when Bennett and Dorsey Levens combined for 187 rushing yards in a dominating, 201-yard effort.

That running game, in fact, is one of the reasons the Packers are two-touchdown favorites to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday night in Super Bowl XXXI at the Superdome in New Orleans.

In a season in which everybody pays tribute to the sharp edge of the Favre air show, it's the blunt end of the Green Bay running game that could knock the Patriots back on their heels.

"I think it takes some pressure off Brett," Packers guard Adam Timmerman said. "[Defenders] have to come up and respect the run now. That opens up the whole offense."

During Mike Holmgren's five-year tenure as coach, the offensive line has been his most mediocre unit. A year ago, the Packers ranked 28th in yards per rush (3.5), and their 89.3 yards per game represented Green Bay's worst since 1958.

In the 1996 regular season, they raised those averages significantly -- to 4.0 a carry and 114.9 a game.

The difference was a commitment by Holmgren to the run that wasn't there before.

"I admit in years past, I'd come off things that weren't working faster," said Holmgren, who handles the offensive play-calling.

"I challenged the offensive line this year. I was probably more vocal than in the past. I believe this: You're as good as your offensive line."

A year ago, the Packers averaged a modest 25.6 rush attempts. This season, they bumped it up to 29. In two home playoff games, played in inclement weather, they averaged 42 carries.

"It's been working, so it makes it a lot easier to call," Timmerman said. "He can call whatever plays he wants. He's running the show."

Even with a young and unsettled line because of injury, the Packers rushed for 100 yards or more in 11 of the 16 regular-season games. They failed to crack 100 in each of their three losses.

In the past six games -- five at Lambeau, including two in the playoffs -- the Packers have run the ball with authority seldom seen in Green Bay since John Brockington had three straight 1,000-yard seasons in the early 1970s.

They are averaging 4.47 yards a carry and 152 a game over that stretch.

Holmgren said much of the credit should go to the unsung members of a line that averages a beefy 303 pounds.

Of that crew, only left guard Aaron Taylor, a former No. 1 pick from Notre Dame, arrived from a big-time program. Left tackle Bruce Wilkerson, a 10-year veteran, signed as a free agent, and center Frank Winters, also a 10-year man, signed in Plan B free agency.

The Packers drafted the two other starters from obscure schools -- Timmerman from South Dakota State and right tackle Earl Dotson from Texas A & I.

"They should receive a lot of credit, because they have been a much-maligned group, especially early in the season," Holmgren said of the line. "We had to insert some young people early in the season; Aaron Taylor was coming off a serious knee injury.

"They hung in there; they're battlers. I think in the last four games, we've run the ball very well, we've pass-protected pretty well and they've come into their own."

Said Winters of the team's success: "A lot of it was dedication and attitude. A lot of things said about us motivate us."

Bennett and Levens capitalized. For the first time in his five-year career, Bennett averaged 4 yards a carry. Levens, who played in short-yardage situations and in the one-back set, averaged 4.7.

And at long last, the Packers found a running game.

Coming tomorrow

Tomorrow's coverage of the Super Bowl in The Sun will include articles on:

The Green Bay Packers' Desmond Howard, whose punt returns this season have been just as dramatic as his turnaround from his first few years as an NFL bust.

The New England Patriots' David Meggett, one of coach Bill Parcells' best imports from the Giants.

Pack's versatile attack

Quarterback Brett Favre and the passing game get all the attention, but the Green Bay Packers have topped the 100-yard mark in rushing six consecutive games.

Date .. ..Opponent .. .. ..No. .. ..Yds. .. ..Avg. .. ..TD .. ..Result

Dec. 1 ...Chicago .. .. ...26 .. ...126 .. ...4.8 .. .. .2 ...W, 28-17

Dec. 8 ...Denver .. .. .. .29 .. ...103 .. ...3.6 .. .. .0 ...W, 41-6

Dec. 15 ..at Detroit .. ...26 .. ...111 .. ...4.3 .. .. .2 .. .W, 31-3

Dec. 22 ..Minnesota .. .. .41 .. ...233 .. ...5.7 .. .. .2 ...W, 38-10

Jan. 4 ...San Francisco* ..39 .. ...139 .. ...3.6 .. .. .2 ...W, 35-14

Jan. 12 ..Carolina* .. .. .45 .. ...201 .. ...4.5 .. .. .1 ...W, 30-13

* -- Postseason

Pub Date: 1/20/97

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