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Packers know sluggish running game has to improve

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Packers know sluggish running game has to improve

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Even the Green Bay Packers recognize their running game is sluggish.

It's not that they don't want to run. Despite having Aaron Rodgers and his seemingly endless options at receiver, the Packers doggedly cling to the idea of a balanced offense, handing it off about 25 times per game.

They just don't have much, if anything, to show for it.

``You don't want teams just to commit to the passing game. You've got to get respect in the running game,'' tight end Jermichael Finley said Thursday. ``Right now, we're doing an OK job, under average. So we've got to pick it up.''

The Packers (5-3) are averaging a measly 3.7 yards per carry, with only Dallas, Arizona and New Orleans worse in the NFC. Their two rushing touchdowns are tied for fewest in the NFL. Not only have they not had a 100-yard rusher in, well, pretty much forever, they haven't had anyone come close since workhorse running back Cedric Benson went out with a foot injury in the fifth game of the season.

In fact, the entire team has cracked the century mark in yards rushing just three times this year, and not since Oct. 7 in Indianapolis.

``We just have to be more consistent,'' offensive guard Josh Sitton said. ``Sometimes, we're creating holes and they're not hitting them. Sometimes, we're just getting stuffed in the middle. It's a group effort and it hasn't been as consistent as it needs to be.''

Now, with a quarterback like Rodgers, some might wonder why the Packers even bother with a ground game. After all, when the Miami Dolphins had Dan Marino, they ran the ball about as often as it snows in South Beach and that worked out pretty well for them.

Rodgers ranks second in the NFL in both completion rate (69 percent) and passer rating (107.9), and is fourth in passing yardage (2,165 yards) and interception percentage (1.35). He has 18 touchdowns in the last five weeks alone, more than 15 teams - yes, you read that right, 15 - have managed over the entire season.

``When you've got a quarterback like that, who I think is one of the best in the NFL, who can - regardless of what you're doing, he can put the ball in places that are hard to defend,'' said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose Cardinals visit Green Bay on Sunday.

But defenses have evolved since Marino's playing days, becoming more and more specialized, and teams can't afford to be one-dimensional. If all Rodgers and the Packers do is throw the ball, it's a no-brainer for opposing defenses to throw extra bodies into the secondary. Being able to mix it up keeps defenses off guard, allows the Packers to open up their playbook a little more.

``It would take some of the pressure off of the passing game if we could have a little more balance there in the run game and just be a little more effective, put us in better down-and-distances there on second and third downs,'' Rodgers said. ``Now some defenses will come in and play what they want to play, but you've seen a couple times teams that just sat back in cover-2 and have been able to stop us with their front four, six and seven. So we have to do a better job of running the ball when we get those clean looks.''

And because the Packers play in Green Bay, there's going to come a time in the year when the snow will be falling, the wind will be howling and they'll have no choice but to run the football.

``There's going to come games where we have to close out games with the run game,'' Sitton said. ``We need to be more consistent, for sure.''

It's not as if the Packers have a running back in storage. Benson is on injured reserve, eligible to return, meaning he's out until mid-December at least. James Starks, Green Bay's leading rusher last season, has recovered from the toe injury that cost him the first five games and the preseason, but coach Mike McCarthy does not seem inclined to give him a larger role. Fullback John Kuhn is nursing a hamstring injury.

That leaves it to Alex Green, a second-year running back.

``I see the holes are there. I have to do a good job pressing the holes and make quicker reads,'' Green said. ``That's one thing I have to work on, making quicker reads and getting into the hole. The holes are there. The line's doing a great job. I just need to do my job and be a great running back.''

NOTES: WR Greg Jennings had surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, and both he and McCarthy said it went ``well.'' ... McCarthy said LB Nick Perry (knee/wrist) and CB Sam Shields (ankle) are doubtful for Sunday's game. ... CB Casey Hayward was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for October. Hayward had four interceptions in three games, a first for a Packers rookie since Tom Flynn in 1984. ... Rodgers was named the NFL's offensive player of the month. It's the sixth time he's received the honor, matching Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Barry Sanders, Steve Young and Bruce Smith for most since the award was created in 1986.

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Need to Know: Redskins QB Alex Smith understands that expectations will be high immediately

Need to Know: Redskins QB Alex Smith understands that expectations will be high immediately

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, June 20, 36 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

Emptying the notebook from the offseason practices

—Last week I wrote that Gruden expects Alex Smith to be ready to win in Week 1. Smith understands those expectations and plans to meet them. “No, I don’t think you can rely on the fact that, ‘Oh, it’s the first year here.’ Nobody cares,” he said when asked about his transition into the new offense. “It’s not like in the fall, you guys are going to be like, ‘Ah, well, this is his first year here. We’ll give him a break.’ It just doesn’t work that way.” Of course, Smith is right. If the Redskins are 1-3 in October, nobody is going to cut them any slack if their veteran quarterback who got a contract with $71 million guaranteed is struggling with the new offense. 

—I didn’t count reps during the practices that were open to the media, but it seemed that they were giving DL Jonathan Allen a light workload. “I think he did a great job of rehabbing in the offseason,” said defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. “We were kind of a little bit hesitant early on when he was here just taking reps and stuff but looks like he’s just keeps on progressing from where he kind of left off last year and the sky’s the limit for him.” The Redskins essentially will be adding two first-round picks to their D-line with Allen’s return and the addition of Daron Payne in the first round this year. I would look for Allen to get a full workload when the training camp starts. 

—There are questions about Kevin Hogan making the 53-man roster as the third quarterback. Jay Gruden had some rather tepid praise for him last week. “He’s done good,” he said. “I like Kevin. He’s a smart kid and he’s got some deceiving escape ability to him. He can run a little bit. We saw one today, he popped out of there for about a 20-yard gain. I like where he’s at.” But near the end of that practice, Hogan threw a red zone pass right into the arms of rookie CB Greg Stroman. If we see much more of that, the Redskins may keep a sixth wide receiver or tenth offensive lineman rather than a third quarterback. 

—When he is asked about the performance of undrafted rookies, Gruden usually declines to praise specific players so when he does pick out individuals it’s worth paying some attention. On Wednesday he said that WR Cam Simms and CB Danny Johnson “stood out” at their respective positions. Looking at it right now, there don’t appear to be roster spots available for either of them. But one or two undrafted players break through and make the roster every year and Simms and Johnson are two to watch. 

— “In the second year, we expect major strides for all first-year guys. I’ve said it before. So just understanding pro football, what it’s all about in your first year, you have the four preseason games and 16 regular season games,” Gruden said when asked about RB Samaje Perine. “It’s a grind, mentally. It’s all-day football, not like college where you only get 20 hours a week, so I think he understands the grind and our system a lot better.” The answer obviously applies to all of the 2017 draft picks. In particular, they will be counting on next steps from OLB Ryan Anderson, CB Fabian Moreau, WR Robert Davis, and CB Joshua Holsey. History tells us that some will take big steps, others will not.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

Timeline  

Former Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington was born on this date in 1978.

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 36
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 50
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 73

The Redskins last played a game 171 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 81 days. 

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

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