GREEN BAY, Wis. — By rights, the Green Bay Packers really shouldn’t be exposing Randall Cobb as a running back.
If Jordy Nelson, James Jones or Cobb goes down, the gap between them and Jarrett Boykin, the only other wide receiver on the roster, is a mile long.
But when his Green Bay Packers were going nowhere fast Sunday at Lambeau Field, coach Mike McCarthy rolled the dice midway through the third quarter of a 6-3 game by beginning a series with the former University of Kentucky star instead of Eddie Lacy or Johnathan Franklin.
Cobb’s 67-yard run — on just his fourth backfield snap of the season — flipped the complexion of an early NFC North Division showdown that ended up being won handily by the Packers, 22-9, over the Detroit Lions.
“We were talking about it on the sidelines,” tackle David Bakhtiari said. “We needed to get a spark and open up. He (Cobb) is the one that we were talking about. He answered the call. He’s a hell of a player.”
In one of the most shocking deactivations before a Packers game in years, the Lions decided after a midmorning workout that Calvin Johnson wouldn’t dress because of a sore knee.
One betting service learned that “Megatron” was inactive and immediately jacked its line from Green Bay by 7 points to Green Bay by 10.
“When you miss the greatest wide receiver in NFL history,” said one of his replacements, Kris Durham, “it will have an impact.”
Johnson’s absence, however, had nothing to do with the stubborn defense ably coordinated by Gunther Cunningham.
Despite permitting the Packers to mount drives of 15, 12 and nine plays, the Lions forced them to settle for just two Mason Crosby field goals in the first half.
Through trial and error since 2009, Cunningham has found the best way to play the Packers was two-high safeties, soft corners and a furious four-man rush.
Before the Packers began that momentum-turning series from their 11, they had gained merely 163 yards in 40 plays (4.1). The longest gain was 25 yards.
After that, the Packers ran 24 plays for 286 yards. That’s an average of 11.9 per play and the main reason the Lions departed with their historic 23rd consecutive defeat in the state, counting playoffs.
Basically neutered on offense without Johnson and Nate Burleson, their No. 2 wide receiver, the Lions were just trying to hang around and maybe spring the upset through a lucky bounce or an official’s call. Stranger things have happened.
Then McCarthy made his canny substitution, Cobb worked his magic and the Packers improved to 2-2, one-half game behind division co-leaders Detroit and Chicago.
“We didn’t want to go to 1-3,” said guard T.J. Lang. “We didn’t want to go into that hole. You have to take advantage of your home games and you have to win your division games.”
Counting playoffs, Green Bay is 18-2 at Lambeau in the last 2½ seasons. McCarthy is 14-1 against the Lions, including 8-1 against coach Jim Schwartz.
“Very pleased with the victory today,” said McCarthy. “Great to be back home.”
Featuring Eddie Lacy for injured James Starks, the Packers’ ground game had been 19 carries for a ho-hum 67 yards (3.5) when Cobb set up just to Aaron Rodgers’ left in a shotgun formation.
It was Cobb’s first snap at running back since Sept. 15. At the same time, McCarthy flanked James Jones wide left with two tight ends and Jordy Nelson to the right.
Before the snap, center Evan Dietrich-Smith spied outside linebacker DeAndre Levy walking outside of right end Ziggy Ansah. The play was a straight handoff to Cobb, and Dietrich-Smith recognized that on his pull he would have to track around Bakhtiari to get Levy.
Ansah stepped inside just before the snap and was washed inside by Bakhtiari. While Dietrich-Smtih was pulling wide, Josh Sitton locked up Ndamukong Suh in the hole and Lang came off a double-team block of Nick Fairley with Don Barclay to get just enough of middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, too.
Dietrich-Smith was on Levy just as Cobb slashed between the linebacker and Ansah, leaving the Kentucky product one-on-one with safety Louis Delmas.
A jarring hitter all day, Delmas was accustomed to Lacy’s moderate speed from his first 15 carries. As Cobb flew toward him, Delmas took a too-flat angle and had no choice but to make a desperate dive at Cobb’s legs 9 yards downfield.
He missed, and Cobb was off to the races.
“Randall gives the defense a different look,” said Sitton. “I like it a lot. Hell of a player. Yeah. No doubt.”
The 67-yard rush, longest by a Packer since Brandon Jackson went for 71 in Game 5 of 2010, represented 37 percent of the 180-yard rushing haul. It gave the Packers an average of 167 yards in the last three games, and 141 for the season.
How rare is this for Green Bay? Since ranking third in rushing with an average of 159.9 in 2003, the Packers’ best mark has been 119.3 in ‘04. McCarthy’s high-water mark was 117.8 in ‘09.
“I like our run game right now,” fullback John Kuhn said. “We made a conscious effort this week of really trying to have ball control...so the defense could rest a little bit.
“I thought we did what we went out there to do. We just have to finish a little bit better and the score is 30 or 40 instead of 22.”
Cobb’s explosive run set up the third of Crosby’s five field goals. Then, when Delmas blew a coverage and jumped Cobb inside, Rodgers found James Jones deep for 83 and the first touchdown on the next series.
Later, with Cunningham forced out of conservative mode and sending an eighth defender into the box, a Rodgers-to-Jones connection for 39 set up a closing field goal.
“We are a spread offense...a three-receiver offense,” said Rodgers. “Jermichael (Finley) adds a fourth receiver option there. If they’re going to play a lot of high safeties and stay in two-high or roll down late, we’re going to make you tackle a 230-pound back (Lacy).”
Having Johnson on the sideline in civvies enabled the defense to gang up on running back Reggie Bush, whose 17-touch average of 5.9 was below his three-game mark of 7.3.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan spread the field, limiting Dom Capers to just one snap of 3-4 base defense. It was from shotgun sets that Bush cut up the Vikings and Bears.
Time after time Bush would probe the interior, but with Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji holding fast and Clay Matthews either slipping around left tackle Riley Reiff or crashing down unblocked, he generally was suffocated.
Minus Johnson, safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings kept making late checks before one usually would enter the box to surround Bush.
“They usually move their safety up to the strength of the formation and Calvin gets a lot of attention,” Durham said. “They usually play more two-high. Today, it was more one-high.”
Now the Packers, even at .500, find themselves trailing just six teams in the NFC, and only two (New Orleans, Seattle) have fewer than two losses.
“The health of this football team is going to be very important come November and December for us to make the kind of run we want,” said Rodgers. “We had some setbacks on defense today...the next guy’s got to step up and play well.”