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Notebook: Big game for the smallest back

Jan. 6, 2013
 

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Green Bay Packers running back DuJuan Harris (26) sprints upfield on a carry during the first quarter of Saturday night's NFC wild-card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams (93) is at left. Packers guard Josh Sitton (71) is at right. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

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Three months ago, DuJuan Harris was an out-of-work running back trying his hand as a car salesman in Jacksonville.

On Saturday night, however, the 5-foot-8, 203-pounder stared down the tunnel at Lambeau Field as the starting running back for the Green Bay Packers.

Facing the Minnesota Vikings for the third time in 35 days, Packers coach Mike McCarthy stuck with his hot-hand approach to handling backfield snaps and Harris responded. He totaled 100 yards, including 66 in the first half, in the Packers’ 24-10 victory.

Out of football for two months before the Packers signed him to the practice squad in October, Harris rushed for 70 yards on 14 carries in last week’s 37-34 loss to the Vikings to earn the extra reps this week over veteran Ryan Grant and second-year man Alex Green.

While Harris dropped a third-and-1 check-down pass during the Packers’ first drive, he came through with a team-high five catches for 53 yards the rest of the way and scored the team’s first touchdown on a 9-yard run to close the first quarter.

“I had to stop thinking about it and move on,” Harris said of the early drop. “I was really mad about it. I should’ve had it. It hit my hands. I should have had it, but I finished strong. I told myself I wasn’t going to let it happen again.”

Harris finished with a career-high 17 carries for 47 yards, and a majority of his production came in the critical first half, including his touchdown up the heart of Minnesota’s defense that was originally ruled down at the 1 before being overturned after a McCarthy challenge.

The Packers tried to incorporate Grant a little, especially down the final stretch, but he rushed for only 7 yards on seven attempts. Green, who went down with a concussion two weeks ago, was active for the second straight week but wasn’t a part of the game plan.

That leaves Harris, who believes he has what it takes to be an every-down back in the NFL despite his small stature. While McCarthy maintains the team will play its hot hand at running back, that looks like the job Harris will take into next week’s rematch against San Francisco.

“We’ll see how the week goes,” Harris said. “Game plan could be a little different, so we’re just going to watch film and see what we need to better.”

Packers fullback John Kuhn became the only NFL player to score a touchdown in each of the last four postseasons with his 3-yard run in the second quarter. He also became the only player in Packers history to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in two postseason games after a 9-yard catch from Rodgers on the Packers’ first drive in the second half.

Welcome back

In the 10 weeks prior to Charles Woodson being cleared for contact in a game, the 15-year veteran defensive back kept up on his reading.

He read the media reports that questioned his ability at 36 years old and his chances at returning from the broken collarbone he sustained against St. Louis on Oct. 21.

So it was Woodson’s goal to show the pundits he still has something to give a Packers secondary loaded with young talent.

With bigger shoulder pads and a new-look facemask, Woodson lined up at safety and made six tackles, including a 2-yard stop of Adrian Peterson.

“For a guy like myself to sit on the sideline and watch your team play, win or lose, it’s hard to watch,” Woodson said. “I’ve read a lot of things about me and what I can’t do anymore. I felt like I couldn’t defend myself, so to be able to get out on the field and kind of remind people what I do on Sundays and Saturday or whenever, that felt good.”

The Packers hoped to have Woodson back three weeks ago against Chicago, but team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie didn’t feel comfortable clearing him until this past week. Throughout the entire process, Woodson said he and McKenzie remained on the same page.

“He just didn’t think it was ready yet,” Woodson said. “I heard a report that there was frustration between me and our doctors. That was never the case. My frustration was about not playing, but me and Dr. McKenzie have been on the same page 100 percent since it happened. I trust his opinion implicitly.”

Surprise inactives

The Vikings were forced to start third-year quarterback Joe Webb because Christian Ponder was inactive with the elbow injury he sustained in last week’s game.

Ponder was hurt on a hit by Packers safety Morgan Burnett in last Sunday’s regular-season finale, but finished the game. He tried to throw in warmups on Saturday night, but tossed only about 10 passes before exiting.

So the Vikings turned to the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Webb, who has thrown for 853 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in 17 appearances (three starts), but took only one snap during the 2012 season.

Packers inactives were wide receivers Donald Driver and Jarrett Boykin (ankle), cornerback Davon House (shoulder), running back James Starks (knee), linebacker Frank Zombo and defensive linemen Jordan Miller and Jerel Worthy (knee).

Driver was a healthy scratch in the regular-season finale against the Vikings. House was listed as probable and said Thursday he felt good to go after missing last week’s game with shoulder/hip injures.

Worthy is out for the season with a significant knee injury he sustained against the Vikings. He was on the sideline with crutches during the game while doctors wait for the swelling in the knee to go down.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s like a really serious bone bruise and something that’s going to take some time to heal,” said Worthy, one of the Packers’ two second-round picks last April. “Have some doctor’s stuff and rehab (coming up), and just making sure I do the necessary things to prevent an injury like this next time.”

Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield (broken hand) also played after being listed as questionable.

Extra points

♦ A week after having only one sack and no turnovers against Ponder, the Packers’ pass rush turned up the pressure on Webb.

It started with fifth-year veteran Erik Walden, who had three tackles, two quarterback hurries and one sack in a platoon with rookie Dezman Moses opposite Clay Matthews.

Walden’s day got off to a rough start with a misread an option play by Webb on Minnesota’s second drive that went for 11 yards, but he redeemed himself a few plays later when he coaxed Webb into an ill-advised lob on third down.

“It’s cool. Coach knows best,” Walden said of splitting snaps with Moses. “Anytime you’re a player you want to stay in. It’s been working out. Dezman is a great player. He’s making plays. We have a good three-man rotation and whatever coach has in mind we’re rolling with it.”

♦ Wide receiver Jordy Nelson stayed on the sideline for the first three drives before coming onto the field midway through the second half. He was probable to play with a knee injury he sustained against the Vikings six days earlier.

♦ After wide receiver Randall Cobb missed last week’s game with an ankle injury, the Packers opted to use him only on punt returns and utilized Jeremy Ross on kickoffs.

♦ Saturday’s paid attendance of 71,548 was the fourth-largest crowd in Lambeau Field history.

whodkiew@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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