Packers' run game an incomplete puzzle

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Packers receiver Ty Montgomery (88) runs for a big gain during the third quarter against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 20 at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - As the Green Bay Packers headed into their eighth game a season ago, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was going to take handoffs from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The odds of either Eddie Lacy or James Starks receiving it were overwhelming; together they accounted for nearly 93 percent of all non-quarterback carries (146 of 158).

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It won’t be so predictable Sunday when the Packers play their eighth game of this season, a Lambeau Field meeting with the Indianapolis Colts (3:25 p.m. kickoff).

Not only do the Colts not really know who will be the primary carrier, the Packers probably don’t, either. The only sure thing is that neither Lacy nor Starks will be carrying it at all.

“We go into each and every game with a formula and a game plan as far as how the ball will be distributed,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “Coach (Mike) McCarthy has done that since Day 1.

“But it also comes down to guys making the most of those opportunities, everyone being on the same page and going out and executing. That obviously plays an important part of it as well.”

In other words, the Packers will go into the game with a notion how they’ll use a combination of Ty Montgomery, Don Jackson, Aaron Ripkowski and maybe even Randall Cobb and Davante Adams.

But everything is subject to change.

Montgomery, cleared to play after missing the Atlanta game due to a sickle-cell-related ailment, stands to be the primary ball carrier. The Packers are all-in in transforming him from wide receiver to running back and think he can assume a full-time role until Starks returns from a knee injury.

“He pretty much spends a lot of time with me in my meeting room,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “The thing that helps is, he’s got a great grasp of what to do as a receiver whereas the running back position is obviously a little new for him in terms of this offense.

“But he did it in high school, did some of it at Stanford, so we do spend a lot of time together and I think when a guy of his ability, when you can blend both at a pretty good level, it makes you a pretty good weapon to have.”

The most Montgomery has carried in a game is nine times. It was that Week 7 performance in which he gained 60 yards – 30 of them on one carry – that validated the Packers’ decision to move him to running back.

Whereas Cobb playing in the backfield has been a gimmick – and not a very productive one – using Montgomery there has provided a spark to a flagging offense.

Montgomery lined up in the backfield 49 times (including penalty plays) against the Bears. On plays in which he started there, Rodgers completed 26 of 39 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, including 8 of 11 for 57 yards to Montgomery.

The down side of Montgomery being so heavily involved in the run game is that he’s not used to big men constantly pawing at the ball and has fumbled twice, losing one at the end of the Dallas game. He also hasn’t proven he can consistently pass protect, which is something teams might force him to do through blitzing.

The Packers have a more traditional option they can use if Montgomery isn’t effective or tires in the form of Don Jackson, the 5-10, 205-pound rookie added from the practice squad before the Bears game.

Jackson has six carries for 16 yards and remains an unknown commodity.

“He’s instinctive, he’s got juice in his body,” McCarthy said. “Frankly, he needs to play. (Atlanta) was the first (full) game he played in in quite some time. He just needs to slow down a little bit, detail his work.

“I thought he had an excellent pass-protection pickup and that’s what you want to see. He’ll get more opportunities this week and we’re going to just keep working with him and try to detail how he’s going to be used.”

Until the last couple of weeks, most people didn’t think of Ripkowski as an option in the running game, but the fullback has been productive with the ball in his hands, carrying 12 times for 59 yards (4.9 average), including six for 34 against Atlanta.

Ripkowski carried just six times at Oklahoma, all in his senior season, so there wasn’t much evidence that he could offer a little of what John Kuhn once did. Kuhn was a single-back lead rusher in college and had lots of experience carrying the ball, but the 6-1, 238-pound Ripkowski was a mystery.

“I knew right away there was more there just because special teams,” McCarthy said. “He jumped off the video to me, particularly in kickoff coverage. When you see someone cover as well as he does and particularly make open-field tackles, particularly with his body type and so forth, it tells you something about the man, his instincts and just his ability to play football.”

The Packers didn’t really even try to find out about Ripkowski as a ballcarrier in training camp.

“I don’t remember him getting it once,” safety Kentrell Brice said. “But I’m not surprised. The guy is a good athlete. He’s hard to bring down.”

Ripkowski has endeared himself to the offensive line with his refusal to go down easily. When he’s got the ball the linemen look to cover quickly and drive the pile forward, knowing there’s extra yards to be had.

The only concern is that the longer he refuses to go down, the more opportunities opponents have of stripping the ball. It’s something Starks had to learn over time and still has trouble with.

Ripkowski isn’t going to become the lead back, but he’s yet another undefined piece of an unfinished puzzle.

“We’re not asking him to run outside zones or something that we think may be unfair to his ability,” Sirmans said. “He could do it if we wanted him to and probably would do a great job with it, but I think the plays that we’re running with him are more suited to his ability level.

“I think he averaged 5.7 yards a carry with that (against Atlanta), so a lot of it comes down to what you ask him to do.”

At this point, that’s changing almost weekly and probably won’t even be determined until the game goes on Sunday.

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