GREEN BAY - Regardless of when and where the Green Bay Packers' season ultimately is laid to rest, whether it’s during the season finale at Ford Field in Detroit or somewhere far grander, the 22nd of October endures as an influential moment.
That afternoon, at 1:16 p.m., the organization issued a news release confirming reports that running back Eddie Lacy had been placed on injured reserve. And from that point forward, across three wins, four losses and what appears to be a miniature revival, the running game resembled the latest edition of Choose Your Own Adventure.
One page produced Don Jackson, an undrafted rookie from the practice squad. Another yielded Knile Davis, the rent-a-player from the Kansas City Chiefs. Other chapters employed James Starks, Ty Montgomery and quarterback Aaron Rodgers — all of which, it should be noted, produced varying degrees of success.
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“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” fullback Aaron Ripkowski said, “and the defense has to worry about a lot instead of keying in on a few things.”
Emboldened by snowy weather Sunday, coach Mike McCarthy turned to his offensive line to establish a consistent running game. He mauled repeatedly behind the left side, behind left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Lane Taylor, peppering the Houston Texans with six different ball carriers and twice as many personnel groupings. The end result, culminating in a 21-13 win to keep pace with the Detroit Lions, went down as the Packers’ most fruitful rushing display in the last month: Twenty-six combined carries for 109 yards and a crucial fourth-quarter score.
“We were just sticking with the run, being physical up front,” Taylor said. “I think the backs did some good things today, made some people miss. Just a solid day.”
In a season defined by injuries, the Packers entered Sunday without the running ability of Rodgers, who injured his hamstring in Philadelphia last week. Rodgers, who is the team’s second-leading rusher, chipped in 37.8 yards per game in the five-week stretch that began with the Atlanta Falcons and ended against the Eagles. There were times when his third-down conversions kept the entire offense afloat.
But Rodgers was hobbled from the opening kickoff and finished with his fewest rushing yards since mid-October. He did not even attempt to run until the final minute of the third quarter when he ducked out of bounds with a 5-yard scramble. Rodgers finished with just 16 yards.
“I wasn’t worried about my slipping,” Rodgers said. “ … I was just trying to be smart about my hamstring and not extend too many plays.”
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Sans Rodgers, the Packers spread their carries until five players had at least three attempts. Christine Michael, who debuted fleetingly against the Eagles, gained 19 yards on nine attempts, the latter being the most of any player. He flashed an explosive burst on a 7-yard gain through the hole and, despite a lowly 2.1 yards per carry, never shied away from contact against an aggressive defense.
From there the offense got creative. A few weeks ago, the decision by general manager Ted Thompson to elevate another fullback to the active roster felt rather odd. Why did the Packers need Joe Kerridge when Ripkowski was playing well?
The answer surfaced Sunday when McCarthy unveiled a power formation that featured Kerridge and Ripkowski on the field at the same time. In effect, the running back behind them ran behind a supercharged offensive line.
“It’s good to have fullbacks in the game,” Kerridge said. “We take every rep that we can get. We just try to be an extension of the offensive line from the backfield and help out the running back as much as we can to get the job done.”
All week, McCarthy lamented Montgomery’s lack of involvement against the Eagles, when he touched the ball three times for 14 total yards. So as Starks continued to struggle — he gained 1 yard on four carries and hardly saw the field — it was Montgomery who got the call.
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Late in the third quarter, with the score tied 7-7, the Packers began a possession at their own 2-yard line after the Texans downed a terrific punt. The drive ended with a touchdown 98 yards later, with Rodgers finding Jordy Nelson for a 32-yard score, and none of it would have happened without Montgomery’s 13-yard carry on a pivotal third-and-1.
“Ty is a big guy now,” Bakhtiari said. “ … Look at him, he’s a freaking Under Armour model. Just muscles on muscles.”
Four minutes later, McCarthy’s creativity struck again on the drive that sealed the victory. With the defense frozen by the threat of Montgomery, the Packers called for a jet sweep to wide receiver Jeff Janis, one of the fastest players on the team. He turned the corner for 19 yards before getting tackled a few feet from the end zone.
Ripkowski barreled into the end zone on the very next play.
“It puts a lot on the plate for a defense,” Taylor said. “The more personnel groupings you put out there the more they just have to think about.”