GREEN BAY - Months of buildup engulfing Ty Montgomery and his rookie running mates reached a crescendo Saturday as the Green Bay Packers held their first padded practice of training camp. This was the moment for fans and coaches alike to form initial opinions about who — if anyone — would be capable of protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the passing game, and their proving ground would be the hellish one-on-one blitz-pickup drill.
As the elder statesman, Montgomery lined up first. His opponent, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, stood several yards away behind a faux offensive line. Martinez charged forward as Montgomery did the same. Their contact was fleeting as Martinez slipped around to the side for a metaphorical sack.
“I just need to watch the film, fix my technique and I'm going to get better at it,” Montgomery said. “I'm not going to really apologize for not being the best at pass pro, and I never had to do it before, so I definitely think I got better today and made some strides.”
Montgomery’s inauspicious start was an accurate barometer for the whole position group, whose youth and inexperience will be measured against a growth curve during the coming months. Nearly all of the running backs struggled at the beginning of Saturday’s drill, whiffing or missing or failing to maintain blocks against blitzes from different angles.
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But improvements were noticeable as the collisions continued, and running backs coach Ben Sirmans mixed instruction with positive reinforcement. Unofficially, his players won nearly half of the total reps in their first real step toward becoming three-down backs.
“It’s one of those drills that is definitely going to help work on your fundamentals,” fullback Aaron Ripkowski said. “Sometimes in the game, you know, in a full live situation there’s other variables that change some aspects of pass blocking. But at the same time, working that drill is phenomenal for our technique. You really start to see where you’re deficient as far as fundamentals go when you work that drill. It’s tough, it’s not an easy job, and that’s why we do it so we can get better.”
Coach Mike McCarthy began stressing the importance of running backs who can double as blockers during organized team activities in May, by which point the Packers had made Montgomery’s position switch a permanent change, waved goodbye to veteran tailbacks Eddie Lacy and James Starks and drafted rookie rushers in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds.
Accordingly, Sirmans spent a significant portion of OTAs and minicamp drilling the fundamentals of pass protection to a classroom of pupils who can’t rent cars without underage fees. (The age range of tailbacks on the Packers’ roster is 22 to 24.) But all along the coaches knew that nothing tangible could be discerned in the absence of pads and physical contact.
“There were some excellent snaps (without pads),” McCarthy said of the first two days of training camp. “Recognition of pressure, stepping up, particularly with the third-down work that we had yesterday. Excellent A-gap protection, wiping the linebacker across the mid-line. Now let's see them do that in pads. So just take another step. I think we'll all be watching the pass protection, because that's the thing you really have to get the pads to get a look at it.”
The observers included McCarthy, who planted himself a few feet from the blitz-pickup drill to watch each rep with a keen eye, searching for three-down running backs.
In McCarthy’s offense, the concept of a three-down back is crucial for different reasons. Not only can three-down running backs perform all of the tasks associated with the position — primarily rushing, receiving and keeping Rodgers clean — but they also can remain in the game during every situation. Without the need to substitute, McCarthy can toy with tempos to torment opposing defenses.
“You want the element of no huddle available to you,” McCarthy said. “You want to be able to turn that on any time you’re in a game, and that’s the way you want to play.”
So McCarthy watched as Montgomery lost three straight reps before recovering to win his last two. He saw Ripkowski struggle on three attempts and saw rookie Aaron Jones win twice in three tries. There were pancakes and whiffs scattered in between.
“As a freshman in college it was something I didn’t like at all, you know?” rookie Jamaal Williams said. “(But) you have to make your weaknesses and make those the things you like the most. Over time, I just started liking it and liking it more because I started understanding how to get in front of people, how to keep them in front of you and things like that.”
While the blitz-pickup drill is terrific for working on fundamentals, in reality it’s a fabricated scenario featuring two players with black-and-white responsibilities — something that almost never happens during live action.
Instead, the next step for McCarthy’s potential three-down backs is applying the proper footwork (always keep them moving), hand placement (through the opponent’s chest) and leverage principles (low man wins) to the Packers’ team drills and exhibition games, where real quarterbacks need real protection and running backs work through progressions to find their responsibilities.
Saturday was little more than the introduction.
“I had a couple bad reps because I got overly aggressive, some technique stuff,” Montgomery said. “But it's stuff I'm going to learn, you know? I got better as the reps went along and I had some good wins in there. It's going to be fine.”