GREEN BAY - In recent years, a popular line of questioning for Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers examined the playing time for veteran outside linebacker Julius Peppers, a physical specimen known for his durability.
At age 36 for much of last season — he turned 37 four days before the NFC Championship game — Peppers played somewhat sparingly until the Packers traveled to Philadelphia in Week 12. He averaged 48 percent of snaps from September through November, but from that point on Peppers was on the field for 60 percent of snaps counting playoffs.
“A guy like Julius,” Capers said late last season, “we try to make sure to monitor and control their reps early so hopefully at this time of the year we have them playing at the top of their game.”
He added: “These guys like Julius will play more now than what they have earlier.”
Flash forward to 2017 and coach Mike McCarthy and his staff are surely having similar conversations about the usage of starting running back Ty Montgomery, a player whose importance to the offense belies his age.
What was presumed to be a running back-by-committee approach for the Packers — especially after general manager Ted Thompson drafted three tailbacks earlier this year and kept all of them on the 53-man roster — instead has transformed into a one-man show during the first two weeks of the season. Montgomery has played more snaps (139) than any running back in the NFL by a wide margin, and the Packers will need to pick their spots to lessen his workload if the goal is to bottle some explosiveness for December and beyond, just as they did with Peppers.
“We’ve played two weeks,” McCarthy said at his Wednesday news conference. “You’ve got to look at the games we’ve been in, so by no means have we come out and established the rhythm and moved in and out of different personnel groups that we may have liked to in Weeks 1 and 2. So, I’m definitely aware of it and that’s what game plans are for. We start every game plan meeting with the self-scout (exercise) and play time is part of it.”
Montgomery’s playing time has held steady during the first two weeks of the season with 74 snaps against Seattle and 65 against Atlanta. His combined total of 139 leads the league by a significant amount. The rest of the top 10 is as follows: Ezekiel Elliott (123), Lamar Miller (113), Le’Veon Bell (111), C.J. Anderson (104), LeSean McCoy (94), Melvin Gordon (93), Todd Gurley (92), Christian McCaffrey (90), Dalvin Cook (88).
Behind Montgomery, the crumbs have gone to rookie Jamaal Williams, who is the only other running back to line up on offense for the Packers. Williams, a fourth-round pick from Brigham Young, played six snaps in Week 1 and 11 snaps in Week 2. He has carried four times for 15 yards and caught one pass for 5 yards.
The other two tailbacks — fifth-round pick Aaron Jones and seventh-round pick Devante Mays — each have spent one week on the 46-man game-day roster but were limited to special-teams duties. Neither has played from scrimmage.
It means Montgomery is the unquestioned star.
“I feel good,” Montgomery said. “My body feels good. And obviously I’m thankful and blessed to have a role in this offense.”
That Montgomery played so frequently against the Seahawks and Falcons could be as much a reflection of the opposition as it is the breadth of his skill set. The Packers began the season against two of the best teams in the NFC, and in moments like those the coaching staff will lean heavily on players it trusts. The same logic explains elevated snap counts for outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, who dwarfed the playing time of youthful backups Kyler Fackrell and Chris Odom.
Thus, the likelihood of Montgomery playing 88 percent of snaps all season is slim considering the differing quality of opponents from this point forward and recent trends under McCarthy. Even when former Packers running back Eddie Lacy was at his best, topping 1,100 yards in consecutive seasons in 2013 and 2014, his playing time never rose above 65 percent. He always had a complement in backup James Starks.
Such is the role Williams is likely to fill as he earns more trust from the coaches.
“You’ve just got to keep practicing and take the opportunities that you got,” Williams said. “I get more and more and then I start figuring out a rhythm and how I go about attacking a certain play or a certain defense.
“(Montgomery) just plays with a lot of power and aggressiveness and always attacking. That’s just something you need to have. Luckily I’ve got him to watch and see how he runs the ball and how he’s been so successful. I just want to put it in my game and, you know, just go out there and play my game and show what I’ve been doing at BYU and everything, make sure I’m making a comfortable transition into the NFL.”
Still, Montgomery’s dual abilities as a runner and receiver make him a legitimate three-down player for the Packers, and that allows McCarthy to increase his playing time naturally. Where Lacy was most effective on first and second downs — typically giving way to Starks on third down in obvious passing situations — Montgomery is able to stay on the field for an entire drive.
In other words, his playing time might be influenced by health and fatigue more than anything else.
“To be used in a bunch of different ways, yeah, I looked forward to that,” Montgomery said. “I’m not going to hope I don’t get touches. But I’m grateful for the touches that I do get.”
Should health and fatigue prove negligible for Montgomery — two big questions given his injury history — the opportunity is there for one of the highest snap counts around the league in recent years. According to Football Outsiders, which began tracking playing time in 2012, there have been only four tailbacks with 900 or more snaps in a season over the last five years. They are, in chronological order, Matt Forte in 2013 (928), Forte in 2014 (975), Le’Veon Bell in 2014 (927) and David Johnson in 2016 (964).
Through two games Montgomery is on pace for 1,112 snaps. Is his rate sustainable?
“Yeah,” Montgomery said. “Guys have done it before.”