This season — at least for the time being — they have turned to a recent practice squad player to try to do the same thing.
DuJuan Harris, elevated to the active roster just 40 days ago, has been the buzz in the Packers' backfield over the past month. With 51 carries for 204 yards in the last five games, he leads all Packers rushers and figures to get his second straight playoff start this Saturday night at San Francisco, even with James Starks (knee) set to return.
"We'll see how it goes," said coach Mike McCarthy when asked if Starks could come back and contribute against the 49ers. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you how we play the game, how we're going to run it, who's going to run it. But we'll see how the week goes. We still got more work to do."
McCarthy's comments pretty much sum up in a nutshell what his mantra has been this season after running back after Cedric Benson was placed on injured reserve. The seventh-year Packers coach has stuck with the "hot hand" in the backfield on a game-by-game basis and the Packers' rushing attack has benefitted, at least statistically.
Starting with the Nov. 4 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers have averaged 117.4 rushing yards per game on 3.9 yards per carry. In the previous eight games, they averaged 90.1 and 3.7.
With Harris, who was signed to the practice squad on Oct. 24, the Packers are basically down to their fifth-string running back. Benson was the clear-cut featured back to start the season until a Lisfranc foot injury sustained in Week 5 at Indianapolis cut his season short. Brandon Saine, a backup, joined Benson on injured reserve shortly thereafter. Ryan Grant was signed on Dec. 5 after a brief stint earlier this year with the Washington Redskins. And then there are Alex Green and Starks, thought to be the top backups to Benson coming out of training camp.
Over the past six games, the Packers have had four different leading rushers. But after a strong debut against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 9, Harris has emerged. Over the past two games, he has gotten 77.5 percent of the running backs' carries and his knowledge of the offense has expanded.
"I'm still trying to get comfortable with it. I'm getting there. I'm progressing. But I still have a long way to go," said Harris, who ran for 70 yards in the Week 17 game at the Minnesota Vikings and totaled 100 yards rushing and receiving against them in the wild-card game six days later.
"I'm just trying to help the team win," he said. "Even when I was on the practice squad, I was just trying to give the team a good look. My mind-set don't change. I'm still trying to do what I can to help the team win."
In 2010, Starks came off a hamstring injury to play the last month of the regular season – where he had just 29 total carries – and then burst onto the scene in the playoffs despite his inexperience. He finished that postseason with 315 rushing yards on 81 carries, including a 123-yard game at Philadelphia as the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.
Last season, the Packers finished the regular season 15-1 while shuffling the bulk of carries on a weekly basis between Starks and Grant. That was an adjustment for Grant, who had been the Packers' unquestioned featured back from 2007 through 2009. Before that, in McCarthy's first year in Green Bay in 2006, Ahman Green was the featured back.
On Wednesday after practice, Grant weighed the pros and cons of going with the "hot hand" at running back.
"The pros are that if you're hot, he's going to go with you," said Grant. "I guess the cons are that you might not possibly be able to get in a rhythm if it doesn't happen. But that's part of the game. You just have to deal with the circumstances and be able to go whenever your number's called."
Grant saw his number called in the run game 20 times on Dec. 23 in a 55-7 win over the Tennessee Titans. He got into a groove with 80 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, he has carried just nine times for 9 yards in the past two games.
Alex Green — the Packers' leading rusher during the regular season with 464 yards — had his big chance after Benson got hurt. For a three-game stretch from the Houston Texans to the Jacksonville Jaguars games, he totaled 91.4 percent of the running backs' carries but offered limited production (just 2.4 yards per carry). He bounced back with better games against the Cardinals, Vikings (Dec. 2), and Lions (Dec. 9), but after a concussion at Chicago on Dec. 16, he was inactive and has not played in the last two games with Harris and Grant taking all the running backs' carries.
Starks got 79.2 percent of the running backs carries against the Cardinals and at Detroit (Nov. 18) and had his best game against the Vikings (Dec. 2) with 15 carries for 66 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown run. His most recent injury, however, sidelined him for the final four regular season games and the playoff opener. He was a full participant in practice on Wednesday after being limited last week.
Starks would give the Packers another option with five running backs – counting fullback John Kuhn – practicing this week. For now, however, the 5-foot-8, 203-pound Harris seems to provide the dynamic mix that is working. He finished the regular season with 157 rushing yards on 34 carries for a 4.6-yard average, best among running backs on the team by a half-yard. And the increased stakes at this point in the season are hardly stressing him.
"I just look at it as a title. It just has the playoff title," said Harris of the postseason games. "But it's a game just like any other game and that's how I'm going to approach it."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org