How Will the Offense Function Without Grant?

Beyond the obvious production, what are the Packers losing without Ryan Grant? When was Grant at his best and why are there such huge questions on whether Brandon Jackson can fill that void? How will the offense change? And who on earth is Dimitri Nance?

The worst fears have been realized with Ryan Grant out for the season with an ankle injury. Beyond the basics of Grant's production (back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons) and reliability (no fumbles on a running play for 299 carries dating to the 2008 finale), what does this mean for the Green Bay Packers' ability to compete for a world championship?

Dependability

First off, Grant has been extremely durable. He sat out his first game in Green Bay after being acquired from the New York Giants. He hasn't missed a game since. After becoming the featured ball-carrier, he's had double-digits carries in 43 of 46 games (including playoffs), with the three single-carries games being the 2007 finale, when he was rested for the playoff drive, last year's shootout at Pittsburgh and Sunday, when he was sidelined after his ninth carry.

While Grant had gone a perfect 51-for-51 in games despite a heavy workload, new starter Brandon Jackson has played in only 39 of 52 games despite his more limited role. He missed a four-game stretch as a rookie with a shin injury, two games in 2008 with an injured wrist and the first four games of last year with a sprained ankle.

Which begs the question: Can Jackson hold up as the starter? Time will tell, but at the urging of his wife, Jackson worked out harder and ate better this offseason than ever before in preparation for this moment.

"Oh, yeah, I feel way more prepared," he said on Monday. "The things you do in the offseason prepare you for the season."

For his career, Jackson averages 4.0 yards per carry. At times, he's run indecisively and been taken down too easily. But with limited touches since early in his rookie season, he hasn't been given the opportunity to really get into the flow. He'll get that chance now.

With a paper-thin backfield, the situation would go from dire with Jackson to desperate without him, because not only is he the team's lone, experience ball-carrier but he's such a valuable asset in protecting Aaron Rodgers.

Endurance

If Grant wasn't the best-conditioned player on the team, he was near the top of the list. Day after day during the dog days of training camp, Grant would get stopped near the line of scrimmage, the whistle would blow, and Grant would take off on a 50-, 60- or 70-yard sprint to the end zone. It was that work ethic and determination that made him one of the game's most underrated running backs.

While Jackson hasn't had more than 11 carries in a game since his rookie season, Grant had 17 games of 20-plus carries since midway through the 2007 season. Grant topped 20 carries seven times last year. That includes a six-game stretch at midseason in which he averaged 19.8 rushes, 90.5 yards and 4.6 yards per carry. After carry No. 15 last year, he averaged 4.4 yards per attempt. After carry No. 20, he averaged 7.7 yards per carry.

Moreover, Grant averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter in 2009 compared to his season average of 4.4, and 4.4 yards per carry in the fourth quarter in 2008 compared to his season average of 3.9.

And despite the heavy workload, Grant averaged 4.5 yards per carry in November and 3.9 in December in 2008, and 4.3 yards per carry in November and 5.0 in December in 2009.

The ability to pound away with Grant was a luxury for coach Mike McCarthy. Clearly, that thinking probably will have to change.

How the offense changes

Jackson assumes the starting mantle, with combo fullback-halfback John Kuhn as the No. 2 and Dimitri Nance signed off the Falcons' practice squad to round out the group.


John Kuhn
Miles Kennedy/AP Images
It seems pretty clear that the Packers' offense is going to change. Last year, the Packers threw it (or were sacked) on 58 percent of their offensive snaps. That figures to go up to at least 60 percent, and it's almost inconceivable that they'll hand the ball to the running backs 23.8 snaps per game, like they did last year.

Beyond play selection, how will McCarthy mix and match Jackson and Kuhn? Jackson is now the top rusher but he also remains the top third-down back because of his superb blitz protection. The coaches say Jackson can be that three-down back, but until he proves he can handle 50 or 60 snaps per game, the jury is out.

"The good thing about it, we know he can play all three downs. And we're certainly comfortable in that," running backs coach Edgar Bennett said on Monday. "But (on Sunday), he started to show the complete package. He can play on all downs, in all situations, and be productive. I thought he did a good job – as far as showing run instincts, he broke tackles, accelerated his feet on contact and finished moving the pile forward, made people miss. Then you look at what he's able to do in the passing game, he's a good receiver out of the backfield."

Kuhn has produced consistently in a carry or two per game. Now, he'll probably get the ball five or 10 times a game on first or second down. Otherwise, Jackson will be worn down for third down, which would impact his ability to protect the offense's most valuable asset, Rodgers. Don't overlook that. Yes, the Packers lose a big-time runner in Grant, but how they use Jackson could affect the passing game.

From one perspective, Grant's absence means the offense will turn to more passing and finesse. From another perspective, the offense could turn more physical with the 250-pound Kuhn running in a formation with two or even three tight ends, like the Ravens did in 2008 when they were forced to turn 260-pound LeRon McClain into their featured back. That forced versatility could make the Packers even harder to stop.

Wishing and hoping

The Packers' decision to pluck Nance off the Falcons' practice squad seems like an odd move. Former Steelers running back Willie Parker, for example, is unemployed, Ahman Green is in the UFL and the Bills have been looking to deal Marshawn Lynch.

Parker, however, will turn 30 in November and rushed for just 389 yards with six receptions last season after averaging 1,336 yards and 24 receptions from 2005 through 2007.

Lynch, 24, rushed for only 450 yards in 13 games last season and barely played last week after averaging 1,076 yards in 2007 and 2008. He might not fit the Packers' "Packer people" blueprint — a mold that general manager Ted Thompson has refused to budge from — but if the status quo isn't good enough, Thompson might be willing to gamble, with the trade deadline on Oct. 19.

But making a bold move just seems so far outside of Thompson's box while grabbing a young guy like Nance is right in his wheelhouse.

An undrafted free agent from Arizona State, Nance rushed for team highs of 795 yards (4.2 average) as a senior and 410 yards (3.9 average) as a junior. A prep phenom at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, Nance and Cedric Benson are the only Texas 5A players to top 3,000 rushing yards for their careers.

A few years ago, Thompson's decision to trade a sixth-round pick to the Giants for Grant hardly was newsworthy. Maybe he hits the jackpot with Nance, who the Falcons wanted to keep after a solid training camp.

"More of a power back with some shiftiness in the open field. He's not a burner but a good backup," said Chris Steuber of NFL Draft Scout and formerly of Scout.com. "Primarily a backup during his career at Arizona State, Nance received his opportunity to be a featured back this past season. He participated in the East-West Shrine Game this offseason but wasn't invited to the Scouting Combine. He's a good complementary runner and could be an asset on third-down situations."

The other in-house options are practice squad runner James Johnson and James Starks, the sixth-round pick who is on the PUP list because of hamstring problems. However, it's debatable how much Starks can contribute after missing two weeks of OTAs, the June minicamp and all of training camp.

Other veteran options mentioned by Fox Sports NFL insider Adam Caplan include established veterans Justin Fargas, 30; Ladell Betts, 31; Jamal Lewis, 31 and a few younger players like DeDe Dorsey, 26; Kolby Smith, 25; Chris Jennings, 24; and speedy Dantrell Savage, 25.

For now, it's up to Jackson and Kuhn, and more importantly, it's up to McCarthy to retool the offense on the fly.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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