While rookie Dimitri Nance is highly unlikely to follow in Grant's footsteps by averaging 103 rushing yards to finish the season, perhaps the Packers have found a spark in otherwise unproductive running game.
Nance's stats against Minnesota – 12 rushes for 37 yards – hardly compare favorably to Grant's breakout performance at Denver in 2007, when he carried 22 times for 104 yards. Then again, it's not like Brandon Jackson is reminding anyone of Grant, either. Since Jackson's 115-yard game at Washington in Week 5, he has totaled 236 yards in his last five games with a per-carry average of 3.5 yards.
Interestingly, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Jackson and Nance – not Jackson and John Kuhn – will form a "good one-two punch" for the NFL's 19th-ranked running game. Kuhn carried 13 times for 50 yards against Dallas before the bye but didn't touch the ball against Minnesota.
"I liked his quickness," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said of the 5-foot-10, 219-pound Nance on Monday. "I don't know if it's fresh legs – we haven't worn him out, certainly. He looked quick. He ran the ball hard, decisively and had pretty good pad level. He's not an overly big guy, obviously, but we liked his body lean when he ran the football. Protected the ball well. We put him in there against Dallas (four carries, 5 yards) in kind of a tough situation in a four-minute situation (and) they had a bunch of guys up there in the front and it was hard to really get any kind of evaluation out of it. I thought (Sunday) was a good step forward."
Nance was signed off the Falcons' practice squad after Grant's season-ending injury. He got a couple carries in that Week 2 game against Buffalo but had barely seen action other than on special teams until the Minnesota game. Nance figures to get another extended look when the Packers travel to Atlanta to face his former team in a key NFC game this week.
Nance, who led Arizona State in rushing in his final two seasons before being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Falcons, showed the ability to get through a hole and showed power against Minnesota when he ran over standout linebacker E.J. Henderson.
"Everywhere I've been, when I was in college, I was on short-yardage, and when I was in Atlanta they had me doing short-yardage," Nance said. "I'm pretty comfortable with short-yardage. I'm just good at finding the little crease and going to get it."
More than most teams, though, running the ball isn't the be-all and end-all for a running back. So, whatever Nance might have been able to add to the running game was mitigated by concerns over the safety of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"We're always a little nervous around here, especially in the pass protection phase, more than anything else," Philbin said. "He's shown some good things running the football. He's shown that quickness and that agility to hit the hole quick and some pretty good vision. I don't know that we had any hesitation about him running the ball, although, you don't know about him getting hit in a ballgame. That's one other part, and then the pass protection. We've been around him more and he's gotten more repetitions and we're more confident in his ability, run and pass. He's earned the right to get some more playing time."
Clearly, that took longer than expected.
"Yeah, it took awhile," Nance said. "I installed it, it was in my head, but it was about playing fast and knowing what to do then and there. I pretty much knew everything. But getting more reps at it and getting comfortable with it was what I was trying to get up to speed with.
"I was just waiting my turn, waiting and got my opportunity on that third-and-short to show what I could do. That gave them confidence in me and they kept throwing me in there."
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