On a first-and-10 play from New Orleans' 30-yard line, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers channeled a play rarely seen since the Mike Sherman era and delivered a one-handed shovel pass to his newest running back. Benson plucked the ball out of the air, pulled it close and took off to his left for 11 yards. Green Bay would score three plays later to go on top 21-7.
The play was Benson's longest gain of the year and came on a day when he had his highest rushing total of the season — 84 yards — and his best yards-per-carry average of 4.7. His 22 receiving yards put him over 100 total yards for the second time this year as Green Bay won by an ulcer-inducing 28-27 score.
That particular play was an assuring nod of confidence in Benson and his ever-growing role in the offense.
"I'm so happy and grateful just to be a part of that play," Benson said. "You know, I can remember probably when I was in Cincy, they wouldn't have given me the opportunity to run that. And this team is taking advantage of all my talents and I think that's a blessing."
There were more questions than answers when Green Bay signed Benson, a standout in Cincinnati and Chicago's first-round pick in 2005, to a one-year, veteran's minimum deal in August. The potential was there, to be sure. But this was a player who had worn out his welcome with two teams in seven years, had a penchant for fumbling (12 in the previous two seasons) and had some brushes with the law off the field. But the 5-foot-11, 227-pound Benson was also one of just five NFL players to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last three years. And as dynamic as Green Bay was through the air a year ago, its ground game was sorely lacking.
Oft-injured James Starks may have been a spark for the championship run two years ago, and 2011 third-round pick Alex Green may yet be the back of the future. But Benson is the team's present. And after eeking out just 18 yards on nine carries in a season-opening loss to San Francisco, Benson has provided the balance the offense has so desperately needed. With 228 yards through four games, he'll need to average less than 65 a game the rest of the way to break 1,000 again.
"I can remember my first game (here), I was flying around, I wasn't even getting an opportunity to see things develop before me," Benson said. "I was just so quick and kind of impatient, and I just realized that I need to slow down and make the game play at my speed.
"What it is is just getting familiar with the plays. This is very similar to a West Coast offense and I've never played in that. So, it was just a lot of adjustments. The run game is different in how it's approached and how it's blocked, so I had to get used to all those things. The more rhythm I get, the more in sync with the game speed I get and the better it gets. And I'm not even all the way there yet. There's so much more for not only me to grow into, but for us to grow into as a whole offense."
Sunday's win over the Saints was the first time the Packers' offense has looked like the juggernaut of a year ago. While it came against the league's worst defense, it was welcome just the same. Benson's ability to produce in the ground game and short-passing game will force opposing defenses to decide how often they want to commit two safeties over the top to take away the big play from Rodgers and his receivers. It also makes the offense less predictable, and goes a long way in making the play-action pass believable again.
Against the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday, Benson will face the league's 23rd-ranked rushing defense that's giving up 131 yards a game and 4.3 yards per carry. If Green Bay is willing to feed him, it should be another opportunity to shine. Benson's been close to breaking a half-dozen long runs through four games. A struggling Colts defense should be the elixir for his first 100-yard rushing day of the season and the Packers' first since Brandon Jackson ran for 115 yards against Washington on Oct. 10, 2010.
"You build confidence week after week and I'm just going to continue to do that. I'm grateful for the coordinators and (Coach) Mike, and the guys formulating all these plays, and putting me in these good situations," Benson said.
Play calling aside, Green Bay seems to be a good situation for Benson. Standing at his locker after the Saints game, he was relishing the opportunity to be a player that coaches, teammates, and fans can count on.
"I love it," Benson said with a big smile. "I prepare for it every day of the week. On the field, off the field. All the time. And I'm very proud of my maturity as a professional, and my approach to the game. I love it. I embrace that."
With the right attitude and production, he'll be embracing it beyond just this season.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.