Running Backs Get Passing Interest

The checkdown pass — the easiest yards in football — was a forgotten element until the wild-card game. The Packers' backs contributed season-high totals, and DuJuan Harris showed yet again why he's a major asset. Will that be a factor on Saturday night at San Francisco?

The Green Bay Packers have arguably the best and deepest corps of wide receivers in the NFL, and Jermichael Finley has been one of the league's most productive tight ends over the second half of the season.

If that wasn't enough to force a defensive coordinator to grab an extra Tylenol, Aaron Rodgers unveiled a novel approach to offense during Saturday night's wild-card game.

The checkdown pass.

During the regular season, the Packers' running backs caught 54 passes for 452 yards. Not only did three NFL running backs have at least that many receptions, but the total is down sharply from the production by the Packers' running backs since Rodgers took over as the starters in 2008: 74 receptions in 2011, 67 in 2010, 65 in 2009 and 65 in 2008.

"It depends on a lot of things: the way the game's going, the type of coverages they play," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said on Wednesday. "If they're bringing pressure, sometimes the back can't even get out. It just depends on how the game's going. Last week, it just so happened that we had an opportunity to hit a few."

The Packers hit on more than a few. Led by DuJuan Harris' five catches for 53 yards, they got season highs of eight receptions, 84 yards and one touchdown from the backs. The eight catches were more than the previous four weeks combined. Against Chicago and Seattle in the second and third games of the season, the backs had seven catches; a 32-yard reception by John Kuhn led to a then-season-high 69 yards against the Giants; the backs hadn't scored on a touchdown pass all season until Kuhn's 9-yarder in the wild-card game.

Circumstances dictated much of last week's production. Time and again, middle linebacker Chad Greenway dropped deep into coverage or tried to help on an outside receiver, and that allowed the backs plenty of open space behind the defensive line.

Harris, however, is an inviting target because of his ability to get to full speed quickly to turn a pass that traveled 12 feet into a gain of 12 yards.

"That's a good observation," McAdoo said. "He's done a nice job. He has the ability to catch the ball, shift and go, get north and south in a hurry, and make someone miss. He's an explosive player and he does a nice job in that part of the game."

The checkdown game probably won't be as effective this week. With Greenway helping with the deep responsibilities, Minnesota's Cover-2 scheme couldn't account for Harris. That won't be the case against San Francisco's man concepts. When the teams met in Week 1, Rodgers didn't even throw a pass to a running back.

"Against the Tampa-2 defense, you just go down and turn around," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "If the defender is there to confront you then you have to move around away from him. The check-downs can still be effective regardless of how they play it."

Game-by-game checkdowns

San Francisco: None.

Chicago: 7 (Benson 4, Kuhn 3).

Seattle: 7 (Benson 4, Kuhn 3).

New Orleans: 4 (Benson 4).

Indianapolis: 3 (Benson 2, Kuhn 1).

Houston: 1 (Green 1).

St. Louis: 5 (Green 4, Kuhn 1).

Jacksonville: 5 (Green 4, Starks 1).

Arizona: 2 (Green 2).

Detroit: 1 (Starks 1).

N.Y. Giants: 6 (Green 3, Kuhn 3).

Minnesota: 6 (Kuhn 3, Starks 2, Green 1).

Detroit: 1 (Green 1).

Chicago: 2 (Green 2).

Tennessee: 2 (Kuhn 1, Grant 1).

Minnesota: 2 (Harris 2).

Regular season total: 53 (Green 18, Kuhn 15, Benson 14, Starks 4, Harris 2, Grant 1).

Minnesota (wild card): 8 (Harris 5, Kuhn 2, Grant 1).

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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