Thanks to the NFL's hottest running back over the second half of the season, Ryan Grant, a once pathetic Packers' rushing game actually looks like one of the team's strengths.
On Sunday, Grant and the Packers' offense put together its best rushing performance of the season in a slow, but sure dismantling of the Oakland Raiders, 38-7, at Lambeau Field.
Grant ran by, through, and around Raiders' defenders on his way to a career-best 156 yards on 29 carries. Even though the Raiders, with the help of their defensive tackle Warren Sapp, often knew what was coming, they could not stop it.
"He (Sapp) called out every play we were running," said Packers' quarterback Brett Favre. "I don't know if he had a head set or what, but if you go back and watch the TV copy, you'll probably see toward the end of game… he goes ‘Oh, here comes 99 stretch,' or whatever. He's calling out every play."
Much like the Packers' teams of the recent past with Ahman Green, this Packers' team is building confidence that it can win games running the ball. Just a couple of months ago, the feeling could not have been more the opposite.
"In the beginning of the year," explained center Scott Wells, "we had guys that were one step off their block, or six inches off where their hands are supposed to hit their helmet, and now we seem to be getting it right and the running back seems to be comfortable hitting the holes on the cut backs and going through the progression of reading the defensive line to find out where the cuts are."
While the offensive line continues to shuffle around (guard Junius Coston moved back into the starting lineup for Daryn Colledge on Sunday), the biggest difference in the running game has been Grant's emergence and his hard-charging running style. He has been the NFL's top back since Week 8, but even more important to the Packers, he makes already potent, play-making offense a complete unit.
"We're building some more consistency in that category (the run game)," said Wells. "I think we're a much better offense than at the beginning of the year because of the run game evolving. It's more important in these games as it gets cold that you're able to pound the rock, eat up some time, keep our defense fresh, and really control the momentum of the game. When you're able to run the ball, you're able to do that."
Added fullback John Kuhn: "We knew it was going to be a sloppy field, cold weather, it was going to be one of those games where we really have to ride Ryan Grant downhill… He's so good on the second level and he did a great job with that today – making the safeties miss, breaking some tackles, and making some big runs."
As the weather has gotten friskier around much of the country, Grant has gotten better in his first year with the Packers. He has rushed for at least 101 yards in four of the last seven games and has 744 yard rushing for the year. In the first six games of the year after being acquired via trade by the Packers, he had just 27 yards rushing in a backup role.
Though the Packers have been a pass-heavy offense for much of the year, with a game-time temperature of 18 degrees, they made it a mission to run the ball. For the first time in a game this season, they ran the ball (36 times) more than they threw it (23 times).
On the Packers first offense series, Grant ran the ball five times to move the Packers into scoring position before a fourth down pass attempt failed. With a steady variety of stretch and off tackle runs against the Raiders' poor run defense (third worst in the league entering the game), the game plan was simple.
"(Running the ball) was really our primary focus going into this game," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "I can't say enough about Ryan Grant. I think he's really coming into his own. You can see the comfort level that he has in this scheme. He's doing a great job when he gets to the second level of breaking tackles, so we're very, very pleased with him."
Making Grant's career day even more memorable was that he was also celebrating his 25th birthday. As he met with swarms of reporters at his locker, a passing teammate drew a smile out of him, singing Grant a quick version of "Happy Birthday."
The moment gave Grant time to reflect and realize that he has indeed arrived as a top back.
"I knew the ability I had," he said. "I felt like I could get it done and perform at a high level. That's what kept me hungry along with my love of the game and because I want to do it. We're all here because we feel we can get it done, and not just perform like everybody else. I feel like I can take it to the next level myself."
Said tackle Mark Tauscher: "I just think he's a real talented guy. He brings a lot to the table. He had a couple of big runs after contact today. He sees the hole, and he's gaining confidence. As a unit blocking up front, we feed off that and off the positive results that we're getting. That's something that in the beginning of the year we weren't getting."
Matt Tevsh is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.