Run for the money

While running back Ryan Grant hasn't produced as many big plays as last year, he has proven his durability. Our Tyler Dunne says Grant is a steady rock the Packers can count on.

Ryan Grant doesn't need to buy a lottery ticket. Nope, he can save those $2 for something else.

To win an instant million, all Grant needs to do is gain 153 yards Sunday. Grant's Dash for the Cash will be one juicy subplot to the Detroit's Path to Imperfection. To many, Sunday will cap an abysmal season for Grant.

Sure, if he runs wild against Detroit's 32nd-ranked rush defense, Grant has a shot at 1,200 yards to withdraw this incentive. But the explosive, one-cut gem from a year ago has been bogged down by gang tackles most of this season.

Last year, Grant had at least one 20-plus yard run in nine of his 10 full games.

This season, he has only busted loose for a 20-yarder in three of his 15 starts. Four times -- including Monday's meltdown -- Grant didn't even have a run longer than 10 yards. Green Bay needs Grant to ding homers. In his bell-cow role, he's laid down bunts all season.

But don't judge this book by its cover. Don't pencil in Knowshon Moreno or Chris Wells into the eight-slot quite yet. Grant's per-carry plunge from 5.1 to 3.7 this season is due to a myriad of problems: his holdout, his hamstring injury, the line's struggles, successive losses, etc.

From a broader context, Grant has taken a step forward this season. He's answered critics that claimed he was a one-hit wonder with a 16-game, bruise-a-thon, grind-it-out season. Forget the sub-4.0 yards per carry. Grant, cast away as a novelty long-ball threat (think Jerious Norwood) by many, will have bashed for more than 300 carries after Sunday. Even in today's era where two-back systems are hotter than Nuvi GPS systems, a workhorse like Grant remains a commodity.

He's disappointed. Of course he is. Despite his first career 1,000-yard season, Grant is bumming. Green Bay's five-game losing streak -- that easily could've been a four-game winning streak -- has taken its toll. The last two games were new lows for Grant, who gained only 117 yards on 46 attempts (2.5 average).

With his left arm leaning against his locker Thursday, Grant spoke as if each of these losses has been a swift punch in the gut.

"Inconsistent," said Grant on his play this season. "Some good things, some bad things, but the main thing for me is inconsistency. I need to work on that, and we didn't win. I mean, the biggest thing for me is winning, and the biggest thing for this team is winning, and we just didn't do that."

True, Grant periodically bumbles into piles of bodies when one sharp cut is open for a split-second vertically. The peripheral vision needed for the zone-blocking scheme has eluded Grant often. But this season was vital in showing Mike McCarthy that he's capable of carrying a heavy workload.

Believe it or not, Grant ranks ninth in the league in rushing. The Packers can take solace knowing their running back operates on four-wheel drive. In key moments this season, Grant has shown flashes that he can strap the offense on his back. That's where the rush average can be deceiving. The Packers rode Grant to wins at Seattle (90) and against Indianapolis (105). His average was 3-even, but Grant melted the clock and preserved two rare wins.

In a division in which each other team has an emerging running back, this is crucial. Uneasy seasons of musical chairs in the backfield can kill a team, as it did to the Packers in 1998 and 2005. With a healthy passing game established for years (Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are in the embryonic stages of their careers), a steady, no-surprises running back like Grant is a rock to depend on.

No, Ted Thompson shouldn't regret the contract he gave to Grant at all.

Thompson was hesitant to dish out a mega-contract to a back that just had one banner season. Eventually, he rewarded Grant an incentive-laden four-year, $20 million deal. A smart, compact, appropriate contract in retrospect. The shelf lives of running backs are shrinking. After all, who would have thought Steve Slaton would have more rushing yards than LaDainian Tomlinson? Instead of breaking the bank on Grant, Thompson wisely gave him a transition-type of deal. The deal requires Grant to stay hungry (see: $1 million on the line Sunday), while giving him more time to grow into something bigger.

After last season, we know Grant is capable of breaking long runs. After this season, we know Grant is capable of grinding out 25-plus carries. With another full offseason -- remember, he watched minicamp from the sideline and wasn't at a chunk of training camp -- Grant should be able to fuse his strengths together and emerge into a top-tier running back.

The antidote to getting Grant in open space for more game-breaking runs will take a handful of factors. The back admits he's missed opportunities this season in Green Bay's zone-blocking system. He was often a tad impatient in letting a lane wash open, blasting into heaps of bodies instead. Also, Grant's early-season hamstring injury hampered his explosiveness, Grant admitted. So, yes, part of the problem was internal.

Still, the line deserves a good share of blame. Far too often, rushing plays were stretched outside this season. Last week's loss in Chicago was chalk-full of penetration. Grant was met by Bears defenders immediately upon receiving the handoff several times. Nothing he can do there. The answer may be Josh Sitton. The fourth-round pick was the darling of training camp, dominating in 1-on-1 drills and cracking the starting lineup briefly. He then injured his knee in the third preseason game and missed one month. By the time Sitton was 100 percent, it was too late to reshuffle the offensive line.

Sitton, the driving force behind Detroit Lions starter Kevin Smith gaining 2,567 yards last year at Central Florida, will start Sunday. Now, the Packers will see how Sitton's low center of gravity and strong initial punch meshes with Grant.

Maybe Sitton helps Grant earn a million bucks Sunday.

More importantly, a breakout Sunday would be a giant step toward next season when Sitton (and maybe another new guard) may anchor a refurbished line. Grant showed he's a workhorse back this year. Next year, he'll be after more.

Tyler Dunne writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com


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