Unlikely Sources Fuel New Attitude

A practice squad player. "Training camp" offensive linemen. An old but familiar face. This is a different Packers offense. On Sunday night, the ground game again closed out a key divisional game in weather that suited it.

The Green Bay Packers' running game – buoyed by an unlikely cast of players – is rounding into shape just when they need it.

On Sunday night amid the snowflakes at Lambeau Field in another NFC North division game, the Packers got down-and-dirty on a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that helped spell the difference in 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions.

"We've talked about that as a group," center Jeff Saturday said about finding a rhythm and attitude on the ground. "The last few weeks we've done a good job being effective in the run game. This was a good front seven to do that. I'm proud of the way we played, proud of the way the backs ran, and I thought the (offensive) line did a good job. And that's a tough group to do it against. To have that kind of night when it matters, and everything's on the line, it was a good night."

A week ago, the Packers used an 18-play drive that featured 11 runs to help close out a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. This week, it was seven straight runs for 59 yards that resulted in a touchdown to break a 17-17 tie.

"I just remember looking into the linemen's eyes (on that drive) and seeing the fire in their eyes," said running back Alex Green. "We were ready to pound the ball and get the ground game going. We've been pushing that for a while now, trying to pick it up a little bit more, so we're going to continue to get better and continue to keep fighting."

Capping off the key drive of the game was perhaps the most unlikely hero of the night, DuJuan Harris. The first-year running back out of Troy, who was elevated to the active roster Dec. 1 from the practice squad, shot through the right side of the Packers' offensive line untouched for a 14-yard touchdown in his first game action of the season.

The 5-foot-8, 203-pounder, who played five games with the Jacksonville Jaguars in last season, got the night started out right too. On the Packers' first offensive play from scrimmage he went for 11 of his 31 rushing yards, delivering a big blow to Lions' safety Ricardo Silva.

"I like a lot about him," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "I like the way he's worked since he's arrived here. He's done a good job. He has a unique skill set. It's very evident that not everybody has seen him in live action, but we had another opportunity to put him in a regular game. My goal was to try and get him in last week, but it didn't work out. That's why I ran him the first play of offense tonight because I wanted to make sure he got in there and try to get him going."

On old, familiar face also made his return to the Packers against the Lions. Running back Ryan Grant, who turned 30 on Sunday, saw his first action since signing with the Packers. Grant played for the Packers from 2007-11 before going unsigned this off-season. After a brief stint with the Washington Redskins earlier this season, the Packers claimed the unemployed Grant on Wednesday due to a potential season-ending injury to James Starks.

On Grant's first play back in the fourth quarter he had a 13-yard run on the key drive. It came on a play that was indicative of how the Packers' running game has changed over the past month or so.

"Actually that was my first time running that play here," said Grant. "It might have looked like some other plays I've ran, but technically it was the first time… It was a different blocking scheme."

With the game on the line, the Packers went to power running formations unlike their more common three- and four-wide receiver sets. Reserve lineman Greg Van Roten even contributed as an extra blocker on a few plays, establishing a more physical attitude to match what the Lions were doing early in the game (using offensive lineman Riley Rieff as an extra blocker).

After going the first eight games of the season with more pass attempts than rushing attempts, the Packers have reversed that trend in four of the last five games. Last week it was 152 yards on the ground. This week it was 140 and 5.6 yards per carry, their best average since Week 5 at Indianapolis.

"I think we're just kind of waiting for some one-high (safety) coverages," said Rodgers, who tried to explain the more run-dominated offense of late. "We've seen so many two-high coverages this season, teams daring us to run the football. We haven't run it very well until the last couple weeks, and hopefully this will give us an opportunity to be a more balanced offense going into the playoffs and get some more of those one-on-one matchups, especially when we get Jordy (Nelson) back. We can have all cylinders firing at the same time and then a run game to boot."

Rodgers made his contribution to the running game with a 27-yard touchdown joining Harris and Grant in the "splash play" department. Much of the heavy lifting, however, was done by Alex Green, who really assumes the primary ball carrier role with Cedric Benson on injured reserve and Starks out. Green, nursing a cold, had a season-high 69 yards on 13 carries.

Asked whether the Packers' running game is finding a personality down the stretch, Green said, "That's exactly what it is. It's not only the plays but it's the linemen's style of blocking. You obviously like to run downhill and block downhill."

Rounding out the cast of virtual unknowns that contributed on the night was right tackle Don Barclay. The undrafted rookie free agent relieved the injured T.J. Lang in the first half against the Vikings and got his first career start against the Lions when it was determined hours before kickoff that Lang (ankle) could not go.

Thanks to their running game and not relying solely on their passing game for production, the Packers can win the NFC North next week with a win at Chicago. And in the process of dealing with new faces and several changing parts, they may have established an alternate identity on offense.

"I think it sends a message physically – that you're going to do whatever it takes to run the ball and finish teams the way you want to," said Grant. "We've been in that position so it's been good to have those drives at the end of the game like we did… I think you build on those. The backs build on those confidence-wise, the (offensive) line builds on those. They get excited, everybody gets excited. The defense gets excited, even the wide receivers get excited because that's what you want at the end of the game. It's definitely something confidence-wise you can take into the next week."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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