The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
16 Jan 2008
by Michael David Smith
As everyone knows, Packers running back Ryan Grant fumbled twice in the first 1:09 of Saturday's playoff game against the Seahawks, and then spent the next three hours going from goat to hero, finishing the game with 201 yards and three touchdowns as the Packers cruised to a 42-20 win.
But while Grant had a fine game on Saturday, I watched every one of his runs closely, and I think the heroes were also Packers left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Daryn Colledge, center Scott Wells, right guard Jason Spitz, right tackle Mark Tauscher, tight ends Donald Lee and Bubba Franks, and fullbacks Korey Hall and John Kuhn. Grant had a great game because the guys blocking for him had a great game.
Before we get to all those great Grant runs, let's start with his second fumble, which was the first of many examples of dominant run blocking from the Packers. Grant had gone straight up the gut for six yards on second-and-2 before getting the ball knocked out of his hands. The hole he ran through was opened up by Spitz absolutely dominating Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, moving him aside and opening up a huge gap. Spitz was benched briefly early in the regular season after his 2007 got off to a shaky start, but he's been the starter for most of season and has really come on of late. He had a great game on Saturday.
The Packers' two fullbacks, Hall and Kuhn, were frequently matched one-on-one with the Seahawks linebackers when the Packers ran out of the I-formation, and I liked the way both of them played. Neither one is an overpowering blocker, but both get out in front of the play in a hurry and do just enough to knock their man off the play. On a first-quarter toss sweep to Grant out of the I, Hall did a great job of knocking middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu off his feet by taking him out low. Hall is a rookie who played linebacker at Boise State, so he doesn't have a lot of experience as a blocker, but he's developing into a good one.
The use of the fullbacks is one of the best aspects of the running game designed by Packers coach Mike McCarthy. We've reached a point in the NFL where fullbacks are almost obsolete â€“- even Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, once a champion of the fullback, now dismisses the position as not relevant enough to modern offenses to be worth picking on his All-Pro team. But fullbacks are still very relevant in Green Bay. Take a first-and-10 with three minutes left in the first quarter. Kuhn was lined up in front of Grant in an offset I formation, and before the snap, Franks went in motion from the tight end position into a fullback spot, so that there were two fullbacks in front of Grant in the backfield. At the snap, Kuhn and Franks both fired straight ahead, and all five offensive linemen got good blocks, and it was simple 1940s-style power football, with Grant following the blocks for a gain of 26 yards.
On the next play, Lee was matched one-on-one with Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney, a matchup that should favor the Seahawks but didn't. Lee shoved Kerney to the inside, and Grant hurdled Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant as he turned the corner, picking up 15 more yards. Two plays later Grant followed great blocks by Wells, Colledge and Clifton into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown. (Although Moose Johnston, who was calling the game on TV, knows more about fullback play than I do, I disagree with his assessment of the play. He said the play succeeded because Grant followed the lead of Kuhn, but I thought the blocking of Wells, Colledge and Clifton on the play was so dominant that Kuhn's presence really didn't make any difference.)
Colledge had several dominating run blocks. Note the way he drove his man about 10 yards away from the play, straight down the line of scrimmage, when Grant followed him on a five-yard run in the second quarter. Colledge is a second-year player out of Boise State, and like Hall, he's a tough, physical presence in the running game. Although Boise State is best known for its gadget plays, someone in the Packers' scouting department noticed that the Broncos do a lot more than the Statue of Liberty, and acquiring Colledge and Hall has made a big difference for the Packers.
Grant deserves a lot of credit for having the patience to let the blocks in front of him unfold. His touchdown run just before halftime was a great example of that patience. It was first-and-goal from the three-yard line, with Kuhn in front of Grant in the I and Hall going in motion like an H-back. The Packers didn't have any wide receivers on the field, and as a result the Seahawks had all 11 defenders bunched in close. It was a big mass of humanity, and if Grant had just taken the ball and lunged forward immediately, he probably would have gotten lost in the pile and been stopped short. But instead Grant started to the left as if he were going to follow Hall, and then looked back inside to see that Kuhn had cleared a path for him. He stepped back to his right and dove toward the end zone, sticking the ball out across the goal line. Grant has only been with the Packers since September, and early in the season he wasn't much of a factor in the offense, but he has now learned his role, and he has enough confidence in the guys blocking for him to pause for an instant in the backfield and wait for them to open a hole.
McCarthy likes that formation with the tight end motioning into the backfield as a second fullback, and it usually works well. It's not perfect, though, and the tight ends don't always know what they're doing when lined up as fullbacks. On a run early in the third quarter, Lee motioned into the formation as a fullback but appeared to block the wrong Seahawk, leaving Tatupu free to grab Grant at the line of scrimmage and stop him for no gain. Tatupu also stopped Grant for a loss of a yard on another run early in the third quarter. On that play, Kuhn was supposed to block Tatupu, and he just missed him. It says something about the kind of game Tatupu had in a losing effort that almost every time I saw a Packer miss his assignment, he was trying to block Tatupu.
Good plays like those from Tatupu were the exception though, rather than the rule, for the Seahawks' defense. Much more common were plays on which the Seahawks overpursued and made the Packers' running game easy. On a first down in between those two big plays by Tatupu, Grant took a handoff in the I formation, and all of the action of the Packers' offense went to the right. That led the entire Seahawks defense to go too far in that direction, and when Grant saw that, he cut back to the left, aided by a big block from Clifton, and picked up 24 yards.
The Packers offense often just seemed more advanced than the Seahawks defense. Late in the third quarter Grant got his longest run of the game, a 43-yarder, when the Packers came out in an unbalanced line, with Tauscher moving to the left side of the line, giving the Packers three offensive linemen to the left of the center. Although left defensive end Patrick Kerney saw that Tauscher wasn't lined up in his usual spot at right tackle and tried to warn his teammates, the rest of the defense wasn't ready for it, and Grant had a clear path along the left sideline.
That run was re-played on all the highlight shows, but with that much open space, it was a run that just about any NFL running back could have made. Grant deserves credit for his big game Saturday, but the players who blocked for him are the ones clearing the Packers' path toward the Super Bowl.
44 comments, Last at 17 Jan 2008, 5:42pm by Xian