Two Plays May Speak Volumes
by Mike Conklin
September 17, 2012
One game doesn't determine the course of a season.
But how about two plays?
The season is still young, but the Packers offense hasn't exactly looked like the juggernaut it was last year. As Tom Silverstein phrased it in one of the post-game interview questions to Mike McCarthy, it seems like the offense is "just a tick off". While it may be too much to expect that this year's team would match the prolific results of one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history, the fact that they are averaging nearly two fewer touchdowns is enough to raise a few eyebrows.
As McCarthy has made clear, this is a new season and a new team. Although the base concepts may remain the same from one season to the next, each year's version of a team establishes its own distinct identity. It may be too early to really tell what this year's team will ultimately be remembered for, but with the offense's sluggish start...compared to what we have seen recently, at least...these early season performances are being closely scrutinized.
That is why two plays during the Bears game may offer an encouraging sign for the future of the offense this season. Neither of the plays included the headline grabbing fake field goal that blew the game open, nor the 26-yard touchdown where Donald Driver found the open zone in between the two safeties. Not even Randall Cobb's nifty 28-yard run on a 3rd-and-3 made the cut.
The two plays in question actually seemed fairly innocuous during the course of the game, and took place late in the fourth quarter after the outcome already appeared to be well in hand. After intercepting Jay Cutler for the fourth time, the Packers had a first down with three minutes left in the game. The Packers held a comfortable lead, and all they needed to do to salt away the game was pick up just one first down.
The Bears understood the situation. They knew that the Packers would likely try to run the ball and run out the clock. They loaded up at the line of scrimmage. And sure enough, Cedric Benson was handed the ball.
In past seasons, it seemed like the Packers often had difficulty picking up first downs and winding down the clock in obvious rushing situations. When the other team was expecting a run, they were often able to stuff the play at the line of scrimmage. But this time it was different.
On first down, Benson cut back behind T.J. Lang and Jeff Saturday and sprang forward for six yards. On 2nd-and-4 Benson was given the ball on a play that was blocked to the right side, and ran for six more hard-fought yards behind blocks by Bryan Bulaga and John Kuhn. Just like that, the Packers had a first down and were able to kneel down and run out the clock. Game over.
Maybe the game was out of hand already. Maybe the Bears had already given up. Although it appeared unlikely that the Bears would mount any kind of comeback at that point, the fact of the matter is that the Packers were only ahead by less than two scores. It may have seemed like the Packers had the game in the bag at that point, but stranger things have happened in the NFL. The bottom line was the Bears knew the Packers were going to run the ball in that situation, yet the Packers were still able to impose their will on the defense and pick up the first down.
Perhaps it was just as telling that Cedric Benson received 20 carries over the course of the game. He was just signed off of the NFL scrap heap on August 12, and a month later he was being fed the ball almost like he was a premier player. After piecing together a running game the past few years with the combined efforts of James Starks, Ryan Grant, and Brandon Jackson, maybe Mike McCarthy forgot what a bell cow running back looked like.
"Cedric Benson is one of those men that was put on this earth to run the football," McCarthy said Thursday.
And he called the plays like he actually believed it.
It has been well documented that the last time a Packers running back had 20 or more carries was when Brandon Jackson had 22 against the Patriots when Aaron Rodgers was held out of the game for a concussion in December 2010. But it had actually been 37 games since the last time a running back had 20 carries in a regular season game that Aaron Rodgers started, when Ryan Grant carried the ball 20 times against (who else?) the Bears in 2009. Whether it was because of injury concerns or just the fact that they preferred to split carries between multiple backs, the Packers haven't had a player that they wanted to feed the ball the way it appears they are willing to do with Cedric Benson.
Make no mistake about it: with Aaron Rodgers at the helm the Packers are a passing team. But with a proven hard-nosed back that can move the pile forward like Benson, their offensive identity may have a slightly different look than what we have seen in years past.
If that is how the season plays out, the Packers might just look back on those two plays as a landmark moment.
Photo Credit: Jim Biever, Packers.com