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Day-After Notes: Jackson Emerging As Complete Back

Posted Oct 25, 2010

In discussing the coming of age of Brandon Jackson as an NFL running back, Mike McCarthy and the Packers coaching staff have always pointed to the Pittsburgh game last year, when Jackson showed both savvy and fearlessness in picking up multiple Steelers blitzes to help quarterback Aaron Rodgers have a huge day.


But now there’s another game that speaks to Jackson's development as a pro, and it was Sunday night against the Vikings.

Jackson, who has been slowly emerging as the replacement for Ryan Grant that the offense is leaning on in the backfield, posted 104 yards from scrimmage in the 28-24 win over Minnesota. He had 13 carries for 58 yards and three receptions for 46 more.

It wasn’t just the numbers, though. It was how hard Jackson ran, how he burst through the hole, how he deftly read his blockers and then accelerated down the sideline in gaining 36 yards on a screen pass, his career-long reception, late in the first quarter to set up the Packers’ second touchdown.

“I thought that was Brandon’s best game that I have seen him play,” McCarthy said on Monday, adding that Jackson was awarded the offensive game ball. “I thought Pittsburgh was a statement game for him last year, the way he played in that game, but I thought he played a complete football game (against Minnesota).”

Running backs coach Edgar Bennett agreed.

“He did a little bit of everything,” Bennett said. “Pass pro as always. He was productive in the run game and certainly made the most of his opportunities in the passing game. It starts like anything else, with his confidence.”

To his credit, his confidence wasn’t shaken when he fumbled on his first carry of the game, which was also the Packers’ first offensive play. He recovered it himself, and it turned out to be the only notable blemish on his big night.

McCarthy commented that he might need to start getting the ball to Jackson more. Considering he gained more than 100 yards while touching the ball just 16 times against the Vikings, the coach and offensive play-caller just may do that.

For the season, Jackson leads the team with 363 rushing yards on 80 carries, both career highs. That’s a healthy 4.5 average, and he got his second rushing touchdown on Sunday. He also has added 150 yards receiving on 19 catches, putting him on pace to set career marks in both of those categories as well.

When Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, Jackson was hoping to become the Packers’ feature back. It didn’t start out that way, with Jackson and John Kuhn sharing carries for the first few weeks.

But as Jackson has become more productive, he’s gotten the bulk of the work. His 71-yard run at Washington in Week 5 led to a 115-yard rushing day, and he has gained 326 of his 513 yards from scrimmage on the season over the last three games.

“It is different now when you’re one of the featured backs,” Bennett said. “He understands the responsibility that goes with that. He continues to improve in practice, and he’s showing it on Sunday.

“If he gets his hands on the ball, he plans to make the most of it. He’s continuing to make progress. He’s an ascending player.”

Youth is served
The Packers thought they were in dire straits on the defensive line in Week 1 at Philadelphia when Cullen Jenkins broke his hand and Justin Harrell went down with a season-ending knee injury, leaving B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Jenkins with a club cast to handle all the snaps up front.

But Sunday night was even more dire. Jenkins strained a calf muscle during warm-ups and Pickett re-injured his ankle in the first quarter, leaving the Packers once again with just three down linemen to get through the game – the difference this time was two of the three were rookie C.J. Wilson and second-year man Jarius Wynn, neither of whom had made any notable impact in an NFL game in their brief careers.

But the young guys, led by nose tackle B.J. Raji – who played nearly every snap and is the “veteran” of the trio based on playing time – held their own, not letting Adrian Peterson run wild and making a couple of plays in the process.

In the third quarter, Wilson got the pressure and hit on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre that helped produce Desmond Bishop’s interception and 32-yard return for a touchdown. Then in the fourth quarter on the final drive, he was in on back-to-back stops of Peterson for gains of just 2 and 1 yards.

“I think that like any young guy he had to kind of feel his way early in the game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “But I saw him make two or three plays there together in the fourth quarter that were really what you want. Good technique, got off blocks, controlled his gap.”

Also on that final drive, Wynn got to Favre for a 6-yard sack, his first NFL sack and the Packers’ first and only takedown of Favre in three games against him over the past two seasons. In all, Wilson was credited with eight tackles and Wynn two, getting their most extensive playing time to date in a prime-time game against a division rival.

“I think that’s clearly one of the highlights of our win yesterday, and I can’t say enough about Mike Trgovac and that young defensive line group,” McCarthy said. “I thought they got better as the game went on. I thought both those young players grew up a lot in the game.”

They’ll have to continue to grow up quickly. McCarthy announced on Monday that rookie defensive end Mike Neal needs season-ending shoulder surgery, so Wilson and Wynn will be needed the rest of the way. Depending on the health status of Jenkins and Pickett, they could be asked to play major roles over the next two games prior to the bye week, when all the walking wounded will finally get a chance to heal up.

“We always tell our guys if they’re sitting in that meeting room, they’ve got to be ready to go out and play,” Capers said. “They owe it to everybody in that room. That’s a big part of their job, and we’ve certainly experienced that this year. We’ve had some guys go out and play well. I like the way our backup players have performed. They’ve had to.”

Troubling turnovers
McCarthy has been saying for weeks that the Packers’ two biggest issues on offense have been third-down conversions and turnovers.

Well, they improved on third downs against the Vikings, converting 6-of-11 after going just 5-of-26 in the previous two games. But the turnovers haven’t stopped.

Aaron Rodgers threw two more interceptions Sunday, putting his total for the season at nine, two more than he had in 16 regular-season games last year. As a whole, the Packers have 13 turnovers after setting a franchise record-low with only 16 a year ago.

“We’re giving the ball away too much, and that’s been our issue all year,” McCarthy said. “When we take care of the football and we’re productive on third down, good things happen for our offense. It creates better point production, the ball gets spread around, everybody is happy.”

The Packers had two or more giveaways in a game only six times during the regular season last year. It has happened five times already in 2010.

More on injuries
In addition to Neal, linebacker Brady Poppinga also will be having season-ending surgery. Poppinga has injured the same knee he had reconstructed following an ACL tear in December of his rookie 2005 season. Poppinga had arthroscopic surgery on the knee last week, but McCarthy said there was more damage than could be fixed with a simple scope.

With both Neal and Poppinga headed for injured reserve, that opens up two roster spots should the Packers want to activate cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby from the physically-unable-to-perform list this week.

Linebacker Brad Jones also strained a shoulder in the game. McCarthy did not say whether it was the same shoulder Jones injured during the preseason, and he did not indicate what his status was for this week.

Jenkins is “questionable” at this point for the road trip to face the Jets, McCarthy said, and he has no prognosis yet on Pickett.

Receiver Donald Driver played limited snaps against the Vikings with a quadriceps injury, and McCarthy gave no indication that the injury had gotten any worse. Safety Nick Collins also banged his troublesome knee again, but he hasn’t missed a game yet despite missing some practice time each week and at this point there’s no change in his status.

 
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