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Grant Looks To Break Free

They were just two plays in a preseason game, but they tell a meaningful tale for running back Ryan Grant. The first play was the kind that dogged Grant throughout 2008, while the second is the kind he hopes to make far more often in 2009.


They were just two plays in a preseason game, but they tell a meaningful tale for running back Ryan Grant.

Last Saturday against Buffalo at Lambeau Field, Grant took a first-quarter handoff through a hole up the middle. Bills safety Bryan Scott dove at Grant, arms extended, and tripped him up with an ankle tackle after a 5-yard gain.

Then in the second quarter, a near carbon copy of the previous play. Only this time, when Scott dove, Grant hopped over and through his outstretched arms and picked up 14 yards, his long gain of the night.

The first play was the kind that dogged Grant throughout 2008, while the second is the kind he hopes and plans to make far more often in 2009.

For the Green Bay Packers' feature back, breaking a tackle here and there could be the difference between a good season, like his 1,200-yard output last year with a balky hamstring, and a potentially great one, with 1,400 or 1,500 yards, a number he feels he could have reached at full strength a year ago.

"It might be," Grant said. "Staying healthy is No. 1, but I definitely think getting the bigger runs, you do the math. If I get 20 or 30 more yards a game, which really isn't that many yards, now we're looking at a whole different amount of yards."

OK, we'll do the math. Granted, it was a small sample in one half of a preseason game, but breaking that one tackle attempt by Scott made a significant impact statistically.

If Scott trips him up again the second time for a 5-yard gain, Grant theoretically would have finished his night with 10 carries for 34 yards, a 3.4-yard average. But with one slipped tackle and the 14-yard gain, the totals are 43 yards and a 4.3 average, nearly a yard-per-carry better.

Now, multiply that out for an entire season. If each broken tackle results in roughly 10 more yards on average, and a running back can break just one tackle like that in each half of a game, that's an additional 20 yards per contest. Over 16 games, that's 320 yards - potentially the difference between a 1,200-yard season and a 1,500-yard one.

"It comes down to winning your one-on-one battles," running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. "That was an opportunity where the offensive line did a good job and got us in a position where now we're one-on-one, and we've got to win that, anytime we get in that position.

"The first time, he did not make it happen. The second time, he had another opportunity, and he made the most of the run. He beat the defender, split him, and got the ball north and south. The result was an explosive gain."

Grant knows as well as anyone it's those explosive gains that were missing last year. The hamstring injury he sustained early in training camp stuck with him throughout the first half of the regular season, and it showed up in the numbers.

Last season, Grant had just six runs of 20 yards or better in 16 games, a total that was just four until adding two more in the regular-season finale against Detroit. Contrast that with 2007, when in a span of 11 games - 10 regular-season contests as the primary ball-carrier, plus his record-breaking playoff performance against Seattle - Grant posted 15 runs of 20 yards or more.

As a result, Grant's per-carry average in 2007 (including playoffs) was 5.2 yards. Last year it fell to 3.9. The drop-off wasn't all on Grant by any means, but he's the first to admit he wasn't as effective on the second level at making tacklers miss as he needed to be.

"Just beating that one guy, that adds to the explosive runs, adds to the big runs," Grant said. "Being able to beat that guy, it's a focus I wanted to get back to, because I did it (before). It's something I took pride in, being able to do that.

"It is something I've focused on. But it's really just a matter of picking up your feet at times, and attacking."

Grant said he's concentrating more on driving his legs and picking up his knees at first contact, something that was difficult to do last year with the hamstring trouble. Bennett also has the entire running back group work on drills to help break tackles - stepping through ropes and shifting the ball from one arm to the other to free up a stiff-arm, for example.

"That's part of their daily thing," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "It's not always a fancy shake-and-bake in terms of breaking a tackle. Sometimes it's a good stiff-arm, and sometimes it is that balance or that elusiveness with the feet. Edgar is working on foot drills all the time, working on stiff-arms all the time. But you can't choreograph everything. There's some instinctive part of it."

{sportsad300}There's also simply an awareness of how an opponent plays run defense. Philbin noted that heading into the Buffalo game last week, the running backs were told that the Bills play an eight-man front against the run, and that not every defender could be blocked. One defender in the box would be free, usually either Scott or fellow safety Donte Whitner, and it would be up to the backs to break that attempted tackle.

"You feel good if you can design a play where your back is getting hit at 5 (yards) by a defensive back," Philbin said. "You're not going to break every one of those tackles, but you need to break some of them."

Grant is determined to do that more often in 2009. Unlike last year, he hasn't had any contract issues or injury troubles that limited his offseason and training-camp work, and now it's time to put all that extra, focused effort to good use.

"He's healthier, he's been here, there's no surprises in the system," Philbin said. "That stuff is over, that's ancient history. He's a veteran in our system now.

"He's been through a training camp, he's been through OTAs, he's been through mini-camps, he's carried the ball 500 times. So it's time to elevate his game and get that production that he wants and we want."

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