Ground Game To Get Tested


With Ryan Grant slugging his way to more than 30 carries each of the last two games, for 195 total yards, the Packers' ground game continues to show signs it's about to take that next step.

Now, and the next few weeks for that matter, would be the perfect time.

Beginning Sunday in Tennessee, Green Bay begins a stretch of three straight games against defenses ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL against the run. The Titans are 10th, while the Packers' next two opponents, NFC North rivals Minnesota and Chicago, are second and sixth against the run, respectively.

That's as close to a murderer's row of run defenses as there is, and even though the Packers aren't concerned at the moment with anyone but the Titans, they're aware of how critical this stretch is.

"You've got your work cut out for you every week," guard Jason Spitz said. "There's no pushover team. Regardless of what the record is, regardless of what people say in the media, everyone's tough. Everyone's out there doing their job. These guys are just doing a little bit better than most for the time being."

Are they ever. Tennessee's headliner is defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound seventh-year pro having perhaps his best season, leading the Titans' talented defensive line with 27 tackles (21 solo) and six sacks.

With the Titans undefeated and sporting such a highly-ranked defense (fourth overall), Haynesworth is being mentioned as a candidate for the league's defensive player of the year. If Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who believes Haynesworth's game is still on the rise, is right, that's an award he just might win.

"Albert is very, very powerful, and he's got good quickness for a big man," Fisher said. "When he keeps his pads down, he's very, very hard to control. I think Albert's best ball is still ahead of him. I think he's going to continue to get stronger as the year goes on. He's working very hard, and he's obviously been a big key to our success this year."

His interior linemate, Tony Brown, is right behind Haynesworth statistically at 25 tackles (17 solo) with four sacks. They make for a defensive tackle tandem that's playing as well if not better than any in the league, according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy.

"We have a lot of respect for the Williams crew up there in Minnesota, and Chicago has Tommie Harris," McCarthy said. "There's a number of good defensive tackles in our division. But I don't know if both run and pass, if anybody is playing at the level of Haynesworth and Tony Brown. They've been very impressive on film. It will be a big challenge for us."

Those others McCarthy mentioned - Kevin and Pat Williams for the Vikings and Harris for the Bears - await the next two weeks, so the Packers would love nothing better than to establish something on the ground this week against Haynesworth and Co. in Nashville.

For that to happen, the Packers and Grant need to take the early flashes they've shown the last two games and make them a more consistent part of the attack.

Two games ago against Seattle, Grant broke off a 17-yard run on his second carry of the day. But then he had nothing longer than 7 yards for the remaining 31 rushes, finishing with 90 yards on 33 attempts. Similarly, in Week 7 against Indianapolis, Grant ran for 14 yards on his first carry, and it ended up his long for the game. He had only one other run of 10 yards or longer, and it was his 11-yard TD in the second quarter.

"(We have to) take it to another level," Grant said. "I think we've gotten better, but I think we need to start making everything count, especially making every carry count, every run count."

In these last two games, Grant has averaged 3.0 yards per carry, and his season mark is 3.4, well below last season's average of 5.1. The big boost to his average last season came in the form of several explosive runs, which haven't come his way in 2008.

Grant hasn't had a run longer than 20 yards since his 57-yard jaunt down the right sideline in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Minnesota. After that, he went three games without a single carry for even 10 yards, and his long since was the 17-yarder at Seattle.

{sportsad300}Last season, in only two of 12 games (including playoffs) as the feature back did Grant fail to break off a run of at least 20 yards, and he had five runs of 30 yards or longer during that time.

"That's one of my trademarks that I feel like why I'm here is because I can break long runs," Grant said. "I need to start doing that, not necessarily the 60-yarders, but the 30s and 40s and stuff like that, because those put the offense in a better position and put the defense on their heels. That can make things easier for us as an offense."

Still, the run game has been productive enough the past two games that negative runs have been kept to a minimum, leaving the offense in more manageable third-down situations. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers credited that for his league-leading quarterback rating on third down (120.3), and while McCarthy admitted the offense needs more productivity on the ground, the contributions are valuable.

The task now is to bust a few, or have more than just one or two per game surpass 10 yards. Considering the upcoming opponents, any progress in that area this week, or the next two weeks after that, could signal a true run-game revival for the remainder of the season.

"It's another plug-and-chug deal," Spitz said. "We just have to execute a little bit better, get a little more efficient on that side of the ball, and hopefully we can start popping some big runs. We have a good challenge this week with Tennessee."

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