Sure, they’ve missed the veteran running back’s experience (96 career games) and production (three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2009 through 2011). Before being lost for the season on Oct. 7 to a Lisfranc foot sprain that would eventually require surgery, Benson had run for 248 yards and one touchdown.
But his fill-ins – Alex Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris – ended up giving the Packers similar production, accounting for 1,000 yards and five touchdowns.
No, the part of Benson’s game that quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense appeared to have missed most as they prepare for Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park has been in the passing game.
Benson, who signed with the Packers in training camp after injuries to Starks and Brandon Saine, didn’t catch a pass in the team’s Week 1 loss to San Francisco. But in each of the next four games, he had four catches, mostly check-downs from Rodgers. In fact, the injury that ended his season against Indianapolis came as he was being tackled following a 3-yard reception in the second quarter.
Benson was on pace to catch 44 passes, which would have been the most by a Packers’ running back since Ahman Green had 46 in 2006. Without him, the four other running backs combined for 25 catches in regular-season play.
When you include fullback John Kuhn and Benson, the group combined for 54 receptions this year, or 14.4 percent of Rodgers’ 374 completions. Prior to this season, the fewest running-back catches with Rodgers as the starter was 65 in 2008 and 2009, and the percentage of his completions never dropped below 18.2 percent.
“I think it’s the talent elsewhere,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said this week. “You don’t need to throw it to the back. You’ve got Jordy (Nelson), Greg (Jennings), (James Jones) Jermichael (Finley) and Randall (Cobb). There’s only so many balls, they need it in their hands.”
There is certainly truth to that, but the fact that Benson was on pace for a big receiving year lends more credence to the possibility that it was the personnel available for much of the season that led to the large drop in production. However, following last week’s NFC Wild Card win against the Minnesota Vikings, when Harris led the team in receptions (five) and had more yards receiving (53) than everyone but Jennings, Rodgers might have the closest thing to Benson’s receiving ability in the second-year running back.
“That’s a big part of the offense,” Van Pelt said of Harris’ big night. “Really, you look at what he had (53 yards) receiving, that’s huge. That’s a big chunk. So continue to progress in that area. He’s a natural hands catcher, which is nice. It’s not like you’re not sure if he’s going to catch it. He did have the one drop (on the first drive of the game) but after that he settled in.”
Harris only had two catches in the four regular season games he played in, but that had more to do with the coaches not feeling comfortable having him in the backfield protecting Rodgers. In Mike McCarthy’s scheme, the top running-back responsibilities are to protect the football and protect the quarterback. But the coaching staff’s confidence in Harris started to grow in the Week 16 game against the Tennessee Titans, and he’s been on the field for more passing plays over the last three games than any running back other than Kuhn.
It’s a least a bit surprising that the Packers haven’t targeted their running backs more considering the issues they’ve had with teams that play a version of the “Tampa-2” defense. That usually means the defense will keep their safeties deep and the middle linebacker will also sink on passing plays leaving a void in the middle.
“It depends on what we’re doing that week,” Rodgers said during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN in Milwaukee. “Most of the time, the protection can dictate what route the running back is running, if he’s in a route at all. Sometimes he doesn’t have a route. Sometimes his protection doesn’t allow him to get out. But if we’re playing a team that’s going to rush four guys and drop their secondary out you have to be able to hit that void beyond the offensive line and in front of the linebackers. And when you got a guy who can catch a 2-yard pass and turn it into a first down that’s always appreciated from a quarterback’s standpoint.”
Of Harris’ five catches, three came when the Vikings’ sent only four rushers.
“We had some guys do a nice job last week of getting through their responsibilities, checking through their appropriate gap and being a quick outlet for Aaron,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “And it forces the defense to sink, put their foot in the ground, change direction and come up and make a tackle.”
Added Van Pelt: “The easiest play in football is to drop back and check it down to your back. So once it worked we kind of started getting a feel for when to dump it down to DuJuan.”
On the Packers first scoring drive of the game, Harris had two catches for 28 yards, including a designed swing pass that saw the receivers out in front of him blocking. Grant caught a 9-yard screen pass that set up Harris’ touchdown run to give Green Bay a 7-3 lead.
“We work on it,” Van Pelt said. “It’s a constant theme of catching the check-down, turning and immediately getting north and south but DuJuan brings that extra element of speed.”
“He’s done a nice job,” McAdoo added. “He has the ability to catch the ball, shift and go north and south in a hurry and make somebody miss. He’s an explosive player and he does a nice job in that part of the game.”
Harris’ shortest gain of the night was a 4-yard reception on a screen pass. And though it wasn’t a huge success, Rodgers said he likes what Harris can give them there too.
“We’ve had some up-and-down success with our screens over the last couple years,” Rodgers said. “DuJuan, I think, has a good feel for it. You have to be quick but not in a hurry, if you will. You have to be able to not get out in front of your linemen too quickly but turn your head before I get rocked. Because a lot of time those (offensive linemen) are letting those (defensive linemen) go right as the ball needs to come out so DuJuan does a good job with that.”
Now the question is, can it work Saturday night against the 49ers and their 3-4 defense? San Francisco boasts a pair of inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, who Van Pelt considers some of the best in the game. He even compared them to a young version of Chicago Bears’ stalwarts Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
“(Against) this style of defense, it’ll be a little harder,” Van Pelt said. “I think they are more of a match team as opposed to a zone dropping team. We’ll have our opportunities but we might have somebody else open on the play.”
Rodgers said in recent weeks they haven’t seen nearly as much “Tampa 2” defense and he doubts San Francisco will employ much either. But that doesn’t mean passes to the running backs can’t be successful.
“It doesn’t have to be a guy over the ball every time,” Rodgers said. “It could be a guy leaking out underneath a deeper route, and if the coverage is dropping off to cover that deeper route, than you have to be able to check the ball down and have a guy who can make a guy miss and get some positive yards.”
In a larger discussion of what impact a defense rushing four guys and dropping seven into coverage has on a quarterback, Rodgers compared check-downs to that of a boxer throwing body punches that can wear a fighter down over time.
“Those check-downs are body blows,” Rodgers said. “And the body blows add up after awhile.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.