Harris revives Packers running game at perfect time
The hours were long, but the money wasn't bad. DuJaun Harris was grateful for the sales job at the Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership on Atlantic Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida. Still, as he walked the showroom between pitches this past fall, it felt ... wrong.
"It was a sick feeling," recalls Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Troy who'd been cut by Jacksonville and Pittsburgh in training camp. "I was out of the game for two months, but it felt like two years. You really only truly appreciate something when it's taken away from you."
Green Bay threw Harris a lifeline on Oct. 24,, signing the second-year halfback to the practice squad following an Old Testament-like plague of injuries at the position. Activated on Dec. 1, the 5-foot-8, 208-pounder got his first action of the season -- and scored his first career touchdown -- against the Lions eight days later. Harris displayed patience, quickness and superb cutting ability on that 14-yard scoring run, then showed some above average hops executing his first-ever Lambeau Leap.
In a way, he hasn't come down yet. In the month since his promotion from the practice squad, the 24-year-old Harris has emerged as Green Bay's most potent weapon on the ground. True, his 70 yards on 14 carries in the Pack's season-ending loss to Minnesota were just over a third of Adrian Peterson's output that day. But 70 yards rushing is a banner day for Green Bay, whose fortunes ride on the guile and right arm of Aaron Rodgers. The Pack hasn't had a back go over 100 yards in the last 43 regular season games; hasn't celebrated a thousand-yard rusher since '06. With No. 12 in the backfield, it hasn't needed to.
The story of Harris, preparing to play a clutch playoff role 2 ½ months after selling cars in Jacksonville, is a heartwarming, feel-good account. It's also a measure of how bare the cupboard is in Green Bay. He will likely share carries with Alex Green, whose 464 yards ranked just 38th in the NFL this season, but was enough to lead the Pack. Starting against the Vikings last week, before Harris supplanted him, was Ryan Grant, who'd been out of football for six weeks when Green Bay signed him in early December. (Grant, the last Packer to rush for more than a thousand yards, did it in ... '06.)
While Green Bay's offense, orchestrated by Rodgers, is something special, its ground game is not. The Pack's 106 rushing yards per game ranked 20th in the league in 2012. Yet it serves its purpose, which is provide juuussst enough of a threat to force defenses to respect it, to bring a safety down, creating space for Rodgers and his receivers.
After carving up the Bears with a succession of slant patterns on Dec. 16, the day Green Bay clinched the NFC North, Rodgers explained that Chicago had "tried to pressure us with some one-high stuff" -- one safety high, another walked up, ostensibly in run support. The Bears crowding the box, he surmised, was the result of "the way we've run the ball the past couple weeks."
For the third straight game, the Pack had rushed for over a hundred yards, which, again, is a subpar day at the office for Peterson (who has mauled them for 409 yards in their last two games), but is cause for celebration in Green Bay. "We've been getting a lot of two-high [safeties], teams not bringing extra guys into the box to help support the run, because they didn't think we could do it," said center Evan Dietrich-Smith. "Now teams are starting to have respect for what we're doing out there, and it's really opening things up, both run and pass."
The question remains, how much balance does Green Bay really need to get deep into these playoffs? Rodgers is (ital)so(end ital) adept at buying time, spinning out of trouble, extending plays -- "He's a phenomenal playmaker, the best in the game," says left tackle Marshall Newhouse -- it's not clear the team really needs balance, so much as it just needs to keep this guy healthy and ambulatory.
The Pack hasn't just been dinged up at running back. Between injuries to Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb, Green Bay hasn't had its top four receivers on the field in the same game since Week 4. Just in time for the playoffs, it looks like Rodgers will have a healthy complement of receivers for the first time since September.
"It's all about who's hot at the right time," said Rodgers in mid-December, after Green Bay clinched its division despite an ugly, 2-3 start to the season. "You saw it with the Giants last year" -- New York, you'll recall, stunned the Pack, the regular season's best team, in the first round of the playoffs -- "and you saw it with Pittsburgh when they made their run" four years ago.
It's also all about "how you're playing in late December, and what your team's health is like," added Rodgers. Yes, this season has been much more of a "grind" than 2011, allowed Rodgers (who may or may not have been referring to being sacked eight times in the first half by the Seahawks on Monday Night Football in September). But postseason success, he contends, is often linked "to some of the adversity your team has faced during the season, how battle-tested you are."
If adversity means getting cut by two different teams in one preseason, then making a living selling cars before getting another chance, then DuJuan Harris should have a strong postseason.
That, in turn, will create passing lanes for Rodgers, which should result in a longer playoff run than last season's one-and-done flameout. That would delight Green Bay fans. Because you only truly appreciate something when it's taken away from you.