A burgeoning running back, recently signed from the practice squad, playing on a pass-first team versus the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the divisional round of the playoffs?
Hmmm, this could go wrong for the Green Bay Packers in a hurry.
Green Bay will be facing a fantastic front seven in the San Francisco 49ers next week with DuJuan Harris as their primary tailback. There are a lot of important matchups and different aspects of the game that will affect the outcome, but the bottom line is that the Packers have to find a way to run the ball effectively. They can’t simply rely on out-shooting the Niners because San Francisco also happens to have the fourth-ranked passing defense. The lack of a running game on Green Bay’s part – as seen when the teams met in Week 1 – would allow the San Fran secondary to play exclusively the dreaded Cover-2 defense that has been the most successful in stymying Aaron Rodgers and his receivers.
Harris is a great story. He spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being released prior to the 2012 season. He was picked up on waivers by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who cut him just four days later. Out of work, but not ready to give up on his NFL dream, Harris began a short (and unsuccessful) stint as a car salesman before being signed to the Green Bay practice squad in late October. As the Packers continued to suffer injuries at running back, Harris was signed to the active roster on December 1. In his first action as a Packer a week later, Harris scored his first NFL touchdown and has taken on an increasingly large role in the Packers’ run game ever since.
Green Bay, who prefers to go with the “hot hand” in the backfield rather than having a specific, consistent starter, has been using Harris more and more. In their Wild Card round win over the Minnesota Vikings, Harris also emerged as a receiving threat. In addition to his 47 yards on the ground, he acted as Rodgers’ check-down security blanket for 53 receiving yards.
His ability to catch the ball could be vital for the Packers in San Francisco. Green Bay could try to get around the Niners’ defensive pressure with continued use of screens. Harris has done well catching the ball and Green Bay’s number two running back, Ryan Grant, is also pretty solid as a receiver in the screen game.
Harris has been the primary runner for Green Bay the last couple of weeks, with Grant and fullback John Kuhn giving shorter-yardage support. The question that sticks out in my mind is whether or not Alex Green and James Starks will see the field at all in the playoffs. Starks has been sidelined most recently with a knee injury, but is said to be ready or nearing ready for a return. After suffering a concussion in Week 15, Green was forced to sit out a week of practice, and, according to Packers’ running back coach Alex Van Pelt, time away from the field causes scar tissue to build up in Green’s surgically repaired knee, thereby limiting him. Before he was sidelined, Green was putting together his best string of games. If his knee is healthy enough, I think the Packers should use him to give the Niners a different look from Harris and Grant.
Whoever is in the backfield for Green Bay, they’ll have a long day on Saturday in San Francisco. The challenge for the Packers will be sticking with the run – even if it is less successful than they would wish – in order to open up opportunities in the passing game.