RB Benson picks up fans among his fellow Packers
By Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette
~Rare are the years when after the start of training camp an NFL team picks up a player who immediately and meaningfully upgrades its fortunes.
For the Green Bay Packers over the last 20 years, there was Ryan Grant, who rushed for 939 yards in the last 10 games of 2007 after he was acquired in a seemingly minor trade at the end of camp; Grady Jackson, who salvaged the Packers’ hemorrhaging run defense after they claimed him off waivers in November 2003; and Andre Rison, who provided a quality receiving threat and caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXI only a few weeks after the Packers claimed him off waivers late in 1996.
Maybe the next name on that list will be Cedric Benson in 2012.
The Packers’ signed the running back off the street just two weeks ago, and in his first preseason game with them last Thursday at Cincinnati he looked at age 29 like the same player who was the NFL’s seventh-leading rusher over the past three years combined.
Yes, it was only one preseason game, and yes, the sample size was small (six carries for 38 yards). But based on Benson’s head-turning performance, it looks like the Packers have upgraded their run game from last season, perhaps significantly, with an aging but talented veteran who is highly motivated after going unsigned all offseason.
“You usually pick up a guy that late to help with your depth or because you have an injury,” said starting right guard Josh Sitton. “So (getting Benson after camp started) is huge. I was shocked he hadn’t been picked up before that. Good for us.”
Until Benson’s performance last week, the Packers’ backfield had been something of a mess this training camp.
James Starks, the No. 1 halfback going into camp, wasn’t sharp early and then sustained a bad turf-toe injury that could keep on the sidelines into early in the regular season. Backup Alex Green has played fine but is on a limited snap count because he’s coming back from knee-reconstruction surgery. And Brandon Saine, the No. 3 back who figured to get his share of snaps on passing downs, just returned to practice Sunday after missing the first three preseason games because of a hamstring injury.
After Starks’ injury in the preseason opener, the Packers turned to Benson, who was available because the free-agent market didn’t deliver a contract offer anywhere near what he thought he could get, believed to be in the range of $3 million a year or so. The Packers ended up signing him for the $825,000 veteran’s minimum that included no incentives for carries, rushing yards or the like.
Though Benson has played most of his career in two-back offenses and never in a zone-oriented blocking scheme, he showed Thursday night the ability to function well in the Packers’ one-back, zone system. Whether it was almost immediately after the hand-off or after taking a couple of steps, he read the zone blocks, planted his foot and cut back to the biggest hole.
Benson looked like he was in good shape when he hit the practice field with the Packers and ran like it Thursday. He played well enough that it’s hard to see how he won’t be the Packers’ starting halfback.
“He definitely played well,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “He’s an explosive guy. He reads the line and holes very well, hits seams and creases and gets to the second level and makes moves.”
So what kind of difference might Benson make this season? That will depend on his health and whether his age shows later in the season — he was, after all, more fresh than most players against the Bengals after sitting out the first two weeks of camp.
But he won’t have to be a heavy-volume ball carrier or 1,200-yard rusher to make a difference. Last Thursday night, for instance, the Packers’ play-action passing opened up when Benson was in the game, and defensive coordinators will have a tougher time game planning in the regular season if Benson is a threat to pound out runs between 4 and 10 yards on any carry.
Benson also has won over teammates with his commitment by diving into the learning offense. Besides the daily running backs meetings, which last about 1 hour and 15 minutes, he’s also been attending the quarterbacks meetings that run at the same time as special-teams meetings and last another half hour to 45 minutes.
“He’s definitely been impactful since he’s been here,” center Jeff Saturday said. “Works hard, doesn’t say much off the field, kind of quietly goes about his business. Then when he hit the field on Thursday the guy played a pretty good football game.”
It’s worth asking just how important the Packers’ running game is, considering they were a Super Bowl contender and had the NFL’s best regular-season record last year without much of one. They went 15-1 almost solely on the strength of their passing game, which is as deep in quality talent as any in the NFL.
Their leading rushers, Starks and Grant, averaged 4.2 yards on 267 carries, and the team finished No. 27 in the NFL in rushing yards per game and No. 26 in average yards per carry.
But the Packers also lost in the playoffs to the New York Giants, who were one of the only teams in the NFL last season that could consistently pressure quarterbacks with only a four-man rush. The Packers played from behind for most of that game, but even so, they were only one score behind as late in the third quarter, and ….. full story here