It's hard to build a time machine. Especially one that seats more than 70,000. But for a three-hour stretch on Sunday afternoon, running back Ryan Grant
did his best to make fans think it was 2009. At least while they were watching him. And as far as vintages of Ryan Grants go, 2009 was a very good year.
That was the season Grant rushed for a career-high 1,253 yards on 282 carries and had a career-best 11 touchdowns. Seeing No. 25 break to the corner, turn upfield and kick in the turbo boosters wasn't just something to be enjoyed. It was practically expected. Grant's breakout season came after a 1,203-yard, four-touchdown season in 2008 and seemed to signal his arrival as the Packers' next great back.
Then came the 2010 opener at Philadelphia, when he was tackled awkwardly after an 18-yard gain, severely injured his ankle and was lost for the rest of the season. He watched his team struggle to find a ground game until rookie James Starks emerged in the postseason and proved a capable complement to Aaron Rodgers' right arm. The Packers went on to win Super Bowl XLV, and while Grant had a ring, he wanted a bigger role in earning it. This year was going to be his chance to do that. But 2011 hadn't exactly gone as planned.
Grant hadn't had a run longer than 10 yards since a Sept. 25 win at Chicago, when he led the team with 92 rushing yards. And while he remains in the starting lineup, he's lost carries to Starks and relevancy in the offense at an equal pace ever since. Even undrafted rookie Brandon Saine was vulturing touches and being eyed as a possible late-season breakout star, like Starks was last year.
But Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, with Starks out of the lineup and nursing an ankle injury of his own, the Packers turned to Grant. And Grant turned back the clock during a 46-16 dismantling that kept the Packers a perfect 13-0. After a penalty on the Packers' first offensive play, Grant took the handoff, followed blocks from Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang, and then turned it upfield, evading a diving Michael Huff, getting a block from Jordy Nelson and outracing defenders Mike Mitchell and Rolando McClain on his way to a 47-yard score.
Remember those 11 touchdowns in 2009? The last one came on Jan. 3, 2010, at Arizona in the regular-season finale. This 47-yard score was the first time Grant had been in the end zone in nearly two years. More that that, it was the first time he had flashed that kind of burst since he cracked off a 56-yard run for a score Dec. 27 that year against Seattle.
"Finally," Grant said in a surprisingly low-key tone. "But really it just feels good. And I knew when I turned around a lot of guys were going to be smiling, the wide receivers and Aaron. So, it was really good just to get that support."
Nelson, who dished out a key downfield block on Lito Sheppard, was the first one to congratulate Grant, followed by Lang, who followed him to the end zone after springing the play.
Grant was far from done. He took a swing pass from Rodgers for 13 yards later in the quarter to set up a touchdown, and took a run around the right end for 12 more yards. Midway through the second quarter, Grant blasted through the middle of the line for a 6-yard score that put the Packers on cruise control at 31-0.
"A lot of guys on offense knew that this was an opportunity for me and were excited about that," Grant said. "Just in general, we wanted to, as a backfield, individually step up and help the team. We were glad to do it. The line played awesome, I think that was great mentally for the backfield and mentally for them. We were able to do some good things, and we'll keep growing.
"It sets the tone for what we want to do. We want to be as balanced as possible, and take as much pressure off of Aaron because you know he's going to do what's he's going to do, regardless, and he's going to make plays and do all that. But the more pressure you can take off, the easier for him."
By halftime, Grant had 75 yards on seven carries, including his two scores. He'd finish with 10 carries for 85 yards, and 98 yards of total offense. Saine had left the game with a concussion in the second quarter, and with Starks' status unclear, fullback John Kuhn took the bulk of the second-half carries in a move to preserve Grant.
"Ryan set the tempo with the long run there early," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We would have liked to run Ryan there a little bit more, but got conservative once Brandon went down. Just the fact of only having three running backs going into the game (Grant, Saine and Kuhn) and then being down to two. Ryan potentially could have had a very big game if he was just given more opportunities with attempts. But I just thought it was smart to play more of a controlled game with John Kuhn."
Never mind that the Raiders gave up more than 300 yards on the ground in their two previous games or that run defense is not their forte. Truth be told, nothing seemed to be their forte on Sunday. Still, Grant's performance was exactly what this offense needed, if for no other reason than to show themselves and the remaining teams on their schedule that they do, in fact, remember how to run the ball.
"He did a great job today," Lang said of Grant. "I think it showed how dangerous we can be if we have a balanced attack. If we're not just dropping back throwing the ball 45 times a game. If we're able to run the ball and get over 100 yards rushing, that makes us more dangerous. We can open up the playbook a lot that way. So, it was huge. We've been wanting a day like this for a while. It came at a good time for the run we're about to make."
As for Grant, he suddenly becomes a key piece to the Packers' run at perfection and more importantly, a return trip to the Super Bowl. Just like he hoped he'd be all along.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.