Analyzing How Cedric Benson Won Packers' Starting RB Job
Second-year back Alex Green all but confirmed to Paul Imig of FSN Wisconsin that Benson would be the team's starter when the Packers kick off the regular season Sept. 9 against the San Francisco 49ers.
"Cedric is leading off," Green told Imig when asked who the team's starting running back would be to open the 2012 season.
Just how did Benson go from walking the streets to the top of the Packers' running back depth chart, all in the span of just two or so weeks?
A little bit of luck for starters, but also a 20-snap debut last Thursday that displayed everything the Packers offense needed to see in a starting running back.
First, the luck.
The Packers came into camp with five running backs: James Starks, the expected starter, Green, who was recovering from ACL surgery, Brandon Saine, a surprise 2011 undrafted free agent, and two 2012 undrafted free agents, Marc Tyler and Du'ane Bennett.
Despite concerns from the outside about the status of the position, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson continually told inquirers they felt comfortable with what they had at running back.
No Ryan Grant, no trade and no other free agent was needed, they said.
Then came the injuries.
Saine went down early in camp with a hamstring injury. He's only recently returned to practice this week.
Bennett was also sidelined for most of camp, leading the Packers to place him on injured reserve during last Friday's cutdown to the league-mandated 75 players. He's now likely to be given an injury settlement.
While carrying the rushing load for most of the preseason, Tyler has battled through some nicks and bruises.
But the stroke of luck Benson needed came from a back who's given the Packers plenty of pause on the injury front.
Following the Packers' preseason-opening loss to the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 9, it was discovered that Starks had suffered a turf toe injury. He hasn't played or practice with the team since.
The toe injury marks just the latest injury for Starks, who has dealt with ankle, knee and shoulder problems over the last three years of his football life.
Once comfortable with the position, the Packers were completely depleted at running back.
After a weekend of haggling over the contract, Benson officially signed a one-year deal on Aug. 12. He wouldn't play in the Packers' upcoming preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, instead targeting the next game in Cincinnati for his Packers debut.
In terms of debuts, Benson probably couldn't have wrote a better script.
The numbers weren't exactly off-the-paper good—Benson rushed six times for 38 yards and caught one pass for 10—but it was the way he got to 48 total yards that won him the starting job.
Green started, but Benson took over a majority of the snaps during the team's two touchdown drives.
On Benson's first carry, the 29-year-old made one cut at the line of scrimmage and picked up seven yards. Two plays later, Benson again made the right cut, bounced off a would-be tackler and picked up a first down.
Benson's legs looked fresh running the football on all six carries. It also helped that Benson was running against the soft fronts Green Bay typically sees on offense. This is still a team that has NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers leading a pass-heavy offense, mind you.
Later on, Benson caught a short pass out of the backfield and then got skinny—shifting his body laterally—to avoid one tackle. He picked up 10 yards on a play that should have went for one or two.
He also stonewalled a free blitzer on Rodgers' interception in the second quarter.
Both areas—catching the football out of the backfield and in pass protection—were seen as problem areas for Benson coming into Green Bay. While a very, very small sample, Benson showed he's capable of both.
And just like that, Benson had put on film exactly why Thompson had pulled on the trigger on a back no one else wanted this summer.
By the time the Packers were on the plane back to Green Bay, it was clear to everyone who watched that Benson was going to be the team's starting running back.
Expectations for Benson have gone from microscopic to mountain-sized in the matter of two weeks and one preseason appearance. Maybe that's right; maybe that's foolish.
But it is clear that Benson is the running back Green Bay that should be starting in 2012. If he's anywhere as good as he was last Thursday in Cincinnati during the regular season, the Packers are going to have an offense even more difficult to stop in 2012.
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