Hamstring healed, Grant worked in the off-season to get his explosiveness back.
September 13 CHICAGO 20 CINCINNATI 27 at St. Louis
October 5 at Minnesota (M) 11 Bye 18 DETROIT 25 at Cleveland
November 1 MINNESOTA 8 at Tampa Bay 15 DALLAS 22 SAN FRANCISCO 26 at Detroit (T)
December 7 BALTIMORE (M) 13 at Chicago 20 at Pittsburgh 27 SEATTLE
January 3 at Arizona
Jermichael Finley, Tight end: As a blue-chip senior at Diboll (Texas) High in the fall of 2004, Finley was set to attend Arizona on a full scholarship to play basketball and football. But midway through his senior football season he met with Texas coach Mack Brown, who told the all-state tight end and small forward he should pick one sport or he'd surely fail at both. "I liked that he told me the truth," Finley says. "So on signing day I decommitted from Arizona and went with Texas."
Finley was drafted by the Packers in the third round in 2008, and as a 21-year-old rookie he performed about as you'd expect, catching six passes for 74 yards and thinking he wasn't getting the ball enough. But during practices the 6' 5", 247-pound Finley wowed teammates with his speed and vertical leap. He calls to mind other basketball players turned tight ends, namely Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. "It's the quickness and the footwork," Finley says.
Although he must improve his blocking to overtake incumbent Donald Lee, it will be hard for the Packers to keep Finley off the field this season given how difficult it is for linebackers to run with him and for safeties to muscle him. As he described the approach he is taking this season -- "full bore, full throttle" -- veteran wideout Donald Driver listened intently from the adjoining locker, as if charting his young teammate's growth. "That's it," Driver said. "That's what I'm talking about, kid."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
If the No. 1 back regains his form and the reconfigured defense comes together, the Pack will have a playoff shot.
For Ryan Grant, the play that summed up 2008 came in the finale against Detroit, when, with a little more than four minutes left, he broke into the secondary and dashed 80 yards for a score. Grant's longest run of the season catapulted him into the top five in the NFC in rushing and triggered $2.1 million in bonus money. His euphoria lasted only a moment. After a Lions challenge, the replay official judged that Grant was downed by contact after 21 yards. He lost the touchdown, the extra yardage and $1.45 million of the bonus -- and spent much of the off-season contending with questions about what went wrong in '08. "I couldn't get that play back," Grant said. "I had to move on."
Most backs who fit Grant's profile -- an undrafted free agent in his second full season -- would have been thrilled to finish the year with 1,203 yards. But Grant had raised expectations so high the previous season, when he took over as the starter in Week 9 and then had 201 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win over Seattle, that he practically couldn't help but fall short. He came late to training camp in '08 because of a contract dispute, was not in peak condition and predictably tweaked a hamstring. Though Grant didn't miss any games and rarely complained about the injury, he acknowledges now that it affected his burst, which helps explain his lack of long runs and his drop-off from 5.1 to 3.9 yards per carry. "I probably should have sat out a couple games," Grant says. "When you're not healthy, you don't have the explosion you need to break that initial tackle."
To win the NFC North the Pack will need the Grant of '07. This summer he spent a week and a half at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., running hills against resistance from parachutes, bungee cords, chains and tires. The drills were designed to simulate charging up the field with a linebacker wrapped around his waist. A power runner, Grant believes the key to 2009 is to regain the explosiveness that allows him to shed tacklers and sprint past them. He's aiming for "definitely more than 1,200 yards. My expectations are higher. We've got to do more."
Much has changed in Green Bay. Heading into last season, all the scrutiny was on Aaron Rodgers, the successor to Brett Favre. The Packers went 6-10, but Rodgers wasn't the problem -- he was fourth in the league in passing yards and touchdowns and sixth in passer rating. Attention this year has shifted to Grant and to Aaron Kampman. A Pro Bowl defensive end who had 37 sacks over the past three seasons, Kampman is moving to outside linebacker as part of the new 3-4 defense. If he's bothered by the switch, he's too diplomatic to say. "I've played defensive end for a quite a while," Kampman says. "This gives me a chance to do some new things."
The transition will be made easier by the presence of Kevin Greene, who racked up 160 sacks as an outside linebacker mostly in 3-4 schemes and is now coaching the position in Green Bay. He and Kampman are inseparable on the practice field. After defensive coordinator and 3-4 guru Dom Capers makes a point about the new system, Greene, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina and knows the scheme about as well as anybody, explains to Kampman exactly what it means for him. Says Kampman, "It's great to have someone who's been there and done that."
Assuming Grant regains his form and the defense embraces the 3-4, the Packers should join the Vikings and the Bears in a three-way battle for the NFC North. Kampman's sack numbers may dip a little, but his victory totals are likely to rise. "The new defense allows us to be more creative, especially with our blitzes," backup corner Tramon Williams says. "A lot of guys are going to be coming from a lot of places. It's going to be a quarterback's worst nightmare.".
-- Lee Jenkins
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