Back in Week 3, when the Packers started to throw second-year receiver Ty Montgomery in at running back, it looked like little more than a gimmick. And it was a gimmick we had seen before: Over the years, Green Bay had occasionally motioned Randall Cobb into the backfield and run the ball against a nickel or dime front that was only equipped to stop the pass. A good way to create mismatches, sure, but not a plank to build your offense with.
Then, after Eddie Lacy (ankle) and James Starks (knee) both hit the shelf in Week 6, Green Bay was forced to give Montgomery more carries as a regular running back. He got nine totes in Week 7 and another seven in Week 9, picking up 113 yards combined in those two games, producing a stellar 7.06 yards per carry, the switch still felt more like a desperation play than anything else. I mean, the guy was still wearing no. 88. The Packers were just weathering the injury storm by handing the ball off to an inexperienced, converted receiver, right?
Right … until it was wrong. When Starks returned in Week 10, he took back over as the starter for Green Bay. Except something has happened over the past three weeks: Green Bay realized that Montgomery is actually its best runner, so the Packers started giving him more work until he became the de facto lead back. With a breakout 16-carry, 162-yards, two-touchdown performance against the Bears on Sunday, Montgomery has gone from an emergency option to someone who looks like a future star.
Montgomery has always been an explosive athlete — thanks to an ability to shake defenders with a combination of speed and power, he was an All-American return man at Stanford — and that talent translates well to his new position. He doesn’t move like a receiver, and at 6-feet, 216 pounds, finesse isn’t a part of his game. For most players looking to make the switch from receiver to running back, the transition takes years. The majority of receivers run way too upright, can’t pick the right lanes, and don’t have a good feel for the interplay between ball carrier and the offensive line. Running after a bubble screen is different than taking a handoff: Running backs have to be patient enough to let blocks develop before making a cut, but they also need the foresight to plan their second move before they complete their first.
In other words, the little things turn a good athlete into a good running back, and Montgomery exhibited many of them on Sunday. On his first touchdown run, which came early in the opening quarter, he pressed the line, forcing Bears safety Adrian Amos to commit to the inside gap. Then, Montgomery bounced it outside, where he beat two defenders to the end zone.
Later in the first quarter, he showed patience in letting his blocks set up in front of him, working off of his offensive linemen and the receivers who were blocking downfield to again bounce outside for a big gain.
Sometimes, the blocking just goes to shit, and it’s up to the running back to make something out of nothing. Montgomery did that twice on Sunday, and showed off his impossible-looking stop-start explosiveness to escape would-be tacklers and dart through the jumble of bodies. The first time came in the first quarter and the second in the third quarter, and and they resulted in a combined 35 yards.
All but six of Montgomery’s 162 yards on Sunday came after first contact. This run early in the second quarter explains why:
Montgomery also showed an ability to think a step or two ahead, planning out runs beyond the line of scrimmage. On this run in the second quarter, he let his blocker come across the formation to seal off the playside defensive tackle. But before that even happened, Montgomery was looking at Chicago linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. Montgomery set the rookie up with a jab-step inside before bouncing outside to his left and leaving Kwiatkoski on the ground. Then he finished the run with a flourish, keeping his feet moving to gain an additional 14 or so yards amidst a crowd of Bears.
Thirteen weeks after his first handoff, Montgomery doesn’t just look like a gimmick. He runs with great pad level, footwork, and vision, he carries the ball high and tight to avoid getting stripped, and he even has an effective stiff-arm. He anticipates contact and reacts, avoiding the full brunt of hits so he can keep his feet moving and push the pile.
Over the Packers’ last nine games, Aaron Rodgers has busted back into the MVP race, throwing 22 touchdown to just three picks. With Montgomery’s emergence as a big-time weapon for the Packers run game, Rodgers will finally enjoy the previously absent benefits of a balance between run and pass. Green Bay’s play-action passing game should improve, and the team will have more options on third downs and in the red zone. Despite a four-game winning streak, the 8–6 Packers are still on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, so the Montgomery Bump could not have come at a better time.