GREEN BAY — As Aaron Ripkowski suited up for Sunday’s game against Atlanta, the Packers fullback didn’t carry any preconceived notions about how much he’d play.
Ripkowski’s mindset was like every week regardless of how long the team’s injury report was. His job was to contribute on special teams and do whatever he was told on offense.
As it turned out, the Packers wound up asking more of Ripkowski than ever before with Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery all out with injury or illness.
After seeing only 18 offensive snaps a year ago, Ripkowski played a career-high 32 snaps against the Falcons, assisting in pass protection, run-blocking and even carrying the football.
His six carries for 34 yards against Atlanta matched his career total of rushing attempts in 46 career games at the University of Oklahoma, which all came during his senior year with the Sooners.
“It was probably more of looking at our situation and understanding who we had in the backfield and who we didn’t have,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “Having the luxury of him understanding what the (H-back) does in our offense and still wanting to be able to run those plays, it kind of evolved into him getting more carries.”
His performance came three weeks after he and the offensive line made waves when they turned an average fullback dive on third-and-1 into a 13-yard gain against the Giants.
The way Ripkowski has stepped up in recent weeks is reminiscent of how three-time Pro Bowler John Kuhn often stabilized the offense during his nine seasons in Green Bay.
Kuhn, a waiver claim from Pittsburgh in 2007, was as knowledgeable about the offense as any player on the roster and had the undying trust of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Ripkowski, a sixth-round pick in 2015, spent his rookie season shadowing Kuhn, learning the responsibilities of the fullback position in Green Bay’s offense.
Rodgers’ confidence in his 23-year-old fullback has grown each week since the season started.
“I’ve been fortunate to play with a guy like John Kuhn for so many years and it’s second nature back there with a guy like that because you trust him in the protection game, running game and passing game with the adjustments,” Rodgers said.
“‘Rip’ is moving in that direction and quickly. The thing that maybe we didn’t, all of us – players, fans and analysts alike – probably didn’t expect was his ability to run the football like that. … His flexibility is actually opening some stuff up for us.”
The Packers aren’t counting on Ripkowski to be an every-down back by any means, but his production has validated the reasons behind the opportunities he’s received.
It started when Green Bay began calling a few designed draws for Ripkowski to help keep Atlanta’s defense honest when he was lining up in the backfield next to Rodgers.
His first attempt was a 9-yard carry that helped set up Mason Crosby’s 29-yard field goal before halftime. The Packers then fed him five more times in the second half in which he gained 25 more yards.
Like Kuhn, Ripkowski’s ability to gain those extra yards is critical for the offense not to tip its hand to when the fullback lines up next to Rodgers in spread, shotgun packages.
“He’s building his role,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “The more guys can be more multidimensional and do different things, the defense can’t key like, ‘If Rip’s in there, it’s going to be a pass because he’s only going to protect.’ We can hand him a ball and he can get five or 10 yards.”
Ripkowski’s success hasn’t surprised Head Coach Mike McCarthy. While the fullback rarely touched the football in college, his production on the Packers’ special-teams unit has helped foreshadow what he could bring to the offense.
Ripkowski tied for fourth in coverage tackles last season with nine and made his impact felt on his only reception as a rookie: a 19-yard catch in Week 9 against Carolina on which he plowed over Panthers defensive back Bene Benwikere.
“I think ‘Rip’ going into last year, I knew right away that there’s more,” McCarthy said. “He catches the ball well. He’s always caught it well in practice. He just needs opportunities. He’s not a featured runner in our offense but he did a really good job.
“He needs to take care of the ball better. That’s one thing I know they’re watching and we’re obviously emphasizing this week.”
A season spent with Kuhn opened Ripkowski’s eyes to the entire offense. Now the only fullback on the active roster, Ripkowski believes he’s made significant strides in his run-blocking and blitz recognition.
The importance of ball-carrying isn’t lost on him, either. While he doesn’t carry the ball often, Ripkowski constantly is taking notes from Lacy and Starks when it comes to running the football.
It showed against the Falcons.
“Watching the guys do it from day-to-day, trying to emulate them the best you can,” Ripkowski said of his approach. “If you practice hard enough, you go into a game with more confidence. If it’s worked in practice, it’ll probably work in the game.”
The Packers’ fan base is still working to find a nickname for Ripkowski, whose name doesn’t slip off the tongue as easily as his one-syllable predecessor.
On the field, however, Ripkowski has fit right into the Packers’ offense and earned the respect of his quarterback in the process.
“You have to be creative at certain times with the personnel we’ve got right now,” Rodgers said. “Having him out there to be a runner, a blocker and pass-catcher, and expanding his role is really going to help us out. I’m really proud of the way he’s approached his opportunities the last couple weeks.”