Green breaks out as a No. 1 runner
Thursday, December 21, 2000
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Packer Plus writer
Green Bay - It started when Ahman Green rushed for 153 yards against the Indianapolis Colts in November. It gained steam when he scored two key touchdowns against the Detroit Lions in Week 15.
And what about now, after the Packer running back rushed for 161 yards and caught a touchdown in Green Bay's 33-28 upset win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at the Metrodome, boosting his season total to 1,101 yards in just 10 starts?
The notion that Green could be the Packers' full-time starter in 2001 appeared even more plausible.
"I don't think there is any doubt," running backs coach Kippy Brown said. "You look at his yards-per-carry, and you look at the production touchdown-wise and the production reception-wise, this guy is a capable starter in the NFL. I don't think there is any question about that."
Without Green running the ball effectively, it would have been difficult for the Packers to win. The Packers wanted to keep the Vikings' explosive offense off the field by milking the clock, and they did it, especially while building a 20-14 halftime lead and sealing it late.
In doing so, Green became just the seventh different 1,000-yard rusher in Packer history.
"It means a lot, because I know I am a big contributor to the team," Green said. "Some games I was down on myself for missing that play or missing that block, but I knew if I kept working it would come, and it did.
"I was expecting maybe 500, 600 yards this season. I wasn't expecting 1,000, but I got it."
Green's final run was symbolic of his impact. Minnesota used its final timeout and Green Bay faced a third-and-9 with just under a minute to play. The Vikings lined up knowing the Packers were going to run the ball, but they couldn't do anything about it.
Green ran a sweep right, found a seam and raced down the right sideline for 28 yards.
"There is no better way to end it," general manager Ron Wolf said. "To see that guy do that was great."
The Packers are seeing Green do good things more and more this season. In the seven games since Dorsey Levens was lost for the season with a knee injury, Green has rushed for 695 yards and five touchdowns and caught 36 passes for 216 yards and three scores. His season totals of 1,101 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on 236 carries, plus 64 catches for 481 yards and three touchdowns suggest that he could be a productive starter.
"I came here just thinking I am going to be a spot player, spell Dorsey from time to time and be a big-time contributor on the special teams," Green said. "Right now it is just the opposite."
The Packers' best-laid plans of having Levens as the featured back and Green as a change-of-pace substitute went up in smoke because of Levens' multiple ailments. When both were in the lineup, the Packer offense often was effective. The assignment-sure Levens provided reliability in the passing game and power in the running game, and the extraordinarily fast Green was a bigger threat to break a long run.
When Levens left the Miami game in Week 9 with the knee injury, suddenly Green had to be The Man. After starting slowly in his new role, Green has gained confidence and become more consistent, to the point where the Packers probably would feel comfortable with him as their best option at running back for 2001.
Of course the team would rather have a healthy Levens as their starter with Green as insurance.
"Dorsey, when he is healthy, is as good an all-around back as there is in this league," Favre said. "I'd like to see Dorsey and Ahman healthy and in the same backfield."
But that didn't happen often this season, and now Levens' future with the Packers is uncertain because of his injury history and estimated $7.4 million cap figure for 2001. Levens has said he would take a pay cut for the chance to finish his career in Green Bay, so the Packers will have to decide how much they are willing to pay for the 30-year old veteran.
If Levens isn't in the Packers' future plans, Green may be the featured back once again.
"If it came to that, I would just have to be ready," Green said. "I wouldn't have any choice. I would just have to work hard and continue what I am doing as far as growing in this offense."
After two seasons as a backup for Seattle, Green finally is getting his chance to do it full-time.
With the Seahawks, he was used mainly on third down and had just 61 carries for 329 yards and a touchdown. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren lost confidence in his runner after he lost three fumbles in one pre-season game, so he was willing to trade Green to the Packers in April for cornerback Fred Vinson and what probably will be a fourth-round draft pick.
Now, with Green coming into his own, it looks as if the Packers may have gotten the best of the deal. Wolf said he sensed Green could develop into a quality NFL back.
"I thought he had the capability of doing that because of what he did at Nebraska," Wolf said. "He is the single-season leading rusher in Nebraska football and the second-leading career rusher, which speaks volumes when he only played three years.
"I have a special feeling for him and I am glad he is doing well, because that makes me look good."
Green's speed and awareness suggest he could be a good runner, and he has been, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. His ability to turn the corner was expected, but Green also has been good between the tackles. He leads the National Football League on third-and-1 conversions with 12 first downs in 13 attempts.
"The run offense is easy," Green said. "As a running back you have to know where your linemen are going to be, and that is about it."
Green was slow to master his other responsibilities. He lost five fumbles in the first nine games and had some key dropped passes. But as Green gradually began to better grasp the nuances of the West Coast offense, his consistency and production improved, along with his reliability.
Since losing a fumble at Tampa Bay, Green has had 236 consecutive touches without losing another one. The biggest testament that Green is becoming a complete back was quarterback Brett Favre raving about the running back's performance in the Packers' 26-13 defeat of Detroit at Lambeau Field.
Green had 113 yards against Detroit and scored two touchdowns, but Favre was most impressed by Green's blocking on blitz pick-ups.
"His pass blocking, which most people wouldn't notice, was as good as I have seen by a back in this offense," Favre said. "Several times it was guys he didn't have to pick up, he just kind of felt the guy coming."
Such instinctive play is important for Green. He must know when to stay in and pass protect, sometimes cutting off play-action to one side to pick up a blitzer on the other side. If there is no blitz, Green must get out into his route quickly and be prepared to receive a pass even before Favre throws it.
All of these decisions, of course, must be made before the play begins and are subject to change because of audibles or defensive adjustments. Getting to the point where all of the information is processed quickly and reactions are made instinctively takes time.
"It is no different than when I first started out in this offense," Favre said. "You think, 'OK, where do I go?' Ahman several times this year has gone the wrong way. To the average person it is, 'How in the world can that happen?' Well, he has a lot to think about."
Slowly but surely, Green said he is thinking less, reacting more, and performing better.
However, he still makes his share of mistakes. Against the Lions he went the wrong way on a play that lost 4 yards, dropped a pass and fumbled a ball that he recovered himself. He dropped a pass Sunday that would have went for a nice gain.
Green, who said he is his own worst critic, might have gotten down on himself about missing on those plays earlier in the season. But in both of those games he bounced back. Favre has encouraged Green to not worry about making mistakes - to play loose and let his natural abilities take over.
Brown said the running back has done just that.
"The main difference in Ahman is that he is playing with confidence," Brown said. "Once you have done some productive things, now you have the confidence that you are capable and you go out and play with more confidence. I think that is the big thing now. He believes he is going to make plays."
He's made enough of them, big and small, that he should be in the Packers' plans for the future.
"He is definitely making a case for being around here for a long time," Favre said.
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