Packers cautious with running back
Thursday, December 7, 2006
JS Online

Ask the Green Bay Packers coaches and they’ll tell you that Ahman Green is running the way he once did.

But if that’s true, why haven’t they found more ways to get their franchise back the ball, especially in light of the problems they’ve had running behind an offensive line featuring three rookies?

Now that he’s more than a year removed from the ruptured thigh tendon that cost him most of last season, Green’s strength in his legs appears completely back, and when he gets some running room he seems to make the most of it. But in the last three games, his touches have been down significantly, especially compared to early in the season.

Not being able to run the ball is a factor, as is getting behind early against the New York Jets and New England Patriots, but given Green’s ability to supplement his numbers with receiving yards, the Packers don’t seem to be maximizing his ability. What’s more, Green’s endurance seems to be playing a factor because he continually comes out of the game after three or four plays during any given drive.

“You’re trying to get him the ball so many times, but you’re trying to keep his rep(etition)s to a certain number,” coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “But also (Vernand) Morency and Noah (Herron) have been productive players for us, so we’re keeping them involved, too. It’s not just go in there and go until you can’t go anymore. That’s not the approach.”

It was early in the season when McCarthy and offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski were trying to get their zone-blocking run scheme off the ground. Green averaged 25 touches (carries and receptions) in the first three games, and the result was a pulled hamstring that shelved him for two games.

So they backed off a little, gave him the Wednesday practice each week to do rehabilitation on his right leg and started using him less. He hasn’t come close to the 30 touches he had against Detroit Sept. 24 and is averaging 19 in his last seven games.

McCarthy said he wants to get him the ball more in the passing game, but protection is critical when you have three rookies on the line and he isn’t willing to sacrifice that for the possibility of getting Green the ball in the open field.

“The thing we’ve gotten away from is a lot of our base drop-back pass game because of the emphasis of pass protection,” McCarthy said. “It has affected some of the attempts for the backs (and) it’s affected some of the attempts for the tight ends. That’s where we are on offense.”

One way to get Green’s numbers up would be to release him out of the backfield and send him out on screens more often. In Mike Sherman’s offense, Green averaged 56 catches for 437 yards a year from 2000-’04, and wound up having more total yards from scrimmage during those five years than any other player in the NFL.

This season, he has 30 catches for 250 yards and is on pace to finish with 42 catches for 350 yards.

“We can get him the ball in the passing game,” McCarthy said. “He plays on third down. As far as the number of reps he can go in a row is really the factor of what down he is in. He does factor into our third-down packages.”

Green’s inability to play long stretches of a game has been evident lately and it will be something other teams look at if they consider signing him in free agency this off-season. It’s unclear if his asthma is the reason he can’t go more than a couple of plays in a row or whether it’s due to fatigue in his leg.

Green is in impeccable physical shape, so it’s hard to imagine it has anything to do with conditioning.

“I think with him, the majority of the time, he’s playing at such a high level, it can be taxing at times,” running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. “He gives it his all. Don’t get me wrong, some situations, we will sub. The majority of the time, he’ll come out when he feels he’s getting worn down so he can recover and stay fresh.”

Green’s inability to stay on the field for long stretches will be something the Packers will have to consider next year as well. They seem fairly high on Morency, who hasn’t been the same since injuring his back against Arizona Oct. 29, but the possibility of them devoting a relatively high draft pick on a back exists.

Green will be 30 in mid-February, and while he looks strong carrying the ball, the durability factor is going to weigh on the team’s mind.

“He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder; he’s playing with something to prove,” Bennett said. “Ahman, he’s a competitor. He wants to be the best, he wants to succeed, he wants what’s best for the Green Bay Packers. I love that about him. When he steps on the field, there’s not a doubt in my mind he’s going to give us everything he has.”

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