Packers again pose double threat
Friday, September 28, 2001
Green Bay Press Gazette
By ChrisTOPHER Walsh
Imagine for a moment that you’re a linebacker on an opposing team. A big part of your job is to cover any receiver that comes out of the backfield and keep the defense from becoming too spread out and thus at the mercy of three-time MVP quarterback Brett Favre.
The Green Bay Packers break their huddle and line up Ahman Green and Dorsey Levens in the backfield. What do you do?
Even though the multifaceted attack is something the Packers have not fully utilized this season, such is the dilemma that other coaches and players face.
“When we’re in the backfield at the same time, we’re going to be pretty hard to deal with,” said Levens, who took a pay cut to stay in Green Bay, and with good reason.
Although the tandem is far from hitting its stride, as a broken bone in his hand and a lower back bruise have limited Levens, one series in particular against Washington on Monday demonstrated how it might be utilized.
Midway through the second quarter, Green ran for gains of 13, 10 and 9 yards. While he took a breather, Levens then had 15 yards on two carries before the Redskins were able to limit Green Bay to a field goal.
Say what you will about the Packers offense, there’s little doubt that it’s riding the backfield. Green finished with 116 yards on 25 carries Monday and leads the league in rushing with 273 yards.
He has more than 100 yards in five of his last eight games, averaging better than 113 yards, during which time Green Bay is 7-1.
But don’t think for a second that Levens won’t get his chance. A team can never have enough running backs, which is why the Denver Broncos haven’t traded any of their three 1,000-yard rushers — Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson or Olandis Gary.
“It’s really important if you’re serious about running the football,” Packers running backs coach Sylvester Croom said. “You do that 16 games and you expect a guy to practice hard through the course of the week, I think you need more than one of them. That’s just a lot of wear and tear, year in and year out.
“The only way to be good running the football, or to run it period, is you have to practice hard and then to go out and get him 25, 30 times carrying the ball. We expect to be a physical football team and we expect our backs to play physical ball.”
Levens knows what that means. He’s bigger and a better blocker than Green, and despite being near the end of his prime still shows flashes of the 1997 season, when he was named to the Pro Bowl.
“I don’t think he can run as fast as Marshall Faulk,” Favre said. “He might not catch as many balls as Marshall Faulk, but he does everything that we ask him to do and is as good as any back in this system. We need him healthy.”
In 1996, Levens combined with Edgar Bennett as the Packers won the Super Bowl. He took over the following year when Bennett tore his Achilles tendon in the first preseason game.
Bennett sees comparisons, but believes Green’s speed brings a new element.
“He’s a legitimate home run threat,” Bennett said. “It’s so rare to have a guy who can go the distance on any play. Dorsey can do that, too.”
Neither is considered the best tandem in team history, though. That honor goes to halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor, two of 19 Packers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Hornung was just a great athlete,” said part-time scout Red Cochran, who joined the Packers in 1959 as a running backs coach. “He did a lot of things well. He was not going to be Ahman Green and run away from people, but he had good instincts and knew when to cut. He ran hard, was strong and was always a threat as a passer.”
Taylor rushed for more than 1,000 yards five straight seasons (1960-64). Heading into this year, he still ranked 16th among the NFL’s all-time rushers with 8,597 yards over 10 seasons.
“Taylor was strong, compact body, real quick,” Cochran said. “(Moving laterally) didn’t even slow him. It was just as quick as he was running full speed straight ahead.
“He had good running instincts, too. He was one of the first guys to really concentrate on weightlifting as a tool for football preparation. He was, and probably still is, hard as a rock. People kind of bounced off him.”
Now, there’s less emphasis on the fullback — Tennessee doesn’t even have one on its roster — as teams are loading up at halfback.
Last year, St. Louis used its top draft pick to select Trung Canidate when it already had Faulk.
This spring, New Orleans made a similar move, taking Deuce McAllister when it already had Ricky Williams.
Oakland used the strategy to lead the league in rushing last season as Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon Kaufman were vastly different. Wheatley powered his way to 1,046 yards. After Kaufman retired, the Raiders signed free agent Charlie Garner, who had 1,142 rushing yards for San Francisco and is a better receiving threat.
The New York Giants added former University of Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, but defenses keyed on the rookie and the Heisman Trophy winner wore down. Similar to the way Warrick Dunn started taking the majority of snaps instead of Mike Alstott for Tampa Bay, Tiki Barber then led the Giants to the Super Bowl. To improve his versatility, Dayne lost weight over the offseason and reported to training camp at 245 pounds.
None of those backfields, however, can match Green Bay’s in receiving prowess. Twice Levens has had more than 50 catches in a season, and Green’s 73 receptions led the Packers last year.
There’s also fullback William Henderson, who had three catches for 49 yards against Detroit and Monday picked up a first down on a fourth-down play with a 1-yard plunge.
Before the season, some almost laughed at the idea that Green Bay running backs thought they could accumulate 2,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. Two games in, they’re on pace for well over 2,000 rushing yards and 984 receiving yards.
To put that into perspective, in 1983, Chicago’s Walter Payton had 1,421 yards rushing and combined with Matt Suhey for 2,102 yards. However, they also had 1,036 receiving yards, for 3,138 total yards.
Other prominent backfields to have 1,000 yards receiving include Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett (1986 Cowboys), Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler (1985 49ers) and Lynn Cain and William Andrews (1981 Falcons).
So far there has been little friction in the Green Bay locker room. Levens knows his role, and has accepted it. A bigger problem for coaches has been finding ways to get each enough touches so they can get into a rhythm. Green in particular appears to be less prone to fumbles or drops the more he’s into a game.
“In one sense it’s a luxury, in staying fresh,” Levens said. “In the same sense, you want to get out there and play as much as you can and get a feel for the game. I get better as the game goes along, the more reps the better I get. It works both ways. I’ve been the main man and I’ve split time. Either way doesn’t matter.”
This is also nothing new for Green. He shared handoffs in high school, at Nebraska and during his short stint with the Seattle Seahawks, although he was buried on the depth chart behind Ricky Watters.
According to Bennett, the keys to splitting time are to be unselfish, stay healthy and remain competitive. He laughed when asked whether that meant there was some healthy competition between himself and Levens.
“Absolutely, but not in the way that the media tried to make it, pitting one guy against another.”
If anything, the situation has brought Green and Levens closer as friends.
“Here’s a guy who, when I came here, greeted me with open arms,” Green said. “He didn’t have to, but he did. He treated me like a brother. He called me up to go hang out at the NBA Finals.
“I didn’t get too much of that at Seattle. I’m not saying Seattle was a bad place, but coming here to a more college atmosphere, he told me this was the place for me. We know, when the game’s on, it’s time to put the ball in the end zone.”
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