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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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In Sports

Packers running back Alex Green is averaging 3.1 yards per carry this season. (PHOTO: Jim Biever/Green Bay Packers)

Packers running success can be found beyond the numbers


GREEN BAY – Numbers, for as hard and factual as they are, can be deceptively malleable and shaped to "prove" opposing sides of view. In the context of sports, its what makes numbers so fun.

There are the simple team numbers, like wins and losses.

Then there are more difficult individual numbers, like wins above replacement (WAR) in baseball and player efficiency rating (PER) in basketball.

Football, however, is different. The performance of one player is so inextricably linked to the success or failure of others that it's nearly impossible to quantify an individual's impact.

Quarterbacks have a passer rating, or ESPN's new Total QBR. Some like to look at yards per pass attempt as indicator to a passer's effectiveness. Receivers and running backs are judged on their average yards per attempt and yards after contact.

Yet nothing can quite define what one play means in a drive, or in a game. That makes sense, actually, considering the game is based on speed, anticipation, leverage and angles, route trees and look offs – human movements that cannot be measured.

Perhaps this explains the unexplainable – how the Green Bay Packers offense has exploded for 72 points the last two weeks.

Where did nine touchdowns and three field goals come from, when over the first five weeks the offense was averaging just over 22 points per game?

Perhaps it's in the seemingly insignificant number of 3.1 – running back Alex Green's yards per carry.

"We don't need every play to be a home run – we just got to make sure we're being effective enough where that defense has to respect that run game and makes sure they can't sit back on our receivers and drop everybody into coverage," guard T.J. Lang said. "We've got to make sure we make them play both facets of our game."

At 3.1 yards per carry, is that facet of the game great? Nope. Is it good? Not really. By what measure, though? Green's 42 rushes and 100 yards the last two weeks have served a greater purpose than making a stat sheet sing.

"(Before Houston) I was saying we were a little bit inconsistent at times and the more consistency you can get you're better off," Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "And if we can consistently run the ball efficiently that's going to help us."

And that goes beyond the numbers.

"We really look at not only the yards we get per attempt but also the number of times you try to run the ball," Clements added. "We're going to do whatever we think we need to do against a particular team, whether it's run the ball more or throw the ball more. We don't go into a game saying we need to run a certain percentage of the time. We're going to run the ball and make sure that the defense can't tee off and know what we're going to do all the time."

Through two weeks, Green's performances don't look sexy. Yet his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and break tackles forced the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams to prepare, and play, for what he might do on a particular snap. This leads to openings that Aaron Rodgers can take advantage of.

"I thought we ran the ball effectively and we did a good job mixing things up," Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "I thought we moved the chains and were able to get into positions running the football that it was easier to throw the ball for a first down, move the chains and keep things going. I think that 3-point was a little bit deceptive. Obviously you want it to be in the four's or five's or whatever big number that everyone is looking for but I think what we did was effective."

That effectiveness is what matters more than the numbers. It's being able to break a tackle here or there on a seven, eight or 10-yard run that forces the safeties to cheat up on play action.

Now, one can argue that "correlation does not imply causation" in this case, the popular statistical phrase that says just because Green has rushed the ball at least 20 times the last two weeks it means the passing game has opened up.

That's the beauty of statistical disagreements. But to the Packers, what's real is what they feel about the run game during the course of a game, and then see on film how it's positively impacting the offense.

"It helps out us as linemen to kind of keep those defensive linemen from pinning their ears back," Bulaga said. "I think it also helps out Aaron, too, when teams have to come up in the box and start respecting the run. It opens things up for him in the secondary to make some plays. It allows the receivers to get into open space and make plays. It helps out in those two dimensions. It tires out the defense too being able to run the ball and pound it out."

The run game the last two weeks has been exactly what the Packers have needed. The players see it tire out defenders and cause hesitation, which allows for route trees to grow, which allows for better scoring opportunities. Those are purely human elements to the game, and help explain the numbers better than any statistic can.


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