LB Derrick Brooks and the Bucs' defense have identified breakthrough running threat Ahman Green as the primary target on Sunday
Words are barely adequate to describe the difference between the first two years of Ahman Green's NFL career and the next two.
So let's try numbers.
Drafted by Seattle out of Nebraska in the third round in 1998, Green put up just 61 carries for 329 yards and one touchdown in his two seasons with the Seahawks. Through the first three games of 2001, Green has 61 carries for 326 yards and two touchdowns.
Yep, that pretty much says it all.
Green never found an opportunity behind Ricky Watters in Seattle – perhaps never earned one, though his yards per carry was roughly the same as it is right now – and was traded to the Green Bay Packers during the 2000 offseason for CB Fred Vinson and a swap of picks. Though little more than an afterthought as the 2000 season began, he spectacularly filled the void left by injuries to Dorsey Levens, rushing for 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Now he's the NFL's leading rusher.
More importantly, he's the reason the Packers' offense is complete once again.
"It starts with Brett Favre, but Ahman Green right now is living live," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Simeon Rice. "He's doing his thing. He's running all over the field, he's making the big play and right now he's anchoring that team.
"You can't say enough. He's running right now at the speed of light. He's holding the ball, he's doing the big things they need him to do. Right now, they look like the Green Bay Packers that won the Super Bowl. We've got to pack our lunch. We've got our hard hats on and our boots, but I think we're going to get it done."
Green Bay is ranked third in the NFL in total offense and has shown great balance, standing third in rushing yards and fourth in passing yards. Green has been at the center of that, not only averaging 5.3 yards per carry but also leading the team with 15 receptions.
The Buccaneers, who draw Green and Green Bay this weekend, are all too familiar with Packer backs catching passes. The Pack has seemingly always used the screen and the check down with great frequency against the Bucs' defense; after watching the Minnesota Vikings have so much success with that strategy last Sunday, they would be a good bet to do so again.
That's not the Bucs' top concern when it comes to the former Cornhusker, however.
"First things first, stop the running game," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "The easiest thing to do in this league is to turn around and hand the ball off. He's the leading rusher in the NFL, which makes their offense all the more diverse and all the more dangerous. We've got to be on our game."
Network analysts, caught up in Green's quick start, have taken to comparing him to Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk. That's quite a climb for a back who once had a bit of a reputation as a fumbler and who made no starts in his first two campaigns.
"He's always been a good runner," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I guess in the past he's had problems with fumbling and that's why he hasn't played as much. But he runs hard, he breaks a lot of tackles and he's given them an identity back in the running game. They feel confident in their runs, and that's really shown up. That's helped them offensively."
The Bucs currently rank 12th in the league against the run. While there were some notable missed opportunities to wrap up runners last Sunday in Minnesota, tackling is generally considered one of the team's greatest strengths. It will need to be this weekend.
"That's going to be paramount, because a lot of his runs, his big runs, are when he breaks tackles," Dungy continued.
Green is a new name in the Packers' recent pantheon of offensive stars, a lesser-known threat than the Favres, Levens, Chmuras, Bennetts and Freemans. He's proving to be just as dangerous, however, and the Bucs are now looking at him first before turning their attention to the more proven threat, Favre.
"He's a strong runner, running well right now," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "He's breaking a lot of tackles and turning them into long runs, falling forward after the hit. We're going to have to gang-tackle him to bring him down. Once we do that, control the running game, then we can control Brett Favre."