FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Shonn Greene insists he isn’t really all that into numbers.
He’s a rare running back who won’t sulk on the sideline if his carries are down, just as long as the New York Jets are winning.
No, really. He means it.
“I’m not selfish, man,” Greene said Tuesday. “You all know that. I’ve never been that guy who says, ‘I want this or that.’ The more, the better. That’s how I see it.”
After the success Greene, Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight had against the Rams on Sunday, all three could expect to be in the mix for significant playing time the rest of the season. While some might see three as a crowd in the backfield, the Jets believe it’s the way to bring back their run-first approach on a consistent basis.
“I think it’s the ideal scenario for us because we have three very capable backs,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Instead of just throwing one guy in there all the time to take the hits, protections and routes, when you have three guys coming in, it helps.”
That certainly was the plan going into the season for offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who was excited about bringing the “Ground-and-Pound” approach back to the Jets’ offense — especially with backup quarterback Tim Tebow in the mix as a wildcat-style presence. While that hasn’t yielded the results the Jets hoped for, it has also been rare for all three running backs to be healthy and effective in the same game, as they were in the Jets’ 27-13 win over St. Louis on Sunday.
Greene ran 18 times for 64 yards, Powell had 42 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns on 11 carries and McKnight rushed for 14 yards on four carries. The Jets finished with 124 yards rushing, using all three players to try to beat the Rams.
“I think that’s where the league is going to,” Ryan said. “You don’t necessarily have that guy that does it all every snap anymore the way you used to with a Walter Payton. You kind of divide those things up.”
Ryan also noted that the Jets’ three AFC East rivals — New England, Miami and Buffalo — all use multiple players in their backfields.
The Jets will get a close look at the Patriots’ unpredictable running back rotation Thursday night at MetLife Stadium. While Stevan Ridley is the primary ballcarrier with 842 yards on 185 attempts, Brandon Bolden (43 for 234), Danny Woodhead (49 for 179) and Shane Vereen (33 for 117) have all rushed at least 30 times.
“If you have the talent and the guys are healthy and fresh,” Ryan said, “I think that’s the best way to do it.”
That approach worked effectively for the Jets in 2009 — Greene’s rookie season — when he, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington shared the load, until Washington was lost for the season with a broken leg. The Jets still led the NFL with 2,756 yards rushing that season under then-offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
New York cut Jones and traded Washington the following offseason, but still finished fourth in rushing with the arrival of LaDainian Tomlinson. Greene was the primary backup, with McKnight getting some snaps and wide receiver Brad Smith effectively used in wildcat packages.
The Jets slumped to 22nd in the league in rushing last year as Greene assumed the starting role, Tomlinson was relegated to the third-down back and McKnight and Powell saw limited carries. When Sparano was hired this past offseason as the offensive coordinator, he talked about a return to the run-first mentality Ryan loves.
It has taken a while, but the Jets might be on the verge of getting back to “Ground-and-Pound” on a regular basis. They’re 15th in rushing, and rising.
“It’s an opportunity to keep everybody fresh,” McKnight said. “When Shonn goes in, he’s gets his plays and then when Bilal goes in, it’s another fresh back. When Bilal comes out, I’ll go in and it’s another fresh back. It’s all about keeping us fresh.”
It’s also about confusing opponents with three players with different skill sets. First, there’s Greene, who is a blue-collar type of running back who leads the team with 631 yards rushing. Next is Powell, also a physical back who has some speed to bounce outside but also is an excellent pass blocker. McKnight is a speedy, shifty runner who also adds a pass-catching element in the backfield.
The Jets tried some trickiness against the Rams, switching things up at times with all three. Greene took a few outside runs, McKnight went in between the tackles a few times and Powell even stayed inside on both of his scores.
“I think we can give some defenses headaches by having all three of us in the game plan,” Greene said.
Keeping Powell and McKnight healthy has been a challenge this season, though. Powell has dealt with a concussion and a separated right shoulder, while McKnight is playing while still healing from a high right ankle sprain. So, to have all three play significant snaps in a game was promising.
“It was pretty good to see everybody get out there and get going,” said Powell, who has 180 yards rushing in his second season. “It was a great game plan. The offensive line did a great job of blocking, making it a lot easier on us. We really enjoyed it, but most importantly, we enjoyed the win.”
In the offseason, Sparano said he could see Greene get as many as 300 carries this year as the bell cow of the Jets’ running game. That’s music to the ears of most running backs, with many saying the more carries in each game, the better they get at establishing a rhythm.
Greene acknowledged that he hoped that would be the case, but as the season has unfolded and he and the offensive line struggled at times, he insists he has only one goal. And it’s not about getting his second straight 1,000-yard season or rushing for double-digit touchdowns.
“This is a team game and I’m more into winning games than worrying about who’s getting the ball here and who’s getting the ball there,” Greene said. “I think it does take a different mentality, but my mentality is: Just win games — whoever can help us win games.”
McKnight agrees, adding that he is used to a running back-by-committee scenario anyway, with six players getting 20 or more carries in each of his last two seasons at Southern California.
“I mean, I went to SC and we had 11 running backs,” he said, laughing. “It really never fazed me about how many carries you got. When the opportunity came for you to get in the game, just make the best of it.”
And that goes for him, Greene or Powell.
“As a group, whatever guy’s out there, we’re always cheering for each other and it’s always good to get all the running backs a chance to get in and do their thing,” Powell said. “The offensive line did a great job and we just want to keep that going.”
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