FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Shonn Greene is both parts of “ground and pound,” a rookie who has ignited the New York Jets’ running game and helped get them to the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.
And to think, he was a pretty good linebacker at Winslow Township High School in Camden County, N.J.
The Jets are the throwback team of this NFL conference championship weekend. While New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Minnesota were three of the most prolific passing offenses during the regular season, New York ranked 31st out of 32 teams throwing the ball. The Jets are here because they play suffocating defense and they run the ball down opponents’ throats, just like first-year coach Rex Ryan likes it.
While Greene is not technically the Jets’ starting running back — Thomas Jones is — Greene is the league’s postseason leader with 44 carries for 263 yards and two touchdowns. His 263 yards against Cincinnati and San Diego are the second-most by a rookie in NFL history, behind only Dallas’ Duane Thomas, who rushed for 278 yards in his first two postseason games in 1970. Greene’s touchdown against the Chargers gave the Jets a 17-7 lead; they won the game, 17-14.
“The ground-and-pound philosophy is more of an old-fashioned football value, and traditions,” Ryan said. “I still feel that the way you win a championship is you have the ability to run the football.”
It starts, of course, with the offensive line, and the Jets have a good one. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, left guard Alan Faneca, and center Nick Mangold were named to the Pro Bowl, while right guard Brandon Moore and right tackle Damien Woody have combined for 10 postseason starts.
The line has protected rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, allowing just one sack in the postseason, while opening up holes for Greene. And when he’s had the opportunity, Greene has hit them.
“It’s hard for defenses to figure him out, because he’s fast, he’s strong, he has good vision,” said Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards. “Most backs or receivers are categorized. ‘I’m playing LaDainian Tomlinson this week, he’s like this.’ Or, ‘I’m playing Jamal Lewis in Cleveland, OK it’s a physical game.’
“Shonn, you can’t really categorize him, so it’s hard to prepare for one type of game, because he can run around you, he can run through you, he has good vision and good moves in the holes.”
Greene was raised by his grandmother, Cheryl Greene, and has a big heart tattoo with “Cheryl” in the middle of it on his neck. He had 1,267 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior for Winslow Township. He then ran for 1,378 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior and was a Philadelphia Inquirer all-South Jersey selection.
Greene went to Milford Academy in Connecticut for a year before going to Iowa. He had early success with the Hawkeyes, one of only five true freshmen to play in 2005. But after his grades slipped, he was ruled ineligible to play in 2007 and enrolled at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. During that stretch, he worked at a furniture store.
He was back at Iowa in 2008, and during that season he ran for a school-record 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns, earning the Doak Walker award as college football’s top running back.
In last spring’s NFL draft, the Jets traded three picks to move up in the third round to choose Greene 65th overall. Today, it looks like a smart move, especially with an offensive line that likes to run block.
“It’s something we take pride in, going out there and basically doing like a 9-on-7 drill, an inside run,” Mangold said. “You get a full day’s work doing the ‘ground-and-pound.’ “
Greene, who is 5-foot-11 and 226 pounds, had one 100-yard game during the regular season, against Oakland in Week 7. He had 19 carries that game for 144 yards, with two touchdowns. They were his only touchdowns of the regular season.
In the postseason, however, he’s gotten the ball more, and he’s done something with it. Mangold joked that Greene “didn’t do anything during the regular season, (so) he’s fresh,” but Greene has made the most of his opportunities.
He said he felt he held his teammates’ livelihoods in his hands.
“It’s a big deal, because it’s very true,” Greene said. “I handle the ball a lot. I was very aware of it and conscious of it. Turnovers in the playoffs is a big thing. So we can’t have that happen.”
Greene said he still feels like a rookie — “A couple of the veterans still let me know that,” he said — and he’s still humble, his teammates said. He keeps to himself, is quiet, and said he is appreciative of the help he gets on offense from the linemen, the wide receivers, and the other backs.
“This game has been great for me,” Greene said. “I just prepare and work hard every week. It’s been working to my advantage. … It’s all about the team. We got here as a team, and I think we should finish as a team. As long as we execute and do what we do best, I think we’ll be alright.”