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WR Corps Focused On Yards After Catch

Offensively last season the Packers topped 4,000 yards passing, good for eighth in the league. But something statistically didn’t sit right with the receiving corps. The group’s ranking in yards after the catch fell off dramatically from where it had been, from tops in the league to 14th.


WR Greg Jennings

Offensively last season the Green Bay Packers topped 4,000 yards passing, good for eighth in the league. But something statistically didn't sit right with the receiving corps.

The group's ranking in yards after the catch - or in other words, the extra gains the receivers add to their receptions themselves downfield - fell off dramatically from where it had been the previous two years.

According to STATS, Inc., in 2006 the Packers ranked second in the NFL in yards after the catch (or YAC) with 2,161, second only to New Orleans (2,212). Then in 2007, Green Bay grabbed the top spot with 2,294 YAC, a title the receivers took tremendous pride in. The Packers were one of only three teams in the league to surpass 2,000 yards in '07, along with New Orleans and New England.

But last year, the Packers fell all the way to 14th in the league with 1,656 YAC. Yards after the catch accounted for only 41 percent of the team's total passing yards, down considerably from the previous two years' figures of 55 percent (2006) and 51 percent (2007).

Green Bay's ranking was still tops in the NFC North Division, as Chicago ranked 18th, Minnesota 19th and Detroit 26th. But after beating the league average in YAC by 600-700 yards the previous two years, the Packers' total in 2008 was just 23 yards better than the league average of 1,633, and being barely better than average is not what receivers like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Ruvell Martin are shooting for.

"Our receiver group, one thing that we put on our shoulders is we were the best team in yards after the catch," Driver said. "Last year we lost that title. Our goal now is to get that title back. Whatever we have to do with me, Greg, Ruvell, James, Jordy ... we have to get on top of our game and do what we always do, and that's make plays."

Driver has been the leader of the bunch when it comes to YAC, with his shifty moves and ability to stop-and-start on a dime in the open field. As draft picks Jennings, Jones and Nelson have been added to the position group over the last three years, their downfield moves have at times resembled Driver's early on until they've developed their own style.

Driver ranked fifth in the league among individual receivers in YAC in 2006 with 541 yards and 11th in 2007 with 438, totaling nearly 1,000 yards combined in those two years. This past year Jennings was the team's top guy, but he ranked 27th overall with 383.

Jennings said after the receiving corps reviewed all the snaps from last year during the offseason, they realized they didn't get the ball on as many slants and quick-hitters as they had in the past, the type of plays where receivers can make catches in stride and run by defenders.

But he also noticed defenses were playing those routes differently, probably because of the offense's reputation, so the passing game evolved more into downfield and pattern routes that played to quarterback Aaron Rodgers' strengths.

"Teams were probably thinking, 'We have to stop the yards after the catch,' so that was a huge emphasis on the opposing defenses," Jennings said. "At the same time, we have to go out there with the same approach, thinking that every time we touch the ball we want to score."

That's been the mentality thus far in training camp, with the receivers regularly using spin moves after a hitch or comeback route to try to separate from defenders. It's common practice in camp for running backs, after receiving the "thud" contact that ends a play, to sprint all the way past a flag that's 30 yards downfield. It's a way to physically condition the body for the longer runs when they do come.

But the Packers' tight ends and receivers regularly run past the 30-yard flag as well, no matter how long or short the pass might be. It's almost a mental conditioning that every play should be considered a potential big one.

"When you catch the ball, you get in the habit of finishing the play with speed and burst and explosion," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "Whether you're running a pass route against air with the quarterbacks, you don't decelerate when you catch the ball, you accelerate. You probably hear me screaming that out here a lot with these guys."

Robinson isn't the only coach they hear it from, either.

"Finishing plays is big," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "That's why we put that flag down there. Anybody who touches the ball has the feeling that, hey, there's more than just getting the ball in our hands and going down. Getting an extra 25 yards on a hitch, those plays just help your offense immeasurably.

"The one thing we've talked to all our guys about when they get the ball in their hands is that concept of making somebody miss. Sometimes, it depends on how much space they have, but a running back that has the ball, a receiver, a tight end -- we always talk about don't get just what's there, make something happen. Here's your opportunity, protect the ball, get north and south."

Teammates have to be cognizant of others' opportunities as well, and that's where the camaraderie and closeness of this receiving corps comes in. Martin is perhaps the most unselfish blocker in both the running and the passing games, and others have followed suit.

{sportsad300}It's the mentality that YAC is a group effort, and the league ranking is a group accomplishment, that all the receivers carry with them.

"I've always maintained that maybe the biggest responsibility falls on everybody else that doesn't have the ball," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "If they're not reacting to go get a block immediately, then chances are we're going to have fewer yards than more yards.

"It's a lot of things. It's about individual effort with the ball, it's about everybody else doing a better job of blocking for that guy that has the ball, it's deciding to get the tough yards on the finish, particularly on the sideline and not just taking the easy way out of bounds."

Getting back to the top of the YAC heap won't be easy, but going into a second year with Rodgers as their quarterback should help. As in sync as the passing game was at times last season, the receivers always feel their chemistry and communication can improve. They spent much of the offseason program working on that, and they're carrying that effort over into training camp.

"This year we want to try to get inside the minds of each other," Jennings said. "Know what your quarterback is thinking, know what your receiver is thinking, so there's no question, no doubt at all that guy isn't going to do something you haven't seen. So that's where we're at."

And where are they going? Hopefully back to the top in the YAC rankings, where they feel they belong.

"We know once the ball is in our hands, we're the most dangerous team with it," Driver said. "We just have to make sure we do our job and do it better than we did last year."

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