GREEN BAY—Eddie Lacy’s status for this week’s game is uncertain, but Mike McCarthy left no doubt on Wednesday who his No. 1 running back is for this week’s trip to Cincinnati.
“James Starks is definitely someone I look at as a starter (with) the ability to run as many times in a football game as needed,” McCarthy said. “James will get the starting opportunity this week.”
Lacy has not been cleared to return to practice from his concussion and has more tests to take, but even if he does return, Starks will be the bell cow. McCarthy also spoke of getting rookie Johnathan Franklin ready for a complementary role if needed.
While Starks said the newfound status won’t change his approach to practice or preparation, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said any player who knows he’s “the guy” is in a better place mentally, and Rodgers felt that was evident in Starks’ play last Sunday, when he ran 20 times for 132 yards in Lacy’s stead.
“As a quarterback I feel that, when I know it’s my show, I’m obviously going to play a lot more confident,” Rodgers said. “When he knew he was going to get the bulk of the carries after Eddie went down, he knew he just had to relax and play, because it wasn’t going to be his last carry early in the game.
“Whereas a guy splitting time or a backup, he might be worried about, ‘This carry has to be my best carry or I’m not going to get another chance.’ He had his chances, and he made the most of them.”
His teammates were duly impressed. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith said Starks’ sideline hit that knocked Washington safety Brandon Meriweather from the game “set the tone,” while receiver Jordy Nelson said he could sense more “energy” in the linemen when the running game got going.
Having dealt with numerous injuries in his first three pro seasons, Starks went as far as to say he “let the team down” last year when he sustained a multi-week injury for the fourth time in his career (hamstring in 2010, ankle in 2011, toe and then knee in 2012). But his teammates have never doubted his ability.
“When he can find and hit the hole hard, he’s running hard as hell,” guard Josh Sitton said. “We know he’s always falling forward, and we’ve seen him run guys over and break tackles in the past.”
Last week’s performance will admittedly be tough to repeat against the Bengals, however. A top-10 run defense in recent years, Cincinnati possesses a deep and talented defensive line, led by the starting front four of tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, plus ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap.
Tough against the run and as pass rushers, all four were drafted by the Bengals between 2006 and 2010 and have grown up in Cincinnati’s 4-3 system. Sitton said that makes their defensive line comparable to San Francisco’s in terms of experience and chemistry, while Rodgers and Dietrich-Smith both acknowledged the unit’s eight-deep rotation with the ideal pass-rush combination – athleticism coming off the edge with power pushing up the middle.
“When you put together a D-line, that’s what you want,” Dietrich-Smith said. “If you get the quarterback condensed in the pocket, you’re going to get sacks. They definitely present issues out there.”
Atkins, Johnson, Dunlap and top reserve Wallace Gilberry combined for 36 ½ of the Bengals’ 51 sacks a season ago, which is why it becomes almost imperative for the Packers and Starks to be able to run the ball effectively.
“Just keep taking pride in it,” Dietrich-Smith said. “Every week go out there with a goal of putting a 100-yard rusher up there, or if not, something that’s just as effective.
“You look at the league every week, not every guy is getting 100 yards. I think Adrian Peterson only had it 10 times. It’s not something you scoff at, it’s definitely a difficult thing to do, but as long as it’s something that’s working and keeping us balanced and we keep plugging away at it, I think it’s going to be a good thing.”
Five hundred eighty yards of offense last week was evidence enough of a good thing, as close to unstoppable as an offense can look. While the Packers will always center their efforts on Rodgers and his arm, earning respect for their run game will undoubtedly pay dividends, too.
“The guys up front can’t just rush the passer, and the guys in the back can’t just play the pass,” Nelson said. “You can see them focused on the back end of our formations, the safeties are creeping down a little more, and that’s only going to help us out with our play-action game.
“Anytime we can get them distracted and go play-action, it’ll help.” Additional coverage - Sept. 18