Simply put, the Packers hadn’t done that in a while.
When James Starks broke off a 40-yard run on the first play of a third-quarter series in Carolina last Sunday, he ended a bit of a drought. The last Green Bay rushing play to cover that much ground had come 17 games ago, at Washington in Week 5 of 2010, when Brandon Jackson sprinted 71 yards at FedEx Field.
Seventeen games, including last year’s postseason run. That’s more than a full regular season.
The Packers weren’t fretting that, of course, not with an offense as explosive as they sported throughout their championship season. They’ve taken plenty of sizable chunks of yardage through the air, and Aaron Rodgers makes no apologies for it.
Ripping off big runs like Starks did, though, can do something for an offense. Running Backs Coach Jerry Fontenot talked about how a long run is “all-inclusive,” because it requires the line to open a hole, the receivers to throw blocks downfield and the back to do his thing.
“Speaking from experience,” said Fontenot, a former center for 16 seasons, “it adds some juice to what you’re doing. A lot of adrenaline surge on a play like that, for sure.”
The surge didn’t stop there. In the second half in Carolina, Starks also posted runs of eight, 12 and 14 yards. In fact, his 79 yards in one half broke an even longer drought. That was the most yards by a Green Bay rusher in one half since 2009, when Ryan Grant had 97 in the first half at Chicago in Week 14.
Grant’s absence for all but the first eight carries in 2010 and Starks’ late-season emergence after recovering from a hamstring injury had a lot to do with both statistical anomalies. Regardless, the guys could feel that “juice” in the huddle as the holes began to open.
“When you’re breaking off big runs like that, it fires everyone up, from Aaron all the way down to us,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “It’s good to be able to run the rock.”
The obvious benefit is that it sets up play-action, and it’s no accident that both of Rodgers’ long touchdown passes in Carolina came on play-action. The 49-yard TD to Greg Jennings was two snaps after Starks burst up the middle out of the shotgun for 14 yards on third-and-1. The 84-yard TD to Jordy Nelson came one play after Starks went up the middle for 12 yards from Green Bay’s own 4.
“The D-linemen peek a little bit,” Bulaga said. “It’s just natural to do that with the run, and then we’re able to set our hands and anchor down.”
As effective as Starks was in Carolina, finishing with 85 yards on just nine carries (9.4 avg.), Fontenot made it clear the second-year back left some yards on the field. He had opportunities to make one more tackler miss, but couldn’t escape a couple of arm-tackles.
Fontenot did like how Starks finished his 40-yard run, however, after getting big blocks from Bulaga at the point of attack and from Jennings on a safety downfield.
“At the end of the run, he got a stiff-arm out there, and he was attempting to be violent on the boundary,” Fontenot said. “That’s something we coach. That’s where you get extra yardage. That’s the yardage you get on your own.”
Starks hopes to get a little more on his own next time, the easy way.
“It felt good for once to finally get to show a little speed, but I didn’t show enough because I didn’t get away,” he said with his usual smile. “I’m sure the offensive line will do a great job giving me more opportunities.
“Running is a total team effort. Receivers handling their guys, fullbacks, tight ends, offensive line, … everybody doing their job. That’s where the big runs come.”
The Packers hope they won’t be so few and far between as this season goes on.
As for Green Bay’s defense, all the question marks in the health department this week are getting answered in the affirmative.
Cornerback Charles Woodson (foot) and linebacker Clay Matthews (quad) practiced for the first time on Friday and are listed as probable on the injury report. Head Coach Mike McCarthy has expected all along that they would play.
Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (foot) missed some practice time this week, but he’s also probable.
Most newsworthy, cornerback Tramon Williams is probable after missing last week’s game – the first game he’s missed in his five-year career – with a shoulder injury. Williams is grateful his injury, which occurred while trying to make a tackle in Week 1, only cost him one game.
“From the pain that I felt, I would have thought it was something much worse,” Williams said. “When game time comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll be feeling well at that point. I’ll be ready.”
The Packers are hoping Williams’ return will help tighten up the pass-defense. Even though Williams was in the lineup when veteran quarterback Drew Brees passed for 419 yards in the opener, his presence likely would have helped slow down rookie Cam Newton last week, who threw for 432 yards in Carolina.
“Things just aren’t in sync yet,” Williams said. “The pass-rush may be there and the coverage may not be there. The coverage may be there but the pass-rush may not be there. Once we get those things into sync, everything’s going to start clicking.
“We’ve got a distance to go but I’m excited about it. We’re not one of those teams who everyone sees as a good team but doesn’t have any growing to do. We have a lot more growing to do, and we’re going to do it.” Additional coverage - Sept. 23