GREEN BAY — Ben Sirmans pulled up the film soon after being hired as the Packers’ running backs coach in February and began jotting down notes from the 2015 season.
Sirmans went through everything from how his new position group attacked run plays and handled pass protection to how it executed passing plays out of the backfield.
A recurring theme Sirmans found in those film sessions was James Starks’ production, particularly when it came to the screen game.
“He was making big play after big play,” Sirmans said. “I think that naturally is something he has a great feel for.”
Starks wasn’t always known as a great pass-catcher, but he continued to work at it en route to catching 43 passes for 392 yards, 12th-most among NFL running backs in 2015.
Starks hasn’t had many chances to match those numbers in 2016 due to injury, but Sirmans saw a glimpse of what he witnessed on film during last Sunday’s game in Tennessee.
After missing a month with a knee injury, Starks had seven carries for 33 yards against the Titans, but it was his 13-yard touchdown off a screen pass in the third quarter that might have been the biggest indicator the veteran back was, well, back.
As was so often the case in 2015, Starks set up his blockers perfectly and made a sharp cut to find the open hole into the end zone to cap the six-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
“If you look at last year, he was very productive in that area,” associate head coach/offense Tom Clements said. “He’s a big back. He’s fast and he has a good feel for those plays. Anytime you can get the ball in his hands whether it’s a hand-off, a screen or other types of passes, it gives him the ability to try to get some yards for you.”
Starks wound up playing 55 offensive snaps against Tennessee, which is more than the Packers envisioned going into the game.
However, his experience as a three-down running back made it difficult to take him off the field, particularly when the Packers went into their no-huddle.
With Starks injured and Eddie Lacy on injured reserve, the Packers began using receivers Ty Montgomery, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams in the backfield in addition to Don Jackson, Aaron Ripkowski and Knile Davis.
Montgomery, who has spent a lot of time with Sirmans this season, had the most success with 47 touches for 341 yards over his last four games, but he’s still relatively new to the position.
Starks is one of the team’s most veteran players on offense, possessing a knowledge base that the Packers hope can provide a lift for an offense that’s had to go without a traditional running game since Lacy was placed on injured reserve last month.
As much as running the ball can go far in keeping a defense honest, the ability to establish the screen game has proven to be an effective way for the Packers to throw a wrench into the opposing pass-rush’s plans over the years.
“He brings the screen game into it,” said receiver Jordy Nelson on Starks. “When you don’t have a running back, it’s hard to do those things. We’ve tried to manage. I think we’ve done a decent job with the circumstances, but hopefully we can get some guys healthy and get back to a normal offense.”
General Manager Ted Thompson added depth to the backfield earlier this week when he claimed fourth-year running back Christine Michael off waivers from Seattle.
While Michael works to catch up on the offense, it’s up to Starks to help bring equilibrium to the offense as both a runner and pass-catcher.
Starks has worked steadily to improve in third-down situations during his six-plus seasons with the Packers, with the fruits of that labor becoming evident last season with a career-high 993 total yards.
That’s production the Packers hope to tap into with Lacy out for at least another month and the passing game starting to find its way in recent weeks.
“It’s the three-down back – that’s what every offensive coordinator wants,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s what every play-caller wants. You don’t want to be rolling backs in and out of the game, really any position based on the down-and-distance. The fact that your running backs can play all three downs, that’s the priority and obviously James Starks has been that for us for a lot of years.”
While starting guard T.J. Lang (foot) won’t play against Washington Sunday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers could have the most offensive weapons he’s had at his disposal since the regular season began.
Tight end Jared Cook is questionable but was a full participant in practice throughout the week. It’s the most extensive work Cook has performed since injuring his ankle against Detroit on Sept. 25
Furthermore, Starks and Montgomery (illness) could be in for more work now that they’re another week removed from their respective ailments.
“It allows us to get balanced again,” Nelson said. “That’s what we were able to do earlier in the year to stay balanced and allow us to get into the play-action. It makes the defense worry about another playmaker out there.”