Muted Optimism For Running Game

James Starks had a big game at Philadelphia but the Packers' season-long struggles in the run game mean nobody is ready to anoint the rookie as the difference-maker for Saturday night's playoff showdown at Atlanta.

The optimism sweeping over Packer Nation after James Starks' big day has to stop somewhere.

And, as it turns out, it stops outside the walls of 1265 Lombardi Ave.

"I think if we're being honest, last week was a little bit of an anomaly, if you're comparing it to the last seven or eight weeks," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Tuesday, a few days ahead of Saturday night's NFC divisional showdown at Atlanta. "Often my own rushing stats have bumped up the average. Our feature back has been averaging in the threes usually and we might end up with 33 carries for 120 yards. It was just a matter of the stuff we were calling was working. We blocked better and James was decisive."

In the wild-card playoff win over Philadelphia, Starks rushed for 123 yards on 23 attempts. That's the third-biggest rushing total in Packers postseason history, behind Ryan Grant's 201 yards against Seattle in the 2007-08 playoffs and Ahman Green's 156 yards at Philadelphia in the 2003-04 playoffs.

It was a startling performance from a player who missed all of his senior season at Buffalo and entered the game with a first-year total of 101 yards on 29 attempts.

"James Starks was given an opportunity three times this year, and he's performed at a high level two of the three," coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. "That's his standard of play as we stand here today, no different than any other player. When you establish a standard of performance, it's important to hold yourself to that standard, and that's the way we'll move forward with James. But it's just not all about him, as we know. It's the game of football. It's the combination of all 11 players working together on every particular play."

Compared to the Packers' season-long production, Starks set an extremely high standard. His 123 yards are more than the Packers gained as a team in 11 of the 16 regular-season games. That includes the Week 12 game at Atlanta, when Starks was inactive in a 20-17 loss. The Packers rushed for 77 yards, with the bulk of those yards coming from Rodgers. The running backs, Brandon Jackson (10 carries, 26 yards) and Dimitri Nance (one carry, 0 yards), contributed just 26 yards to that total.

For the season, the Packers finished 24th in the league in rushing with 100.4 yards per game — even with Rodgers (or Matt Flynn) contributing 23.7 yards to the average.

Clearly, a steady running game would go a long way toward the Packers avenging the loss to the Falcons and advancing to the NFC championship game. That won't be easy against a defense that finished 10th against the run (105.9 yards per game).

"That's a very good defensive football team," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "We don't have an easy job this week, that's for sure. Those are probably questions better for those guys (the Falcons). We're happy with the production that we had in the running game and broke some tackles, we had some good holes that were created for our runners. That part of the game plan went well. But I don't know if it makes our job any easier. We've got a big challenge this week against a very, very well-coached, very sound football team."

Falcons coach Mike Smith was impressed by a facet of the game the Packers couldn't execute in the regular-season game.

"They actually had 32 rushing attempts to their 28 passing attempts," Smith said of the Philadelphia game. "They committed to running the football. When they came in and played us, they had 14 snaps in which they were in a five-wide receiver set and didn't even have a running back in the game. There's a whole lot of stuff out there for us to evaluate as a coaching staff."

At least there's reason for hope after Jackson, the top runner, was held to less than 40 yards in six of the last seven regular-season games. Starks' rushing total was the team's highest of the season, and his 27-yard run is tied for the second-longest of the season for an offense that tied for last in the league with just three rushes of 20-plus yards.

"The guy just continues to improve, and that's the bottom line," running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. "You see certain things in practice and you prepare him and get him ready to go, then you put him in certain positions and the kid was able to go in and produce. You look at some of the fundamental work and he continues to improve in that area and do the little things."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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