A bigger issue, however, was the Packers' first-down running game.
For the season, the Packers ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing yards on first down with 783. To put that first-down production into perspective, the Texans' Arian Foster rushed for 810 yards, the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 800 yards and seven others topped 700 yards, according to STATS. Moreover, nine teams rushed for 1,000 yards on first down.
That dreary output further amplifies just what the Packers missed without Ryan Grant last season. Even with a pass-first play-caller like coach Mike McCarthy, Grant rumbled for 842 yards on 176 first-down carries in 2009 and 713 yards on 177 first-down carries in 2008.
Last season, the Packers averaged 3.5 yards per first-down carry, with Brandon Jackson getting the bulk of the work with 121 carries for 459 yards, good for a 3.8-yard average. Take away his 71-yard dash at Washington, however, and Jackson's first-down average tumbles to 3.2 yards per pop. Other than Grant, whose season ended in the second quarter of the season opener at Philadelphia, no Packers player — quarterbacks included — averaged so much as 3.6 yards per carry on first down.
That's where Starks really came to the rescue. After carrying 15 times for 45 yards (3.0 average) on first down during his brief regular season, Starks burst onto the scene in the playoffs. In the four postseason games, Starks carried 48 times for 193 yards (4.0 average) on first down — 13 for 59 against Philadelphia, 14 for 24 against Atlanta, 14 for 67 against Chicago and seven for 43 against Pittsburgh. He broke off runs of 12 and 14 yards on first down in the Super Bowl, with the Packers scoring 10 points on those drives.
Starks' consistent ability to make yards proved to be a real asset in keeping the offense in favorable down-and-distance situations. He lost yardage on first down three times against the Falcons but gained at least a yard on 32 of his 34 first-down carries in the other three games, with the other two runs getting back to the line of scrimmage.
Extrapolated over a full 16-game season, Starks' postseason output on first down would have totaled 772 yards. That would have ranked fourth in the NFL and nearly topped the Packers' team-wide output.
Clearly, the more success by the running game on first down, the easier it is to throw the ball on second down. On second-and-8 through second-and-10, Aaron Rodgers competed 58.1 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 82.4. By contrast, on second-and-3 through second-and-7, Rodgers completed 65.6 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 91.0. Break it down to second-and-6-or-less, Rodgers completed 73.6 percent of his passes for a rating of 105.2.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.