Starks Gets Look on Third Down

Who will replace reliable Brandon Jackson in the important yet taken-for-granted role? It was James Starks during Saturday night's scrimmage.

The Green Bay Packers' offense returns plenty of firepower from last season and could be even better with the additions of Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb.

One position that's a major question mark is third-down back, a spot Brandon Jackson handled superbly in 2009 and 2010 before departing for Cleveland in free agency.

During Saturday's abbreviated Family Night scrimmage, James Starks lined up in the backfield on both of the Packers' third-down plays.

"Not that I know of," Starks said when asked if he has been given the first shot at winning the specialized job. "We just were splitting reps and whatever plays get called, we were just in there. I don't know what was scripted or what went on. If they'll put me in there, they'll put me in there."

The role is vitally important — and easily overlooked when it's handled efficiently. Jackson didn't allow a sack in his last two seasons in Green Bay and, while never explosive, was one of the more productive pass-catching backs in the league. Because he was so good physically and mentally in protecting Aaron Rodgers and because he generally caught the ball, he became a taken-for-granted asset.

Catching the ball isn't a problem for Starks, who wound up making himself a checkdown receiver on both third-down plays. In his three seasons at the University of Buffalo, Starks caught 34, 41 and 52 passes. Blocking, however, is the question mark — just like it is for rookie third-round pick Alex Green, another sure-handed option.

"I can block," he said. "I don't mind blocking. I'm physical. You ain't going to play if you can't block for A-Rod. I can block, that's no problem."

The very early returns look promising. While the running backs and linebackers haven't squared off in a one-on-one blitz protection drill, the 225-pound Starks stopped 238-pound linebacker Desmond Bishop in his tracks during an 11-on-11 period on Friday night. On Saturday, Starks had little problem keeping cornerback Pat Lee away from Rodgers.

"Coach does a good job of getting us ready to protect anybody," Starks said of new running backs coach Jerry Fontenot. "Whoever comes our way, if they're trying to get A-Rod, I'm going to be right there meeting them halfway. That's my job, that's what I practice. I take on the challenge."

Blitz protection is equal parts physical and mental. It takes some guts to stand there and wait for a collision with a hard-charging, 250-pound linebacker hellbent on getting to the quarterback. It takes some intelligence to be able to sort through all the jockeying at the line of scrimmage to find the one defender who's not going to be picked up by the linemen.

"It's a mental game," Starks said. "If you're not smart, you really can't play in this league. I don't think you're going to last long if you don't know the plays or the adjustments. It's difficult. It's not for everybody; that's why not everybody can do it. It's a difficult game so you've got to be smart."

Of course, Starks would prefer to be the featured back — even though he won't say it. He took a step in that direction by rushing three times for 23 yards. Ryan Grant didn't get much help from his blockers and managed 5 yards on four attempts.

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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

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