Grant Starts But Starks Carries Load

Sunday's game was the latest — and most dramatic — proof that the running game is powered by the legs of James Starks. We offer the numbers that back up what you've seen, but also tell you why Ryan Grant shouldn't be counted out during the second half of the season.

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin disputes the notion, but the numbers suggest that James Starks has become the Green Bay Packers' undisputed No. 1 running back.

And that trend had been established before Sunday's victory at San Diego, when Starks carried 13 times for 66 yards compared to Grant's four carries for 16 yards.

"Not necessarily," Philbin countered on Monday. "Sometimes, Jerry (Fontenot, the Packers' running backs coach) has a feel of who's hot and who's not. I thought Ryan contributed nicely, played hard. James popped one run and maybe just made a little more of his opportunities."

It was Grant who made the most of his opportunities when the Packers won at Chicago in Week 3. Running like the 1,200-yard rusher he was in 2008 and 2009, Grant rumbled for 92 yards on 17 carries against the vaunted Bears defense. He sustained a kidney bruise in that game and was sidelined the following week against Denver.

Grant, who missed almost all of last season with an injured ankle, was upset that he couldn't play against the Broncos, missing out on an opportunity to stack one big performance with another.

It turns out Grant's fears at the time would be his reality at the season's midway point.

Since the injury, Grant's opportunities have been limited. In his four games since the injury, Grant has carried 29 times for merely 88 yards. That's 7.3 carries per game and 3.0 yards per carry – a far cry from 2008 and 2009, when he got 79.4 percent of all carries that went to the Packers' running backs.

Starks carried 13 times for 63 yards (4.8 average, long of 22) in Grant's absence in Week 4 against the Broncos. In the four games since Grant's return, Starks has carried 51 times for 230 yards. That's 12.8 carries per game and 4.5 yards per carry.

It goes beyond the rushing totals. In the Chicago game, Grant was on the field for 34 snaps and 43.0 percent of the time, according to play counts kept by Pro Football Focus. When he returned in Week 5 against Atlanta, he played in 21 snaps and was on the field 30.9 percent of the time. Those were high-water marks. He's seen his snaps fall to 19 against St. Louis (30.2 percent), 19 against Minnesota (28.8 percent) and just 12 against San Diego (19.4 percent).

Starks, on the other hand, played 30 snaps against Atlanta (44.1 percent), 32 against St. Louis (50.8 percent), 37 against Minnesota (56.1 percent) and 41 against San Diego (66.1 percent). While Grant remains the starter, it was Starks who was on the field for every snap of the opening series of the third quarter at San Diego. In fact, after playing most of the Packers' opening possession, Grant was on the sideline until the third quarter.

For the season, Starks has played 318 snaps and received 59.4 percent playing time. Grant has played 140 snaps and received 30.2 percent of the snaps in the seven games in which he played.

Starks, who has a team-high 440 yards and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, has been a boom-or-bust performer. He has four carries of 20-plus yards – including a 40-yarder against Carolina. However, he has lost yardage on 14 of his 96 attempts, according to STATS.

That's an appalling rate when you consider this: Of the 11 players who have been stuffed at least as frequently as Starks, eight are the top eight rushers in the NFL and a ninth is lead-footed quarterback Eli Manning. Starks ranks 21st in rushing. Only Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall, who is 19th in rushing while losing yardage on 18 attempts, approaches Starks' penchant for being stopped in the backfield.

By contrast, Grant's longest run of the season has gone for 14 yards but his "stuffed" percentage ranks third in the NFL at 4.9 percent (three times in 61 rushes) compared to 14.6 percent for Starks. That make-something-positive-happen approach figures to keep Grant in the loop, but it's not going to help him in the long run with free agency beckoning at season's end.


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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