It was a little more than six weeks ago that coach Mike McCarthy went to Atlanta armed with a game plan so heavy on pass plays that the Green Bay Packers’ running backs carried the ball just 11 times.
McCarthy’s mantra that late November day was to spread out the Falcons and let his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, distribute the ball to his receivers and tight ends. The game marked the return of the Big Five – a five-receiver set that McCarthy used 14 times in that game – and a heavy dose of three- and four-receiver sets.
Of the 59 offensive plays, the Packers lined up in their base formation (two backs, two receivers and a tight end) just eight times and in their two-backs, two-tight ends and one-receiver formation just once. Throw in two other snaps with three tight ends and two backs and one kneel down, and the Packers used what would be considered a standard running formation on just 20.3 percent of their plays.
It worked – to a degree. Rodgers had his second-most productive game of the season with 344 yards while completing all but nine of his 36 passes. He spread the ball around to nine different pass catchers, seven of which had two or more receptions. But the lack of a running game – Rodgers was the leading rusher with 51 yards on 12 attempts – made the Packers easier to defend when it came time to put the ball in the end zone. They converted just half of their four red-zone drives and came away 20-17 losers at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28.
Less than two months later, the Packers will return to Atlanta for Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded Falcons, who had a bye last weekend, with a more well-rounded offense should McCarthy choose to diversify his game plan this time around. To be sure, McCarthy attacked the Falcons the way he did the last time around because he correctly saw a weakness in their pass defense, which finished the regular season ranked 22nd in yards allowed.
“Really, that’s what game planning is for,” McCarthy said Monday. “I don’t really want to get into specifics. We’re not going to surprise them which way we go. But we did have production with the spread offense in the first game. I’m sure their approach may be different the way they play us (compared to the) first time. We’ve had an opportunity to watch their last five or six games since our first game. They’re doing a couple things different. We’re doing some things different.”
What’s strikingly different is the Packers’ running back. He’s rookie James Starks. When the two teams played in the regular season, Starks had yet to even appear in an NFL game. He was still trying to come back from an offseason hamstring injury that followed a shoulder injury that caused him to miss his entire senior season of college. He was a week away from his Dec. 5 NFL debut against San Francisco.
Now, he’s coming off the best playoff performance by a rookie running back in team history. He rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries in Sunday’s wild-card playoff victory at Philadelphia. In between, Starks was inactive for two games due to shaky practice habits.
A virtual unknown to many in the football world before Sunday, Starks ripped off a 27-yard run on his first carry against the Eagles, which led to a run-heavy play calling day by McCarthy.
“We needed to get a running game going, and obviously that’s exactly what he did,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said after Sunday’s game. “He brought some different dynamics to the table, got us some key first downs and some key yards. We’re going to look for him, despite his age or being a rookie, to continue to do that through the playoffs.”
What that means for Brandon Jackson and Dimitri Nance, who combined for 26 yards on 11 carries in the first game against the Falcons, isn’t clear, but Starks is expected to get a large portion of whatever running McCarthy chooses to do this time around.
“He’ll run the ball against Atlanta, if that’s what you’re asking me,” McCarthy said. “He’s earned that.”
The Packers might have beaten the Falcons the first time around had they had a running game like the one Starks provided against the Eagles. Maybe then, McCarthy would have called different plays in a pair of goal-line situations in which the Packers came up empty. On third-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter, Rodgers lost a fumble when he tried to reach out over the goal line. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Packers failed on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from the Falcons' 41, with Rodgers throwing incomplete both times.
McCarthy and his coaching staff no doubt took all of that into account when they spent most of Monday game planning for the Falcons. Likewise, Falcons coach Mike Smith and his staff will have the luxury of studying Starks’ performance and how the Packers used him before they decide how to attack Rodgers and the offense.
“We ran the ball very well (against the Eagles),” McCarthy said. “With that, Atlanta has watched the game. They’ll have a chance to study it. There will be formations and tendencies they’ll look into and decide how they’re going to handle that, and we also know the tendencies of those formations, too.”