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Green Bay Packers running back James Starks comes into his own as suitable Ryan Grant replacement

Jan. 10, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks fights for yardage against the Philadelphia Eagles' Omar Gaither (96) during the third quarter of Sunday's wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks fights for yardage against the Philadelphia Eagles' Omar Gaither (96) during the third quarter of Sunday's wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

Itís hard to knock Ted Thompson for anything at this point. He has done a remarkable job of drafting and uncovering untested free agents for the Green Bay Packers.

But when he signed 32-year-old, over-the-hill running back Ahman Green in mid-season 2009, he had to know he was thumbing his nose at one of the tenets of Ron Wolfís football philosophy. To Wolf, any time a coach said he preferred a marginal veteran who knew the system over a talented, but chancy prospect, it was like hearing the sound of a dentistís drill. Thatís why Wolf, Thompsonís mentor, fired Lindy Infante soon after he was hired as the Packersí general manager in late 1991. Infante preferred comfort even if a player wasnít very good.

And thatís also why the Packers had nobody to blame but themselves for not having someone ready to replace Ryan Grant when he was hurt in the first game this season. The search for a young back should have started a year ago.

Itís maybe unfair to criticize Thompson for not specifically signing this yearís league-leading rusher, Arian Foster, off Houstonís practice squad rather than Green 14 months ago. But that shows what a team can miss out on when it plays it safe.

Replacing Grant should have been easy. It was laughable to hear or read that he had provided a consistent running game. Last year, against the Packersí six opponents that finished with a winning record, his rushing totals were 46, 51, 30, 79, 41, 37 and 51 yards. But perhaps now those shoes have been filled as the Packers head to Atlanta, following their victory over Philadelphia, with James Starks presumably set as their featured back.

Starks' 123-yard game

Starks is very similar to Grant. Heís a nice one-cut runner. Thatís all they were missing without Grant: A put his foot in the ground, head up-field runner that fits their zone schemes. Starks is a longer strider than Grant, but their feet are a lot alike when they run along the line of scrimmage, find their hole and go.

With John Kuhn it has to be predetermined. Give him the ball to run at a certain gap and thatís where he has to go. He canít do anything other than that. Brandon Jackson kind of jitter-bugs. Heís either too patient or his vision isnít good.

Holes open and close so fast in the NFL that a back has to make a decision and go. Starks did that, so even when the hole closed quickly he was always able to get at least a couple yards. And like Grant, Starks falls forward.

That was a big part of why the Packers converted 8 of 13 third downs. Starks made third down more manageable. He also showed a little wiggle on that pass he caught in the flat.

Starks and Grant arenít Adrian Peterson. But of the two, Starks might be a little more explosive. Time will tell. One last point: If Andrew Quarless could block, Starks might have gained 150 or 160 yards Sunday.

Sam Shields makes a difference

One of the biggest plays of the game came on the Eaglesí third possession. They set it up so Shields would be one-on-one with Jeremy Maclin on a fly pattern, hoping for a huge play, and Shields broke it up. He almost intercepted it. That was a great play against a dangerous receiver. They tested the rookie and he passed the test.

Shieldsí play is what allows the Packers to do what they do with Charles Woodson. Thatís why they can play Woodson up at the line and use his athletic ability. He runs around willy-nilly and offenses canít account for him. He tackles running backs. He blitzes. He spies. And with Tramon Williams and Shields, the Packers donít have to always play a safety over the top of them. They can bring a safety up, too, or put him on a tight end rather than a linebacker.

The emergence of Shields maybe isnít the most important development on the defense this year, but it ranks right up there. Thatís why the Packers can play so much nickel, why they can run some crazy blitzes. Even against the run, they have been effective in their nickel because Woodson can run around blocks. Those big, physical guys up front canít get to him.

Remember how Arizona picked on Jarrett Bush in last yearís playoffs? Seattle did the same thing to Roman Harper to beat New Orleans Saturday. Not having that weak link in their secondary has been huge for the Packers.

Clay Matthews

He had a monster game. When he tackled LeSean McCoy on third-and-one before the missed field goal that was a beautiful play. He had a key third-down sack. And then there were the things that donít show up in the stats: The penalties he caused.

On the other side, Erik Walden did some good things, but got sucked in on the run and didnít play off some blocks. He was more like the player you expect him to be.

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