Green Bay Packers running back James Starks makes a run up the middle in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Jerry Fontenot runs a practice drill where running backs take a handoff and approach the line of scrimmage with a manned-dummy in front. The dummy moves left or right at the last second and the back must read, plant and hit the open lane.
It’s a simple tool the Packers running backs coach uses to sharpen vision — which can be the difference between being crushed in the backfield and a 25-yard gain on Sundays.
Vision can be a confounding trait when it comes to NFL backs. It’s a natural instinct that some are born with, but can also be developed. Kind of.
Ryan Grant said vision and the ability to pick the right crease in a split-second with defenders coming full speed is one of the most valuable tools a back has.
“That’s what weeds out the people who can get it done at this level and the people that can’t,” Grant said.
Grant made a career out of seeing a hole develop, making one cut and getting upfield. He was never the fastest or the most physically imposing back. But that decisiveness and commitment within the run produced back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons.
Grant still holds the title of the Packers starter, but the bulk of the 2011 carries has gone to a younger, more explosive version of himself. Second-year pro James Starks (6-foot-2, 218 yards) is at his best making one cut and using his speed. He is a bit more physical than Grant and has more agility in his game. Starks leads the team with 210 yards on 45 carries. Grant has 157 yards on 32 attempts.
Pass protection continues to be the main area of improvement for Starks, but his vision is the most criticized aspect of his game with the ball in his hands.
“You can teach vision and work on it, but you can’t teach instincts,” Fontenot said. “Instincts are natural.
“That’s the fortunate part of my job because I have guys that are instinctive. All of our guys are.”
Starks posted a regular-season career-high of 85 rushing yards on just nine carries in Week 2 against the Panthers. That was followed by his most unproductive game of the year in Chicago where the Bears held Starks to five yards on 11 carries while Grant got loose for 92 yards on 17 rushes. The blocking, for whatever reason, was much better with Grant in the game and opened massive holes that weren’t there for Starks. But there were also missed opportunities where Starks simply didn’t see a hole, hesitated more than usual or failed to set up his blocks.
Starks looked more like himself when he ran for a team-high 63 yards on 13 carries and caught a career-high five passes for 38 yards last week. He was patient on screen plays and decisive on runs.
Starks ran through three tackles and shouldered past Andre Goodman on a 16-yard gain in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, he helped in protection with a chip on Von Miller, then caught a screen, shook Brian Dawkins and finished with another 16 yards.
That’s when Starks is at his best: get-the-ball-and-go.
Some of those other habits also popped up.
In the third quarter, he took a handoff five yards deep and ran parallel to the sideline for no gain. Starks went for zero yards again during the same series when he took a draw, hesitated and cut three yards behind the line of scrimmage. He missed a hole again in the fourth quarter as he drifted right for one yard when a strong, hard cut inside would have yielded more.
No back makes the right decision every carry, but it’s clear when Starks is at his most productive.
“The game is so fast, you really can’t judge how things are going to go,” Starks said. “When it does happen, you try to capitalize on every little aspect you can, but capturing my aiming point is a big thing.
“I know sometimes when I did make reads that probably were some of the wrong reads, if I had pressed it a little longer maybe I could have had something. But I tried to get as much as I could.”
The new goal, Starks said, is to make more defenders miss — which would lead to longer runs. He averages 4.7 yards per carry, but has just two runs of 20 yards or more.
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin didn’t think Starks tried to make players miss near the line of scrimmage, which would cause the occasional hesitation.
“He’s referring to if he’s gotten past the linebacker level, and is coming downhill at a safety and the safety’s coming at him,” Philbin said, “that’s where we’d love to see him make a guy miss, break a tackle and turn an 13-yarder or 11-yarder into a 30-yarder or 40-yarder.
“Luck of the draw wasn’t as kind to him (in Chicago). … There were a couple holes we wish he could have read a little better in Chicago, but at the same time, sometimes there wasn’t as much there as there was this week.”
Which leads back to the topic of vision. There’s no doubt Starks is poised to fully surpass Grant in the future. He’s only built on his breakout playoff efforts when he ran for a combined 315 yards and provided a legitimate run threat in all four games. Fontenot called last week the most complete game of Starks career — but he’s still young and raw after missing two offseasons and 13 regular season games in 2010. He’s only been active in seven regular season games.
“I’m always on those guys about whenever it appears there’s nothing there, we’ve got to go down and get a hard one (yard) or a hard two — whatever we can get,” Fontenot said. “Now, I don’t want to put the blinders on these guys either. If they see something, they should run to daylight, obviously.”
It’s a decision that must be made in less than a second. Some argue it’s more of a “feel” where others think it can be taught to varying degrees. Either way, careers have been made and destroyed on the ability to “see” and make that split-second adjustment.
“I think vision is instinctual,” Grant explained. “You can improve your reads and how you read blocks, which essentially will help with your vision.
“If I study defenses and I know tendencies and I have an understanding of this offense … I can be more instinctive because I know where the plays are supposed to hit. … People are like, ‘Oh, look at that vision.’ It’s one of those things.”
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