Green Bay Packers running back James Starks is helped off the field during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers may be without their most productive running back for a while.
James Starks sustained what coach Mike McCarthy called a knee sprain in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 35-26 win over Tampa Bay at Lambeau Field.
The injury occurred on a run for no gain on which he was tackled by Buccaneers safety Sean Jones and defensive end Michael Bennett. However, Starks said he was hurt before the contact.
“I just landed awkwardly,” Starks said in a brief postgame interview before he headed to meet with team doctors. “I’ve got to go in there right now, and they’re going to tell me.”
Though it’s possible Starks avoided a serious injury, what he described sometimes can mean a torn knee ligament.
“We’ll probably have more information (Monday) morning after we do further tests,” McCarthy said.
Though Ryan Grant has been listed as the Packers’ starter all season, Starks has carried the bigger workload. He rushed 11 times for 38 yards on Sunday to Grant’s four carries for 16 yards. Starks leads the team with 541 rushing yards to Grant’s 267.
Starks also had a productive day against Tampa Bay in the passing game with a season-high six catches for 53 yards. He also has served as the primary third-down back.
Last season, Starks emerged as the Packers’ top running back and was effective during the playoff run. After missing the first three quarters of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury, Starks rushed for 315 yards in the four postseason games, including a 123-yard performance in the wild-card game at Philadelphia.
Even if Starks’ injury isn’t serious, the quick turnaround to Thursday’s Thanksgiving game at Detroit might be too short for him to play against the Lions. The Packers already have lost one running back, rookie Alex Green, to a season-ending knee injury. The Packers promoted rookie Brandon Saine from the practice squad to replace Green, but Saine hasn’t played from scrimmage. They also could use fullback John Kuhn at halfback like they did last season.
The only other injury McCarthy mentioned was to receiver Greg Jennings (bruised shin).
Linebacker Clay Matthews sustained a stinger on the opening series but returned after missing two plays.
“(It) wasn’t really numb, kind of hot though,” Matthews said. “I should be all right. I was able to finish the game and played pretty much the way I wanted to.”
Return of The Freezer
Last year when he appeared on offense for the first time in the divisional playoff game at Atlanta, B.J. Raji nicknamed himself “The Freezer,” paying homage to former Chicago Bears defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who occasionally carried the ball in goal-line situations in the 1980s.
After serving as a blocker on offense last year, Raji finally got his chance to carry the ball on Sunday. On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the first quarter, Raji lined up in front of Kuhn in an I-formation and got the ball on a fullback dive play. The 6-foot-2, 337-pounder barreled his way in for a touchdown. He said it is the first touchdown he’s scored on offense at any level of football.
“It was one of those plays we worked on for a while this season,” Raji said. “Just the ball placement wasn’t exactly where coach wanted it. A lot of times we were on the 4- or the 5-(yard line), so we were able to run it. But it surprised me actually for the first drive of the game for him to do that.”
It took the officials a few seconds to signal whether Raji had scored.
“He probably should report (as eligible) next time,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I think we got away with one there. We’ve been working on that for a long time. We kind of tailor our celebration at the end of practice on Fridays around that play, and we’ve been waiting for Mike to call it. We were excited when he called it and saw big B.J. in there. Like I said, he should probably report next time, but we got away with it this time.”
Actually, Raji doesn’t have to report, according to former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira via his Twitter account. The rule applies only when extra linemen are used at the line of scrimmage.
For the second time this season, tight end Jermichael Finley expressed frustration after a game.
This time, the frustration was all internal.
He caught just one pass for 30 yards against the Bucs’ predominantly press man coverage.
“They played a lot of press, and I need to go back and work on all of that,” Finley said. “I need to do better. It’s pretty disappointing. I’m not being selfish or nothing. I don’t want to put that out there. We’re 10-0. It’s just one of those things where you know your ability, and I’m just a competitor. That’s all it is. I’m (mad) if I don’t contribute. I’m frustrated.”
Earlier in the season, Finley was frustrated after the Oct. 2 game against Denver when he was double-teamed and had just three catches for 28 yards. On that occasion, Finley said the coaches needed to find a way to get him the ball even when he’s doubled.
Defensive end Mike Neal played 15 snaps by unofficial count in his first game back from knee surgery in September and said he expects to be ready for the quick turnaround for Thursday’s game at Detroit.
“If I’m fine now, I’m sure I’ll be fine in the morning,” Neal said after the game. “That’s how it’s been since I hurt it and it doesn’t swell on me or anything like that. Feels the same way (after the game) it does after practice.”
Neal, who hadn’t played in a game since Oct. 3 last season at Washington, sustained torn cartilage in his knee early in training camp and had arthroscopic surgery in early September to remove loose bodies in his knee. He returned to practice on a limited basis two weeks ago, then practiced all last week. He said he knew by Thursday he was healthy enough to play.
Neal played only on obvious passing downs in the nickel and dime packages. He finished with no official statistics and didn’t come noticeably close to a sack in his first game after the long layoff.
“I think I played well,” he said. “The snaps I had, execute my blitzes the way I did, getting (quarterback Josh) Freeman out of the pocket, being able to collapse the pocket and make him run. I haven’t watched film, but from the standpoint of knowing what I had out there and what I was doing, I felt good.”
Crosby’s streak ends
Kicker Mason Crosby missed his first field goal after having made a team-record 23 straight attempts in regular-season games, dating to last year.
The miss came late in the fourth quarter on a 29-yard attempt from the left hash mark. The winds weren’t strong — at game time they were 7 mph from north — and in pregame warm-ups were going across the field, pushing the ball from east to west. Crosby’s kick banged off the right (east) upright.
“Just a glitch,” Crosby said. “I actually hit it how I wanted to, aiming inside right upright. The ball just jumped off. It started moving left and then it kind of tailed off and hit that upright. From that distance I need to just drill it through. It was one of those I just gave a little too much credit to the wind from that short and need to hit it straight through.”
The Packers immediately were thinking about Thursday’s quick-turnaround game at Detroit after winning Sunday.
They don’t practice Monday but will begin meetings to prepare for the Lions. On Tuesday, they’ll have a nonpadded practice and on Wednesday, they’ll have a short practice before leaving for Detroit.
The coaches began working on the game plan for the Lions during their bye three weeks ago.
“We’ve already put Tampa in our rear view and we’re on to Detroit,” Matthews said. “The coaches have already done their due diligence, and now it’s time for us players to catch up.”
Rodgers said: “Detroit played Carolina today, so I’m sure (the Lions) will be banged up a little bit, too. It’s going to be tough for both of us, but we have to find a way. We’ve taken care of the first two steps in this 10˝-day, three-game deal, so just got to get back. Mike’s going to take care of our bodies this week and take it easy on us, get in that training room, get in that hot tub, get in that cold tub and hopefully be ready by Thursday.”