This week, there was no passing game to bail the Green Bay Packers out.
If they were going to trump the Arizona Cardinals for one last victory before the bye week, the Packers needed to run the football productively.
With Jordy Nelson limited to only two series and the Packers’ offense again struggling through the air, the spotlight was thrust upon Alex Green and James Starks.
Paired with the occasional ad lib from quarterback Aaron Rodgers (eight carries for 33 yards), the Packers’ run game produced a season-high 176 rushing yards in Sunday’s 31-17 win over the Cardinals, which was the most production since gaining 202 yards against Cleveland on Oct. 25, 2009.
After trying for nearly a month after Cedric Benson’s foot injury to establish a running game, the Packers opted to split carries between Starks (17 rushes for 61 yards) and Green (11 for 53).
Green had seen more than 20 carries in each of the last three games, but he rushed 64 times for only 154 yards during that stretch for a pedestrian 2.4-yard average.
“We went two tandem backs with James Starks and Alex Green and played them more by situation just to try to make sure we were able to get those guys prepared during the week for today’s game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s the way you want to run the ball. Aaron, obviously, made some plays with his feet and added to the total. I was very pleased with the rushing effort.”
Based on practice this week, Green understood the team was going to split carries between him and Starks similar to what they did with Ryan Grant and Starks for a majority of last season.
Sprinkled with a dash of wide receiver Randall Cobb, who rushed 29 yards on three carries, the run game helped buoy the Packers’ offense, which completed only 3-of-11 passes in the second half.
The output began with Starks, who received his first start since Nov. 24, 2011, and the most consistent playing time he’s seen since returning from the turf toe injury he suffered in the Aug. 9 preseason opener.
After seeing only one carry last week, Starks looked explosive early. Although he fumbled midway through the second quarter, Starks bounced back when he returned halfway through the third quarter to complement Green, who seemed to benefit from the lighter workload of 11 carries.
Green exploded off the left end for a 21-yard gain on his first series in the first quarter for his longest carry since his 41-yard effort in relief of Benson vs. Indianapolis on Oct. 7.
“We always believed in ourselves that we’d get the run game going,” said Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, who moved from left guard to right tackle when Bryan Bulaga left with a hip injury in the second quarter.
“We’ve struggled with it the past couple weeks, but we’ve shown before we can run the ball well. It was nice to go out there and see that today. Both running backs did a great job. They both bring a little different aspect to our game and they both ran hard and got the some positive yards.”
The Packers will be without Benson for at least another month after he was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 10 with the designation to return, so it looks like the Packers could be splitting duties between Starks and Green moving forward.
It’s a scenario both running backs appear comfortable with, especially Green, who was happy to see the group’s production improve after taking the brunt of the criticism for the running game’s woes over the past month.
“I put a lot on myself. I’m probably my worst critic,” Green said. “I beat myself up probably more than I should, but it’s something I take personal. Hearing things from you guys about the running game, it doesn’t get to me as much, but I definitely put it back in the mind and making me work harder to get the thing going a little bit, but we know the kind of guys we have in the running back group and O-line, we just have to get on the same page.”
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