Running game shows pop with Starks

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) runs off the field after scoring a touchdown on a 20-yard run against the Tennessee Titans in the first quarter of a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – This was hardly the toughest test the Green Bay Packers' run game will face this season.

In their preseason opener Saturday night, they were going up against a Tennessee Titans defense that finished No. 20 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed last season and that's converting from a 4-3 defensive scheme to new coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense.

Still, in their 20-16 loss to the Titans at LP Field, the Packers had to be encouraged that their No. 1 offense, minus quarterback Aaron Rodgers and halfback Eddie Lacy, still ran the ball effectively in its one series. Lacy's backup, James Starks, showed why the Packers signed him to a two-year contract in the offseason when he hammered his way to 49 yards on six carries on the Packers' first drive, which ended with Starks' 20-yard touchdown run.

"It was good, something we've been building on for a year now," guard T.J. Lang said. "Starks was a guy last year who had a really good year. He's a guy we trust back there to hit the hole and get some positive yards. Good night for him."

McCarthy didn't say after the game why he didn't play Lacy, though it almost surely was to avoid exposure to injury. The Minnesota Vikings, for instance, didn't play halfback Adrian Peterson at all last year in the preseason and appear likely to hold him out again this year.

Lacy is in only his second season, so McCarthy might not go that far to protect him. But the Packers clearly don't want to get Lacy banged up in a game that doesn't count in the standings, so they appear likely to limit his playing time in preseason games.

Lacy missed only one game last season, because of a concussion, but the Packers re-signed Starks to help take some carries off him and provide a potentially productive backup if anything happens to Lacy short term.

Last year Starks, playing a niche role as five- to 10-carry-a-game player, had his best season with a career high 5.5-yard average per carry. He'd had a quiet training camp up to Saturday night, but against the Titans he ran with the same power and fury as in 2013.

"Gosh, I've been here as long as James has," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "He has a physical style running the football, he's downhill, he makes good cuts, he's seeing the back side of the blocking unit very well. He's tough, puts his shoulder down, breaks through tackles and gets extra yardage. For the first time in the preseason, to see him out there, it was good."

This was the kind of game where running the ball is especially important because the field was soggy from three inches of rain before kickoff and the passing game was difficult because the ball was slickened by the continuing downpour through much of the first half.

The Packers' starting offense had only eight plays before sitting for the night, and Starks ran on six of them. His biggest runs were a third-and-3 conversion, when he rambled for 11 yards, followed on the next snap by the 20-yard touchdown where he cut back quickly on an inside zone run and accelerated to the end zone for the oustretched touchdown as he was hit.

"Just picked up where he left off last year," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought James looked like he was in mid-season form. The first drive was impressive. That's what we wanted to accomplish in the first drive, running the football, and we were able to do that. Obviously, James was excellent."

The Packers' backup running backs didn't have nearly the success Starks did, though undrafted rookie Rajion Neal flashed some quickness and ability to get outside. He gained 39 yards on five carries before leaving the game because of a knee injury.

-- and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.​

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