Their bruising running back was out of the game, carted to the locker room with a bum ankle in the first quarter. No Eddie Lacy meant no depth in the Green Bay Packers’ backfield, perhaps no balance on offense.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy needed a Plan B. Fast. He found it from a familiar source.
There’s a reason the Packers have kept James Starks on their roster for six years and counting. Every now and then, the 193rd pick of the 2010 draft has one of those games that shows his unquestioned value. It happened again Sunday night.
When it looked like the Packers might squander an early lead against their nemesis, Starks stepped outside Lacy’s shadow and delivered his best game in two years. He had 95 rushing yards on 20 carries, helping lead the Packers to a 27-17 win against the Seahawks.
“We all have the utmost faith in James Starks,” center Corey Linsley said. “Obviously, look at what he’s done in his career. So when Eddie goes down – Eddie is obviously a hell of a back, a playmaker – but we know James is just as well. So we can count on him as well.
“Everybody’s gotta step up. Everybody’s gotta adjust. We know how James runs and everything, so that’s how it worked out.”
It wasn’t a perfect night for Starks.
In the second quarter, he caught a pass from Rodgers near the left sideline, but Seahawks linebacker KJ Wright ripped the football from his hands. The fumble set up the Seahawks with a short field at the Packers’ 47-yard line, though they were forced to punt five plays later.
Starks said there was no time to dwell on the fumble. With the Packers only activating two tailbacks Sunday night, one fumble wasn’t going to entice McCarthy to keep Starks on the sideline. He had to get ready for the next possession.
“You’ve gotta move on,” Starks said. “Things happen. You’ve got to face adversity, be able to gather yourself and come back and be better. That’s all I was trying to do, you know. As I think about it now, I’m upset about it. But I can continue to get better, keep the ball high and tight and try to avoid that next time.”
In the second half, Starks atoned for his one glaring mistake. His biggest run of the night came when the Packers absolutely needed to make a play.
The Seahawks scored 14 unanswered points out of halftime, taking a 17-13 lead. With momentum against them, the Packers faced second-and-4 at their 26-yard line when Starks ripped off a 35-yard run down the right sideline. Linsley said the Packers were waiting to hit that specific play, noticing a flaw in the Seahawks’ defense.
The run set up a Packers field goal that pulled them within one point of the Seahawks. They went on to score the game’s final 14 points.
“I just tried to keep running,” Starks said. “I knew the line would keep getting on their blocks. They were working hard. I just had to find the crease, and the line gave me a big crease to hit. I hit it, and I tried to do as much as I could with it.”
The Packers used some creativity to account for Lacy’s absence. During a fourth-quarter drive, they rotated players in the backfield. Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery and Richard Rodgers all got snaps in the backfield during a 10-play, 80-yard drive that gave the Packers a lead they never surrendered.
Rodgers said he never sensed the rotating backfield shook the Seahawks’ rhythm. It’s not the first time the Packers have done that against Seattle, he noted. Still, McCarthy said, it’s a package the Packers have had success with against the Seahawks in the past, and it worked again Sunday night.
“I don’t want to live in it,” McCarthy said. “I don’t normally want to expose any quarterback – particularly Aaron Rodgers, a great quarterback – to one of the best pass rushes in the league. But just the way he managed that, that was a critical part in the game. We pulled it out at the right time, just to create the one-on-ones.”
Starks’ production demanded attention. Subtly, it was also a good night for the Packers’ offensive line, a group that considers itself – often justly – as one of the NFL’s top units.
While the Seahawks have been one of the NFL’s best rushing teams over the past couple seasons, the Packers outgained them on the ground Sunday night. Their 127 yards on 29 carries held their own against the Seahawks’ 119 yards and 25 carries.
It’s unknown how long Lacy’s ankle injury will keep him out. His return was considered “questionable” when he was carted to the locker room, but he was quickly deemed out. The X-rays were negative, according to an ESPN report. Still, McCarthy wasn’t giving any medical updates in his postgame comments.
Regardless, Starks once again showed he’s capable of producing in the Packers’ backfield. Behind an offensive line consistently opening running lanes, the Packers’ rushing attack never wavered.
“Starks is a good back," Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "We studied both of them throughout the week. Starks is just as effective as Eddie Lacy is. He did some good things tonight.”
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood