Wes and Ryan discuss the Packers' plan for running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks. (Oct. 19, 2015)
The Green Bay Packers threw everyone a curve Sunday when James Starks trotted out for the first offensive series against San Diego, rather than Eddie Lacy.
It was an unorthodox move considering it marked only the fifth time the 29-year-old running back had drawn a regular-season start in his 57 career games. Lacy had started the previous 31 games in which he was active.
The plan worked for Green Bay. Starks broke out for 25 yards on his first carry and then rushed for a 65-yard touchdown on the Packers' second possession. He needed only 11 touches and 28 snaps to amass 117 total yards and his first two-touchdown game. Meanwhile, Lacy settled for 20 yards on six touches.
The split left many scratching their heads after the 27-20 victory. Lacy has dealt with a sprained ankle for the past month, but he'd been removed from the injury report last week for the first time since he originally sprained the ankle against Seattle on Sept. 20.
When asked after the game, the third-year running back said his ankle was "cool." On Monday, Packers coach Mike McCarthy reiterated the need to establish a "one-two punch" in the backfield, adding that he doesn't have any desire to wear down Lacy or Starks in Week 6.
"At this point, I'm not really interested in running one of my running backs 20-25 times in a game," McCarthy said. "I don't think that's the best thing for us. Right now, it's not the best thing for them. The running back position is an extremely punishing position that can take a lot of hits. I think you have be conscientious of that, and Eddie has a bruising running style."
Be that as it may, six touches on 20 offensive snaps was the lightest work Lacy has received in a game in which he played start to finish. It's a startling reduction for the face of the Packers' revitalized running game the past two-plus seasons.
Lacy missed some practice time with the injury, but McCarthy said the conditioning of his 230-pound running back wasn't a factor in his playing time Sunday. The only thing he and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett conceded is that Lacy is "a little banged up" going into the bye week.
Lacy's reps have been a point of contention since he finished his rookie year in 2013 on a badly sprained ankle. At the time, the Packers had no choice but to ride Lacy during the second half of the season because quarterback Aaron Rodgers was out with a broken collarbone.
The Packers cut back on Lacy's reps during the first two months of last season, looking to preserve the NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year for the stretch run. Lacy shook off the rough start and his numbers improved across the board, finishing the season with 1,566 total yards and 13 touchdowns.
Lacy is off to a similarly slow start to his third NFL season with 67 carries for 260 yards and one touchdown (3.9 yards per carry). His longest run of 16 yards in the opener against Chicago remains his best this season. To his credit, he hasn't missed a game this season.
Until Sunday, he also hadn't missed a start.
"Any time he puts that uniform on he's going to give us everything he's got," Bennett said. "That's always a big part of the mindset. When you put it on, there are no excuses. You line up and you go play. And that's always been his mindset."
Lacy wasn't overly effective in last week's 24-10 win over St. Louis (13 carries for 27 yards), but neither was Starks. In fact, the sixth-year running back had rushed for only 77 yards on 31 carries (2.5 yards per carry) in his previous three games before facing the Chargers.
Opportunities have been split nearly down the middle so far with Lacy edging Starks slightly in offensive snaps (180-179) and touches (76-74). However, Starks is ahead of his counterpart in rushing yards (286-260) and yards per carry (4.5-3.9) following his career-long carry against San Diego.
The Packers still must have felt good enough about Lacy's health to deactivate third-string running back Alonzo Harris, who had been active in the previous three games. Whatever the reason, Starks played well when he was called upon. Although Starks has battled injuries for years, his talent never has been questioned.
With 10 games remaining, Starks needs only 22 more carries to match his 85 attempts from last season and only 47 more yards to match his 333 rushing yards. Facing a contract year, it's a good time for Starks to be in demand.
"Well, James, I think he's played well all year," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "He played well last year when he got his opportunities. He has good speed, he's a hard runner, he can at times get you yards that you don't think are there initially with his speed. So it's just the continuation of what he's been doing."
The offense has sputtered the last three weeks regardless of who has been in the backfield due to various injuries. Lacy, receivers Randall Cobb (shoulder) and James Jones (hamstring), and linemen T.J. Lang (knee) and Bryan Bulaga (knee) are all playing through their respective ailments.
The offense points to positives, with optimism receiver Davante Adams may be on the verge of returning from the sprained ankle that has sidelined him for three games. Rodgers often has referred to him as a "Pro Bowl-caliber player" who could help ease the burden of the offense with his return.
The Packers also received good news Monday on receiver Ty Montgomery, who left in the second quarter Sunday with a sprained ankle of his own. The goal now is to get Lacy healthy and contributing again after he mustered only three rushing yards on four carries against San Diego, including a fumble.
The silver lining for Green Bay is Lacy hasn't been known as a fast starter. Last year, 711 of his 1,139 rushing yards occurred in the Packers' final eight regular-season games. With Starks healthy and available, McCarthy isn't worried about his run game, which still ranks fifth with 127.3 yards per game.
"I'm not concerned there," McCarthy said. "Just really I like the one-two punch, and frankly if one of them gets hot in a game, then hey, he may carry it 20 times."