The Green Bay Packers are making a change at running back.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy confirmed before Wednesday’s practice that James Starks will be the featured running back this Sunday against Detroit despite Eddie Lacy checking out fine after leaving Sunday’s 37-29 loss to Carolina in the third quarter with a groin injury.
Starks, 29, has been the more productive back this season with 78 carries for 334 yards and a touchdown. He’s also made improvements as a pass-catcher with 19 catches for 167 yards and two scores.
The sixth-year veteran rushed for only 39 yards on 10 carries against the Panthers, but provided a spark late with a career-high six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. It was good enough to earn extra reps over Lacy, who McCarthy said should be a “full go” in Wednesday’s practice.
“I would say James is our No. 1 back right now going into Detroit,” McCarthy said. “He’s played very well. He’s earned that opportunity. I’ve never been, and we talked about this a number of times in the past, I’m not a big believer in just riding one running back the whole season. We’ll stay with the one-two punch.”
Coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons, Lacy has been largely a disappointment in the first half of the season, rushing for only 308 yards and two touchdowns on 83 carries (3.7 yards per attempt). His longest rush has been for only 16 yards and he’s fumbled in each of the last three games, losing one.
Lacy, who fumbled on only four occasions during his first two NFL seasons combined, was hobbled during the first month of the season due to a sprained ankle. The team swears he's past that injury, but his struggles have lingered. Questions about his weight have run rampant amidst a four-game stretch in which he’s managed 78 yards on 33 carries.
Starks, on the other hand, jumped to the forefront after rushing for 112 yards on 10 carries with his first two-touchdown performance last month against San Diego. While he’s only started six regular-season games in his five-plus seasons with the Packers, the Lions know what he can do.
“Very, very good back,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said. “He does a great job obviously running it from scrimmage. He’s elusive and he has power, obviously he’s a game-breaker. But then also what he does in the screen game as well, he catches the ball out of the backfield well, he takes short games or short receptions in terms of the screens and turns them into huge gains, so he’s got a great feel for the guys out blocking for him. He’s a patient runner and he’s explosive.”
Without counting quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ scrambling, the Packers are averaging only about 20 rushing attempts a game. That’s down from last season when they attempted nearly 25 per contest. The Packers rank fifth in rushing offense thanks to Rodgers’ mobility, but the offense needs more attempts.
Right now, it looks like those extra opportunities will be going to Starks, who already has one more rushing yards (334) this year than he did in 16 regular-season games in 2014 (333).
“We’ve got a new plan for this week,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got to execute it and (get) attempts. That’s really the focus. The third-down production usually equates to a pretty good run game, because when you’re good on third down you get an extra series of downs, you get more attempts. I have rarely been around a football team that was really good running the football on such a low number of attempts. I think if you look at our rush per attempt, you say, ‘Hey, they’re pretty good.’ But obviously the number of opportunities we have is way too low.”
Here are some other highlights from McCarthy's Wednesday morning news conference...
On Detroit’s defense without Suh:
Detroit’s defense is excellent. It’s still a lot similar to prior years. They still challenge you.
On interior offensive line:
Our offensive line is a strength. We’ll count on them to perform well this week. As far as the last two weeks, there’s definitely things our whole team can learn from, offensive line included.
On Alex Van Pelt to sideline:
We had two plans going into the preseason. Obviously, Plan A and Plan B. Watching it, having Tom do the same thing he’s done in the past and call plays, we thought we’d be fine. The benefit of having Mike Solari on the field was something the offensive staff felt would be a bonus. You look at people’s prior experience. The fact of the matter is these new surface tablets we have is better this year than ever, so you take all those things into account. I thought it was an easy adjustment and work out fine.
Really getting Tom into the rhythm and mindset that I felt I was into. You don’t really have to worry about correcting a position. You can focus clearly on the next series. Before he was going through every single picture with Aaron. Frankly, it’s also the product of our young coaches’ development with David Raih and Luke Getsy and their knowledge and ability to communicate. At the beginning of the year, I liked the experience of Alex Van Pelt up there.
On Aaron Rodgers’ mindset after last few weeks:
I think the biggest thing is to not overreact and I definitely don’t see that from Aaron. He’s reacting a lot like our coaches. His time he spent here yesterday getting onto the next opponent. Getting an earlier start and heightened sense of urgency.
On NFC North:
You have to take care of your division. That’s something we’ve always focused on. We have a regimen that we always stick to each and every time we play a division opponent.
On Detroit’s change in offensive coordinator:
You just have to make sure you’re ready for your sideline adjustments with a new coordinator and coming off a bye week. You have to be ready for all those things.
On Rodgers and the final play in Carolina:
I think one play that sticks out in games throughout your career you probably think about more than others. I think it’s still all a part of the experience. I think it’s a bigger challenge than when you win games. If you don’t win a game, you think about the opportunities that were missed. That’s why I’ve always coached from the positive part of the spectrum. Whether he missed it in a win or loss, I think he gains more from it in human nature. When you miss something and the game doesn’t turn out how you want it, you learn from it.
On what’s on his play sheet:
It’s four sheets, actually. It’s down from six. So I was cutting back. … Each season is different I’m evaluating personnel more than anything in the preseason. Those are the things I was focused on in the preseason. I could call all three phases now if I wanted to.