Eddie Lacy’s production during the preseason, and his relative success Week 1 against one of the toughest defenses in football, had Packers fan excited that 2013 would finally be the year the Packers had at least a competent running game to combine with their elite passing attack. Although the Packers offense has been one of the best in football during the Mike McCarthy era, the gap between the dominating passing game and the suspect running game is arguably the largest in the NFL, especially since the end of Ryan Grant’s first stretch in the Green and Gold. Countless announcers and media members have cited the long stretch since the Packers last a 100 yard back–Brandon Jackson on October 10, 2010 against Washington who basically had one 71 yard scamper which buoyed his overall performance. DaJuan Harris gave Packers fans a bit of hope after his solid end to the 2012 season, but clearly the brain trust felt the running game still needed improvement and gave Stephen Jackson a token offer while also investing a 2nd round pick in RB Eddie Lacy from Alabama and trading up in the 4th round to grab Jonathan Franklin from UCLA. Most fans, including myself, likely left bygones Alex Green and James Starks for dead.
Many fantasy prognosticators predicted a huge day for Lacy in week 2 against a Redskins defense that despite some talent in the front 7 looked awful in Week 1 against Chip Kelley’s uptempo attack. Instead it was James Starks who partied like it was the 2010 playoffs and had a huge day: 20 carries for 132 yards and 1 TD while also adding 36 yards receiving. But was Starks’ huge game a product of strong vision and decisive cut or an improved offensive line performance against a poor defense?
One of my favorite football analyst is Cecil Lammey, who writes and hosts great podcasts for footballguys.com. He has described Starks as a “space runner” nearly his entire career even when Starks was having success during the Packers Super Bowl run in 2010. Lammey means that while Starks can have success when holes are opened up for him in the running game and he’s able to get up to speed, he isn’t close to an elite talent that can start and stop in a hurry or can gain a few yards out of nothing.
But just because Starks lacks the elite physical tools of a C.J. Spiller and Adrian Peterson doesn’t mean Starks can’t have success and be an asset to the Green Bay offense. While Starks may not have the speed of Spiller or the cutting ability of Adrian, he does have enough speed to get to the second level and enough strength to run through a corner or a safety. But after watching all of Starks’ runs on Sunday, it becomes apparent that he needs some creative play design for him to be effective.
One of the simpler things McCarthy did Sunday to assist Starks was using 11 personnel: 1 back and 1 tight end with 3 wide receivers-almost exclusively Cobb in the slot with Nelson and Jones on either side. When the down and distance had about even pass/run odds, Jermichael Finley played TE while on more favorable down and distance–and when the Packers were running out the clock in the second– Andrew Quarless manned the position since he is a far superior blocker. Below is a screenshot of what many of these formations look like:
Because of how much of a threat the Packers WRs and TEs are, the 11 personnel is able to significantly spread out the Washington defense and now there are just 6 men in the box. The Redskins CBs are playing man while the safeties are playing zone, effectively daring the Packers to run the ball on 1st and 10. Rodgers would eventually audible into a quick pass into the flat for Starks which gains 6 as shown below:
The combination of the inexperienced Washington secondary and the Packers receiving talent gives amble space for Starks as he is clearly the least talented offensive weapon of Finley, Cobb, Nelson and Jones. Starks had 26 total attempts and targets: 20 rushing attempts, 1 rush that was called back on a penalty, and 5 targets resulting in 4 receptions. The Packers used 11 personnel on 22 of those 26 plays (85%).
The Packers attempted to switch it up a bit after a successful first half in which Starks rushed 8 times for 55 yards (6.9 yards per carry). After running single back, 11 personnel on all 8 of those attempts, the first two plays of the second half went away from that framework. Below is the 1st play of the second half after the Packers defense forced a 3 and out:
The Packers started out with TE Andrew Quarless, FB John Kuhn and Starks in a full house formation with 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE). Pre-snap, Quarless goes in motion from the left up-back to a stand-up tight end on the right side, turning the full house into an offset I (The offset I is a 2 back formation where the running back lines up a few yards behind the QB. The fullback or tight end lines up between the QB and RB a yard or two to one side). This signals to the defense that the Packers are trying to run to the right side and simply out-man the Redskins to the far-side of the field. Unfortunately, NT Barry Cofield (who was actually one of the few Washington defenders to have a good game) beats C Evan Dietrich-Smith. Starks is actually able to brake the tackle, but the damage is done and Starks is tackled for no gain.
Although the pre-snap movement telegraphs to the Redskins that the Packers plan on running to the right side, the play has some nice concepts. Rodgers pre-snap read is likely to the safety on the short-side of the field over Jordy Nelson. If Nelson gets 1 on 1 coverage, Rodgers probably would audible into a deep pattern which the combo has hit on so many occasions during their respective careers. Once the Redskins send one safety high, Nelson sets up for a wide receiver screen which can easily become a splash play if he can break a tackle.
The Packers use the same formation on the very next snap as shown below:
Quarless motions into the slot pre-snap. Rodgers does a quick 3-step drop, but the throw is low and incomplete. Despite the incompletion, the play shows what a strong running game and a versatile player like Quarless can do for an offense. The Packers can use the same personnel for a run or a pass since Quarless excels as a blocker.
Despite the Packers’ failure to gain any yards on the last play, McCarthy again decides to go with a more run-based formation on the next series, this time with 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends-Finley and Quarless) as seen below:
Sitton and Bakhtiari double while Dietrich-Smith is able to get to the second level and get a block on the linebacker. Starks gains 6 yards before contact and drags OLB Ryan Kerrigan for an additional 3. Another win for the Packers’ running game.
Another way the Packers were able to put James Starks in a favorable position to succeed was getting him in space. Unlike with Eddie Lacy against the 49ers, a majority of Starks’ runs were to the outside or at a minimum off tackle. Although Starks is far from a traditional scatback, he is still successful when he runs the stretch play because as mentioned earlier, he can outrun most linebackers but can run over smaller players in the secondary. Below is Starks’ second-longest run of the game (20 yards on the play where Meriweather left the game after leading with his helmet):
Starks takes the ball around the left end, Jordy Nelson makes a strong block on the safety to spring Starks for more yards, while Starks outruns rookie CB David Amerson’s poor angle. Starks shows his long-distance quickness on this run.
Starks ran to the left end or the right end on 11 of his 21 rushing attempts (52%) and off left tackle or right tackle an additional 5 times, meaning 16 of the 21 attempts were to the outside (76%). Interestingly, despite RT Don Barclay’s reputation as a good run blocker, just 5 of the 16 running plays to the outside were to the right side.
But Starks success wasn’t all due to favorable personnel grouping or putting him a position to succeed. Starks also was able to break tackles and found holes to run through. Look no further than Starks’ longest run of the game, the 32 yard touchdown which effectively sealed the game.
Starks gets good blocking on this play as well (Washington also had just 6 in the box), especially from TE Andrew Quarless on a DT, but once he gets up to speed, is able to break two tackles in the secondary, CB David Amerson and S Reed Doughty, and prance into the end zone. Starks got 58 of his 132 yards after contact on the day (44%).
Overall, it was a strong performance in the running game for RB James Starks, the offensive line as well as QB Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy in putting a good player in positions to succeed to the betterment of the team. Sure the Redskins defense aside from their pass-rushers is poor, but ultimately Starks did what he needed to do and gained the yards in front of him.
Toward the end of the game, the Packers largely chose to pass the ball to run out the clock. In his weekly radio show with ESPN Wisconsin‘s Jason Wilde, QB Aaron Rodgers (around the 6:32 mark) mentions that the Redskins crowded the box which made running in the second half of the 4th quarter difficult. The Packers didn’t see an 8 man box the entire 1st half. Sure the game situation dictated that the Redskins needed to stop the run to get their offense back on the field, but the Packers really only need the running game as a viable alternative to set up the pass. And in that situation, it worked.
After watching the film, it appears that Mike McCarthy and Cecil Lammey are in agreement: James Starks is a space runner. But while the term “space runner” may seem like a pejorative term, arguably so was Ryan Grant, who rushed for over 3,300 yards in three straight seasons for the Packers and was their last back to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. The Packers have shown they don’t need an elite talent at running back to have a top 3 offense, especially against defenses like the Redskins. Eddie Lacy will likely regain the starting running back spot when he returns after the bye week, but Starks’ ability to handle a full workload, as long as he can stay healthy, likely explains why he was given the final running back spot over Alex Green on the initial 53. The task gets tougher next week against the Cincinnati Bengals and All-Pro DT Geno Atkins.
To view my complete notes on all of James Starks’ touches, click here.