GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Atlanta Falcons were just as surprised as most of the fans sitting at home. Until this week, they’d never heard of Green Bay Packers running back James Starks, either.
Before Sunday, Starks was a sixth-round pick out of Buffalo who had struggled to get on the field because of injuries and inconsistent practice habits. Then he rushed for 123 yards in Green Bay’s 21-16 playoff victory at Philadelphia.
“He came out of nowhere,” Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “I’d never heard of Starks. I’d never seen him on film until the past two weeks. But he’s a talented back.”
And after smothering the Packers’ running game when the two teams played back in November, the Falcons certainly don’t plan to allow some rookie to have a big performance in Saturday’s playoff game at the Georgia Dome.
“When you can run the ball and pass the ball, that makes you that much more dangerous,” Lofton said. “They tried to run the ball against us the first time, and we shut it down. So that’s what we’re looking to do again.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Starks has earned a bigger role in the offense.
“He’ll have opportunities in Atlanta,” McCarthy said. “How many, the game will dictate that. He has earned that opportunity based off his performance this past week.”
Starks says he’s ready.
“If you love this game, you love having the ball in your hands,” Starks said. “I would love to have that but I’m grateful for whatever I can get. I’ll take whatever I’m offered.”
But even the Packers concede that Starks’ breakout performance doesn’t necessarily mean they have solved their season-long running game problems.
“I think if we’re being honest, last week was a little bit of an anomaly, if you’re comparing it to the last seven or eight weeks,” Aaron Rodgers said. “Often my own rushing stats have bumped up the average. Our feature back has been averaging in the threes, usually, and we might end up with 33 carries for 120 yards. It was just a matter of the stuff we were calling was working. We blocked better and James was decisive.”
After losing running back Ryan Grant to an ankle injury in Week 1, the Packers spent most of this season struggling to run the ball and leaned heavily on Rodgers and his receivers.
The Packers’ running game hit a low point in their Nov. 28 loss at Atlanta. In addition to throwing for 344 yards, Rodgers was the Packers’ leading rusher with 51 yards. Running back Brandon Jackson — a second-round pick in 2007 who was expected to carry the load after Grant’s injury — chipped in a mere 26 yards rushing in that game.
And while Rodgers is proud of his underrated athletic ability, it would be just fine with him if he never led the Packers in rushing again.
Could Starks be the difference for the Packers this time around?
“Well, we’ll see about that,” Rodgers said. “Last time, I was the leading rusher. Hopefully that’s not the case again. But you’ve got to give credit to James and the way he prepared last week. He was the hot guy and he got the ball. Every week, you never know who’s going to get the majority of the carries. I’m just hopeful it’s not going to be me this week.”
Even if Starks can’t duplicate last week’s performance, his potential to do so could be enough to keep the Falcons’ defense from loading up to stop Rodgers and set up the Packers’ play-action passing game.
“It’s huge,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “Now they’re good all around. Me, personally, I don’t go off one game. We’ll continue to do our game plan and just do what we’ve been executing. But he’s a great rookie. He carried the load the last game. I’m sure he’s going to show up this game with the momentum he had last game.”
Starks missed his entire senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury, then began this season on the physically unable to perform list because of a hamstring injury. He had a strong debut, rushing for 73 yards in a win over San Francisco Dec. 5, but didn’t do much the following week and sat out back-to-back games after coaches became concerned with his practice habits.
Rodgers said Starks got the message.
“I don’t know if you’re going to get 123 yards every week out of him. I don’t even know if he’s going to be the hot back this week,” Rodgers said. “But we expect him to prepare to play well and practice the way he expects to play. That’s the reason he got the opportunity, because his practice habits have improved. Coach says it, I’ve said it before, you need to show us in practice what you can do in order for us to have confidence you can do it in a game. That goes for James and any other player on our offense.”