With its running game under fire and under producing, the Green Bay Packers went back to an old formula at the running back position during Sunday's 31-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Instead of giving second-year back Alex Green the majority of the carries—as was the case the last three weeks—or doing the same with James Starks, who is back to 100 percent after a toe injury, the Packers split the carries in a platoon capacity, with both Green and Starks receiving touches depending on the situation.
The results were the best the Packers have seen running the football in three years.
Starks carried 17 times for 61 yards, Green got 11 for 53 and the Packers rushed for the most yards Sunday (176) since an Oct. 2009 win over the Cleveland Browns that saw Green Bay rack up 202 on the ground.
It's safe to say the platoon, ride-the-hot-hand scenario at running back is back for the Packers.
“We went two tandem backs with James Starks and Alex Green and played them more by situation just to try to make sure we were able to get those guys prepared during the week for today’s game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said post-game. “That’s the way you want to run the ball."
Situation is the operative word from McCarthy.
For three straight weeks, McCarthy and the Packers gave Green the lion's share of carries. No matter the down-and-distance or tempo of the game, Green received over 90 percent of the touches. The results, however, were below average by any measure of rushing effectiveness.
Over 64 carries, including at least 20 in each of the three games, Green produced just 154 yards—good for an average of just 2.41 yards per carry. Coming into Week 9, Green had fallen all the way to fifth-worst among qualified running backs (6.5 carries or more per game played) in the NFL in rushing average.
In no way were the problems solely Green's fault, but it became strikingly obvious that a different approach to the running game was needed.
A change in the way he used his backs was the magic button McCarthy pushed Sunday.
Starks, a more patient, laterally explosive back than Green, was given the majority of early-down carries in base formations. And working behind an offensive line that created more cut-back opportunities in the zone running game, Starks thrived.
His ability to patiently push the edge, although much less refined, looked similar to the know-how Cedric Benson gave the Packers running game earlier this season.
Starks' final numbers (17 carries, 61 yards) didn't jump off the page, but there were very few negative runs and the one- and two-yard runs seen the last three weeks turned into four- and five-yard pickups Sunday.
"We had a game plan. Alex was doing his thing, I was doing my thing on certain plays," Starks said. "We stuck to it."
The Packers also sprinkled in Randall Cobb to the rushing mix, giving the versatile receiver three carries for 29 yards.
But when McCarthy needed to speed up the tempo on offense or the Packers got into obvious passing downs, it was Green's turn in the backfield platoon.
Green responded to the specialized role immediately, bursting through an arm tackle off left guard during his first series for a 21-yard gain. The run came with the Packers pushing the tempo in the no-huddle offense and Green lined up next to Aaron Rodgers in the shotgun.
And instead of continually slamming Green's head against a cement wall inside, McCarthy instead gave his young back opportunities to get to the edge, where he's a better runner.
In fact, the only time Green got carries in the base offense (or not in the shotgun, although that could be argued as a base offense for the Packers) was for a stretch after Starks fumbled in the second quarter.
McCarthy used Green exclusively in the passing game, especially after Starks mostly whiffed on his first attempt at pass protection on the first series. Green caught two passes for 25 yards, including a tricky backside screen that caught the Cardinals off guard in the first half. Another screen to Green in the first quarter was perfectly timed against a blitz and could have went for a touchdown had Rodgers' throw been on target. Starks had zero receiving targets.
On Tom Crabtree's 72-yard touchdown, the Packers also used playaction with Green in the shotgun to help free up the tight end for the easy catch-and-run score.
Post game, Green embraced splitting time with Starks.
"It's a great thing for us. Keeps defenses unbalanced," Green said. "We have two different run styles...it's always great to have different backs in the backfield giving the defense different looks."
While Sunday marked the first time two running backs received 10 or more carries this season, the Packers are no stranger to the platoon system at running back. In fact, the system worked for long stretches during the 2011 season.
Starks and veteran Ryan Grant nearly split touches right down the middle a year ago, as Starks carried 133 times for 578 yards (4.3 yards/carry) and Grant received 134 for 559 (4.2). The Packers were far from a dominant running team—they finished 27th in total yards in 2011— but there was more efficiency overall and defenses at least gave a semblance of respect to the threat of a run.
That formula looks like it will make a lasting return while the Packers wait for Cedric Benson (Lisfranc injury) to return from the designated to return IR list. Benson is eligible to return for the last four weeks of the season, assuming his foot has healed by then.
The Packers can tread water in the running game with this combination of Starks and Green.
As long as McCarthy continues picking the right spots for his vastly different running backs, as he did Sunday in the team's best rushing production in three years, a platoon looks like the answer once again for the Packers running game.
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