GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers knows how good James Starks can be. The Green Bay Packers quarterback knew it before Starks’ unexpected emergence late last season, having predicted not long after seeing the rookie running back for the first time in organized team activity practices in spring 2010.
That’s why Rodgers could be seen during the Packers’ 24-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Friday night calmly but somewhat sternly lecturing Starks on the Lucas Oil Stadium sideline about his responsibilities as the team’s third-down back – a role which coach Mike McCarthy clearly wanted to see Starks in for an extended period.
“He did some good things last year for us; he just needs to get to the point where he totally understands the protection schemes and his role in that,” Rodgers explained after the game. “I think he’s getting really close. He’s an exciting guy when you get him the ball. Just a couple times we weren’t quite on the same page. It just takes reps and understanding the timing for both of us – me understanding when he’s going to get out (as a receiver), and him understanding when I need to deal the ball.”
The play that prompted the conversation came with 8 minutes left in the first half, after the Packers’ first failed no-huddle series of the preseason. After scoring 24 points on their first four no-huddle possessions – including a touchdown and a field goal on Friday night – Rodgers faced third-and-11 from his own 28-yard line, with three receivers (James Jones split wide right, Donald Driver in the right slot and Jordy Nelson split wide left), one tight end (Jermichael Finley, in a three-point stance next to right tackle Bryan Bulaga) and Starks, who came in on third down after Ryan Grant played on first and second down.
With 8 seconds left on the play clock, Rodgers, who was in the shotgun, shifted Starks from his right to his left, behind left tackle Chad Clifton. The protection adjustment appeared to call for Starks to give Clifton outside help, and when Starks saw Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney put a spin move to the inside on Clifton, he should have released to give Rodgers a safety valve. As Rodgers cocked his arm to dump the ball off to Starks, Freeney came off Clifton for the 8-yard sack, forcing a punt. As Rodgers got up, Starks was next to him, and the quarterback could be seen gesturing with his left arm.
Shortly thereafter, Rodgers was sidled up to Starks on the sideline to discuss the play further.
“He was just telling me, ‘Try to get out a little sooner,’” Starks said of the conversation. “If you see that the blitz is coming inside or there’s nobody to block, just try to get out on my route, just to help him out.”
Asked about what happened on the play, Rodgers – who almost always knows exactly what happened on any given play – demurred.
“I’m going to have to look at the film on that one,” Rodgers said. “I can’t really recall that one.”
After the Colts pulled within 10-7 on a 57-yard touchdown from Curtis Painter to Reggie Wayne, the Packers’ no-huddle got in gear again, driving for a 20-yard Rodgers-to-Chastin West touchdown that was wiped out by a Clifton holding penalty.
On an ensuing third-and-14 play, Rodgers was in the shotgun and again with three receivers (Driver, Jones, Nelson), a tight end (Andrew Quarless) and Starks, lined up to Rodgers’ right. This time, Starks mirrored Colts linebacker Pat Angerer, who did not blitz, while right guard Josh Sitton was beaten by defensive tackle Tommie Harris for another sack. The Packers had to settle for a 41-yard Mason Crosby field-goal attempt, which sailed wide right.
The Packers would like nothing better than to have Starks earn the third-down job vacated by Brandon Jackson, who left as a free agent, signing a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cleveland Browns. As Starks showed on a pair of screen plays – one for 11 yards, one for 15 – on the drive that ended in the missed field goal, he is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. (He finished with five catches for 38 yards Friday night.)
But Starks must improve his mental recognition and physical blocking on blitz pickups to fill that role, something that Jackson mastered before his departure.
Jackson suffered a toe injury in the Browns’ second preseason game and could be out for six weeks or more, while the Packers hope to find his replacement in less time than that. Fullback John Kuhn remains an option, as does Grant.
“I never downplayed how difficult that job is. When I first came here I was the third-down back,” Grant said. “Brandon was great at it. Aaron does a great job of putting us in the best position, and Brandon did a phenomenal job.
“I’ve done it before. You have to be able to adjust as a running back. I think we prepare everyone to be able to do it. We may emphasize more people here and there, but at some point in time, we’re all going to be third down.”
Starks acknowledged that third down is an area where he needs to improve, although he said it’s not the only one. He also said he appreciated the way Rodgers spoke to him on the sideline.
“He does a great job. He doesn’t get down on you, make you feel bad about doing something wrong. All he tries to do is make corrections and try to make you feel comfortable so you’re still productive,” Starks said. “He comes up to you with respect, and you respect him.
“I try to be better in all aspects of my game, running and blocking. Each day is a learning experience for me. I try to take it for what it is.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.