Lacy, Starks rejoin forces in Packers' backfield

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, October 25, 2013

GREEN BAY--Eddie Lacy, meet James Starks. James Starks, meet Eddie Lacy.

It almost seems as if that kind of introduction is necessary between the two Green Bay Packers running backs.

Despite being members of the Green Bay Packers, the two have barely passed each other in the hall when it comes to teaming up for rushing yards.

The two have combined for 539 of the Packers' 808 rushing yards, but because of injuries to both they have only contributed to the same game's rushing total once. And that came when Lacy was knocked out of the game with a concussion on his first carry against Washington.

Starks went on a 1-game tear until spraining his knee just before halftime against Cincinnati and sitting out the last three games. Lacy sat out the Bengals came because of the concussion, but he returned the following week and has 301 yards and a touchdown in the three games since.

On Sunday night at the Metrodome, Lacy and Starks are expected to be together for the Packers' meet-up with the Minnesota Vikings. If everything goes right the rest of the week, Starks will be active and ready for action.

“(He's looked) good,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “I wish I had him back last week because he came out and there's no hesitance in his cuts or his steps. He put his foot in the ground.

“You couldn't tell which one he had the knee injury to, so I'm excited to see James back in action.”

Van Pelt made it clear that Lacy is the starter and the main man in the running game, but he hasn't forgotten about Starks rushing 20 times for 132 yards and a touchdown against Washington and 14 times for 55 yards against the Bengals.

And so Lacy will get the majority of plays, but Starks and rookie Johnathan Franklin will spell him when the time is right. Usually, it has to be for an entire series because the offense doesn't make substitutions when running the no-huddle offense, which is most of the time.

“Eddie is running the ball well right now,” Van Pelt said. “I'm just trying to take some of the load off of Eddie and split up the remaining reps between Johnathan and James, because James and Johnathan still bring some unique abilities to the run game.

“It's a good problem. It's been awhile. I like having three backs up dressed.”

Offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Starks would be eased into action and wouldn't be asked to carry the ball 20 times given his lengthy absence. Were the Packers not running so much no-huddle, Starks could come in on third downs.

The Packers did that some last year because they favored fullback John Kuhn over Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and Starks. Lacy, however, has been told that he won't play in the no-huddle if he can't do all the things that are asked of a third-down back, most notably protect the quarterback.

“He's obviously a very talented runner,” Clements said. “He made some improvements in pass protection this past game over the previous game. He's getting better, becoming more of an all-around back.”

In an ideal world, Van Pelt would like to see Lacy touch the ball 15 to 18 times a game. In the last three, he has averaged 25. It hasn't been a problem given he only had 16 touches in the first three games, but the season is long and Van Pelt wants him to be strong at the finish.

Rookies are typically strong through the first half of the season, but they tend to hit a wall sometime after Week 8 because they've played in 12 games, the most they would play in a college season. Lacy hasn't showed any symptoms of hitting it, but Van Pelt is being cautious.

“I think he can carry 30 times any day, but I'm not going to do that,” he said. “I'm talking about November, December, January and still feeling fresh and healthy. That's where reps come in. I think he can do it, but there's no need to do it.”

Even if Starks only sees a little bit of action Sunday, down the road he could hit the stride he did in Washington, which would force Van Pelt to decide whether to go with the hot hand or bring Lacy back. It's clear the Packers are committed to Lacy being their back, so chances are it would be the latter, but it might depend on the opponent.

One advantage they do have is that Lacy and Starks excel at the same thing as runners. They both are patient as they seek out a hole to run into and both can plant and charge through it very quickly. Their similar strengths make it harder for the defense to figure out what play is coming based on the back .

The offensive line has had success blocking for both and doesn't adjust to whether it's Lacy or Starks. Unless they peek in the huddle, they usually don't know who's carrying the ball until the play is over.

“It is like that,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “All those guys have to be able to run all the plays. It makes no difference to us who is in the game. We block it the same way.”

Van Pelt said the only time they might notice the difference is when the smaller, quicker Franklin is in the game.

“We don't try to slot them,” he said. “There are some plays that may fit Johnathan more than James and Eddie, maybe we lean toward them some. But James and Eddie are the same guy.”

Given the hits the passing offense has taken with injuries to receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley, this might be a good time to lather up all three backs. Nothing slows a pair of high-effort pass rushers like Jared Allen and Brian Robison like a bunch of running plays aimed right at them.

This will be Lacy's first trip to the Metrodome, Starks was active for only one game there, in 2011, and carried 13 times for 75 yards in a 33-27 victory.

They will try to own the place—together.

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