Starks provides spark for Packers
In doing so, the Packers unveiled a new player who gave their struggling running game a much-needed lift.
James Starks, a rookie playing for the first time in nearly two years, had 18 carries for 73 yards in Green Bay’s 34-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field.
“That’s a good running back,” Packers receiver Donald Driver said. “He showed what he can do. I just want to see more of it.”
Coach Mike McCarthy planned to ease Starks into his pro debut, saying the goal was to give him eight to 10 carries.
“I wanted to see how he would handle it,” McCarthy said. “I thought he improved as the game went on.”
So much that Starks had the most rushing attempts by a Packer since Brandon Jackson also had 18 carries after he took over for an injured Ryan Grant in the Sept. 12 season-opening win at Philadelphia.
Starks said he had no clue before the game that he would wind up carrying most of the load in a backup role to Jackson, who had only four carries for 13 yards Sunday.
“I was just keeping my eyes open,” Starks said. “Whatever was asked of me, I was ready for it. I prepared well in practice. I was just ready for the opportunity.
“I felt very comfortable,” he added.
Starks had the most rushing yards by a Packers rookie running back in his first game since Ralph Earhart gained 78 yards in Green Bay’s season-opening win at the Boston Yanks on Sept. 17, 1948.
Starks’ impressive debut led the Packers to a rushing output of 136 yards. They came into the game averaging 98.4 yards, ranking 23rd in the league.
“I thought we ran the ball really well,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “We’re still not where we want to be, but we’ve got a new kid on the block that’s trying to step up and give us that power back. The offensive line did an outstanding job opening holes for him, and he did a great job hitting it.”
Starks was quick to give credit to his blockers for making his long-awaited first NFL game one to remember.
He hadn’t played since the end of his junior year of college at Buffalo in the International Bowl on Jan. 3, 2009.
Starks then missed his entire senior season in 2009 after having surgery for a torn labrum.
The Packers still thought highly of Starks, the all-time rushing leader at Buffalo with 3,140 yards, to take him in the sixth round of this year’s draft.
Starks, though, strained a hamstring in Green Bay’s spring workouts, aggravated the injury before the start of training camp and spent the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform list.
The Packers added him to the 53-man roster during their bye week in early November but waited until Sunday to activate him.
“It was a long time, but I was anxious just to get out there and play with my teammates, play with A-Rod (quarterback Aaron Rodgers),” Starks said. “Just the fans here at Lambeau, to finally get to run out there, it was an exciting moment for me. I just took it all in. I was like an excited little kid out there.”
Greg Jennings had another big game with six catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a 57-yard scoring reception in a familiar situation.
A hard count from Rodgers drew blitzing 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks offside.
The play continued, and Rodgers threw a deep pass to Jennings, who got behind cornerback Shawntae Spencer to make the catch and glided into the end zone.
Jennings claimed no play was called in the huddle, as Rodgers looked to draw the defense across the line of scrimmage before the football was snapped on the third-and-1 play.
“They jumped offsides,” Jennings said. “We practice when the defense jumps offsides, take ‘em deep and we’re going to take a shot because it’s a free (play). Whatever happens, hopefully it’s good. Typically, it works out good for us. We get a lot of plays like that.”
The touchdown put the Packers ahead to stay 7-6 in the second quarter after the offense struggled in its first three possessions.
The Packers scored points in six of their next seven possessions, including four touchdowns. Driver had one of those on an incredible 61-yard catch-and-run play early in the second half.
It was Driver’s first touchdown catch since Week 4.
Jennings has picked up the slack among the receivers with 43 catches for 761 yards and eight touchdowns in the last seven games. He has four 100-yard receiving games in that stretch.
Jennings has 11 touchdown catches this season, one short of his career high in 2007.
“He’s put an emphasis in trying to look my way, give me the ball, give me more opportunities to make plays for him,” Jennings said of Rodgers.
Off the mark
Green Bay’s rough start included a 29-yard field-goal attempt by Mason Crosby that hit the left upright and bounced back onto the field in its first possession.
“I watched it just kind of dip and turn left,” Crosby said. “That one was very disappointing. You don’t ever want to see those inside 30 yards go off.”
Crosby redeemed himself later in the game with field goals of 43 and 24 yards.
He has made just 17 of 23 field goals this season for a percentage of 73.9, the worst in his four-year career.