NFC North: James Starks

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A year ago, Eddie Lacy hobbled into the playoffs. This year, he's barreling people over on his way in.

[+] EnlargeLacy
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsEddie Lacy averaged 5.0 yards per carry and had 711 rushing yards in the Packers' final eight games.
 The biggest difference in the Green Bay Packers as they head into these playoffs might be their second-year running back.

"I'm not nearly as beat up this year as I was last year overall," Lacy said in a recent interview.

Lacy still managed 81 yards rushing in the Packers' wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but it was a laborious 81 yards. He carried 21 times on a bum right ankle he injured in Week 13, then reinjured two weeks later. It was so severe that Lacy could not return in the second half of the Dec. 22 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the two games that followed -- the regular-season finale at the Chicago Bears and the playoff game -- Lacy averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.

When asked whether he was over the ankle injury in time for last year's playoff game, Lacy said: "Nah, it was still there."

"Eddie was in a [walking] boot all week and then played on Sundays this time last year," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "So he feels better. He's a better football player in my opinion this year than last year. I think he's a complete third-down player. In fact, I know he is. So I think he's definitely in a better place this year than he was last year."

Although his workload was reduced slightly -- he carried 38 fewer times this season -- he put up nearly the same yardage total (1,139) as he did as a rookie last year (1,178). His yards-per-carry average increased to 4.6 this season from 4.1 last year.

So why is he healthier heading into Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys? He has quarterback Aaron Rodgers to thank for that.

"Mainly because I don't face stacked boxes like I did last year," Lacy said. "So I don't have to run into a whole bunch of people as soon as I get the ball."

Last season, defenses ganged up on Lacy while Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of his broken collarbone. Of Lacy's 284 carries last year, 140 (or 49.3 percent) came against defenses that put seven or more defenders in the box, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This season, that percentage dropped to 37.8 percent.

The Packers finished 11th in rushing offense (119.8 yards per game), while Lacy's yardage total was seventh individually.

"The offensive line is playing great; that helps," Rodgers said. "You have to be able to run the ball. We've got a big bruiser at running back who rarely goes down on the first hit, and a great changeup back in James Starks."

And Lacy finished strong. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 711 yards in the final eight games, which ranked fifth in the league during that stretch. His first-half numbers were 4.1 yards per carry and 428 yards rushing (17th in the league).

"It seems like he's running harder as the season gets later," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "He's just playing great right now. To see the way he's running the football and how he's breaking tackles, once he gets up to the second level and doing his thing, it's been fun to watch."

The running game might be even more important in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field if Rodgers remains gimpy because of his strained left calf.

Although the Cowboys finished eighth in rushing defense this season, they may have bad memories of Lacy. They led the Packers 26-3 at halftime of last year’s game at AT&T Stadium only to see Lacy rip off a 60-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, setting up a touchdown that fueled the comeback in the Packers' 37-36 victory.

"That was huge; it might have been the key play of the game, to be honest with you," Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said. "It was right out of the half. It gave us that momentum. It allowed us to get down there and score right away. The big thing is momentum, people talk all the time about what momentum can do for a team, and that was huge for us."
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Mike McCarthy never spends any time comparing or ranking Aaron Rodgers' great performances. The list would be too long, the task too time consuming.

He doesn't spend much time contemplating Rodgers' duds, either, not that there are many of them for the Green Bay Packers quarterback.

This one, Sunday's 21-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where no Packers' team has ever won, might be at the top of the dud list.

Just don't ask McCarthy.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Bill WippertEverything that could go wrong pretty much did for Aaron Rodgers in Buffalo on Sunday.
"I couldn't tell you," McCarthy said Sunday when asked whether it was Rodgers' worst game.

Then let's allow the stat sheet to decide.

His campaign for a second MVP award won't be trumpeting this: He set career records for his most incompletions (25) and lowest passer rating (34.3). He finished 17-of-42 passing for 185 yards and didn't have a touchdown pass. It was just the ninth time in 101 starts that he failed to throw a touchdown pass. Plus, he threw a pair of interceptions.

But McCarthy was right about one thing.

"I don't think this is all about Aaron's performance," he said.

Just don't blame the defense for this one. Shawn Slocum's special-teams unit gave up the only touchdown on a 75-yard first-quarter punt return by Marcus Thigpen and had a field goal blocked.

It was apparent early that Rodgers was either off the mark or out of sync -- or perhaps both -- with his receivers. He threw back-shoulder fades when Davante Adams and Randall Cobb ran go routes. Jordy Nelson ran a crossing pattern, and Rodgers missed behind him.

It not only was stunning to see Rodgers throw an interception in the third quarter because he was late and behind with a deep out for Cobb -- mistakes he rarely makes -- but it was equally shocking that on the other side of the field, Nelson was wide open and waving his arm to try to get his quarterback's attention, and Rodgers missed him.

The Bills, with their fifth-ranked pass defense and their physical corners, caused their share of disruption. But dropped passes -- oh, the dropped passes -- can't be blamed on that. Or on Rodgers.

Seven times, passes went off the hands of Rodgers' intended targets. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, no team has dropped that many in a game since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had eight in a 2008 game against the Carolina Panthers. Just about everyone was culpable -- Adams, Cobb, Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers and James Starks all had drops, and you could've perhaps charged Cobb with a second. Eddie Lacy was the only Packers player with a target who didn't drop a pass.

The worst one looked like it could have gone for a 94-yard touchdown in the third quarter that would have given the Packers a 17-16 lead. Nelson had three steps on cornerback Corey Graham and Rodgers led him in stride. It clanked off his hands.

"Missed opportunities," Nelson lamented. "We had all sorts of chances and just didn't make them, for whatever reason. Obviously, my drop could have won the game for us. We've got to make those no matter how easy or hard they are."

That very same drive ended with Rodgers' second interception, this one on Boykin's drop. Unheralded Bills cornerback Bacarri Rambo had both of the picks. Four of Rodgers' five interceptions this season are on balls that bounced off his receivers' hands.

The takeaway from it all might be this: The Packers aren't the same team away from Lambeau Field, where they haven't lost this season. They need a win Sunday at Tampa Bay just to salvage a 4-4 road record this season.

This loss might have cost the Packers (10-4) home-field advantage or even a home game at all in the playoffs. They began the day as the No. 2 seed and by the time their plane landed in Green Bay on Sunday evening, they were clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC.

"I felt like this loss was definitely on us," right guard T.J. Lang said, speaking for the offense.

Cobb concurred.

"This loss is on us," Cobb said.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The issue wasn't necessarily whether Eddie Lacy would be active -- that seemed like a safe bet after what coach Mike McCarthy said Friday -- but rather how effective the banged-up Green Bay Packers running back can be Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

Lacy was indeed declared active. The Packers announced no starting lineup changes, which means they're planning to go with Lacy from the start after he was limited all week in practice because of the hip injury he sustained in the fourth quarter of Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons. Lacy could not finish that game.

Still, it might not be reasonable to expect Lacy to play the workhorse role against the Bills. And he might not need to after the performance James Starks put together against the Falcons. Starks matched his career-long run of 41 yards and finished with a season-high 75 yards on 10 carries.

"We'll see how the game goes, but I feel very comfortable going with Eddie and James," McCarthy said Friday.

Safety Chris Banjo, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday after linebacker Jamari Lattimore was placed on injured reserve because of an ankle injury, also is active Sunday. Banjo played in all 16 games last season, mostly on special teams.

The only injured Packers player on the inactive list was cornerback Davon House (shoulder). The rest were healthy scratches.

Here's the full inactive list for the Packers:
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Julius Peppers strolled through the Best Buy store in suburban Ashwaubenon, located just two miles down Oneida Street from Lambeau Field, looking for a new case for his iPhone this week.

No one stopped him for an autograph or asked to take a selfie with him.

[+] EnlargeJerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Bills fans
Bill Wippert/Associated PressGreen Bay and Buffalo are similar in many ways, including player-fan celebrations.
He's not even sure if anyone gawked.

Such is life for a Green Bay Packers' player in the NFL's smallest city.

"These people around here are used to having Brett Favre here, Reggie White here," Peppers said. "They’ve got A-Rod [Aaron Rodgers] in their town, so it's not like it's anything special to see a high-profile football player out. I think people around here handle it pretty good. I don't get bothered at all really."

Peppers imagines it's much the same in Buffalo, New York, the NFL's second-smallest outpost. That makes this week's game between the Packers and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium different from a normal NFL Sunday.

No, these aren't the one-stoplight, cow towns they're often made out to be -- Green Bay is home to 104,779 in the city proper and Buffalo has 258,959, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures -- but they're not Chicago or even Charlotte, North Carolina, where Peppers split his first 12 NFL seasons. In Northeast Wisconsin and Western New York, the NFL is either the only game in town or the biggest one.

"It's kind of similar to Green Bay's fanbase," Peppers said. "Small town. Those guys love their Bills. It's going to be one of those atmospheres that's going to be a challenge as well to go into an environment like that and perform."

Given their NFC-AFC affiliations, the Packers and Bills play just once every four years and go eight years between visits to each other's city. Only three players -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker A.J. Hawk and special teamer Jarrett Bush -- were with the Packers the last time they played at Buffalo in 2006, and Rodgers was still two years away from becoming the starter.

That's why on Wednesday, during his first address to the team this week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked his players through what to expect on Sunday in Buffalo.

"Talked about the small town, similar characteristics to Green Bay, the passion of their fanbase and really the type of environment that we're getting ready to go into," McCarthy said of his speech to the team. "It's an older stadium, small locker room. It's old-school NFL football. It's something I've always appreciated playing there in the past, and once again you have to make sure your team is ready for that."

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsPackers running back James Starks was raised in Western New York and went to the University at Buffalo, making Sunday a homecoming for him.
Few know how similar the NFL life can be in Green Bay and Buffalo better than Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt, who joined McCarthy's coaching staff in 2012, played all nine of his NFL seasons in Buffalo, where he was mostly a backup from 1995 to 2003 but started 11 games.

"Not just the similarities of the organizations, but the city," Van Pelt said. "It's a safe place. It's a good place to raise a family. The values and everything are good there. It reminds me of a Midwest town with the blue-collar workmanship. A lot of those are very similar here. When people ask me how's Green Bay? I'm like, 'Well, it's a little bit smaller than Buffalo but very similar.'"

Except perhaps for the fans.

Van Pelt called Bills' supporters "some of the best fans I've been around” in part because "they understand they can get loud when they need to. Quarterback starts to audible, you'll hear the crowd get higher and higher."

"But maybe a little rougher than say, the Green Bay crowd," Van Pelt added. "I remember coming here as a player and the fans telling you on the way out, 'Good job. Good luck the rest of the year.' You may not get that in Buffalo."

Independent of Van Pelt, Packers running back James Starks made a similar point. Starks grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, went to college at Buffalo and as a kid attended Thurman Thomas' football camps in Orchard Park, New York, where the Bills' stadium is located.

"They're very similar," said Starks, who has tickets for 20 relatives attending Sunday's game. "Real small. The football organizations bring in a lot to the community. Loyal fans. I think Green Bay's are a little more respectful and stuff. Their fans are a little more, I don't know ..."

Starks, wearing a Brooklyn Nets hat and a New York hoodie, didn't finish his thought on Friday afternoon. It was time to go home, first to his Green Bay locale and then to his real home this weekend.

"There’s no place like home," McCarthy said. "Obviously, everybody enjoys going back to their hometown, and I know this is special for James and his family. James is always smiling; his smile is bigger this week."

Concern not high over Eddie Lacy's hip

December, 9, 2014
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If the Green Bay Packers want to keep riding out this 1-2 punch at running back on Sunday at the Buffalo Bills, there should not be anything that would prevent them from doing so.

That's because the Packers don't anticipate Eddie Lacy will have any trouble playing this week even though he could not finish Monday night's win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers shut down Lacy late in the fourth quarter because of a hip bruise.

After the game, Lacy said he tried to go back in, but Dr. Pat McKenzie held him out.

"I don't have high concern based off the information talking with Doc McKenzie last night," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. "Coming off a Monday night game, tomorrow will be a lot like a Tuesday. We'll see how these guys go through their examinations."

Lacy accounted for 106 yards of total offense (73 rushing on 12 carries plus five catches for 33 yards) and scored a touchdown rushing and receiving before giving way to James Starks, who helped seal the game with a 41-yard run with 1:37 remaining.

Even before Lacy dropped out, the Packers were splitting the workload. That was a change in philosophy from the previous two games, when Lacy combined for 46 carries against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, while Starks totaled just two in those two games.

"I just love the way James responds with his opportunities," McCarthy said. "Obviously, Eddie was the feature back two weeks ago, and we went into this with a 1-2 punch mentality and James was excellent. James Starks has played a lot of excellent football for us over the years, and I thought last night was one of his best nights."

Running backs power Packers' offense

December, 9, 2014
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- So now we know what happens when a team tries to defend the Green Bay Packers with both safeties deep and barely any blitzes.

That was the Atlanta Falcons' method on Monday night at Lambeau Field, and Aaron Rodgers, like he has done against virtually all defensive approaches this season, picked that apart, too.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsEddie Lacy had 73 of the Packers' 179 rushing yards in a win against Atlanta on Monday night.
For much of the Packers' 43-37 victory, Rodgers used an array of checkdowns to his running backs and underneath throws to his tight ends and receivers.

It was no coincidence that running backs Eddie Lacy (five catches for 33 yards), James Starks (two catches for 26 yards) and John Kuhn (one catch for 6 yards) were heavily involved in the passing game. And so was tight end Andrew Quarless, who caught three passes for 52 yards.

"We talked about before the game, and [QBs coach] Alex [Van Pelt] reminded me just to go through the progressions, but look to get it to the checkdowns," said Rodgers, who completed 24-of-36 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. "I don't know how many catches Eddie finished with and James and John but if you add all those up, I would expect it to be near 10, which is probably more than we've had in a game all season.

"That was just the way they were playing."

Rodgers almost never faced the blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he was 23-of-31 for 317 yards and three touchdowns when the Falcons rushed four or fewer defenders. On the rare times when they blitzed, Rodgers was just 1-for-5 for 10 yards.

And then there was the damage that Lacy and Starks did in their usual domain, the running game. Together, they rushed for 148 yards. Individually, Lacy had 13 carries for 73 yards before a hip injury prevented him from finishing the game, and Starks carried 10 times for 75 yards. Both scored on touchdown runs, and Lacy added a touchdown catch.

As a team, the Packers rushed for a season-high 179 yards.

"We're definitely doing good as far as running and passing the ball, depending on how the defense plays us," Lacy said. "It's something we're going to have to continue to do and continue to get better on throughout the rest of the season."

As he almost always does, Rodgers still managed to take a shot -- and connect on it -- down the field to Nelson. On a play-action shot play in the fourth quarter, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 60-yard touchdown. It was Nelson's seventh touchdown catch of 40-plus yards this season, which tied a team record.

"It was executed perfectly, I think," said Nelson, who caught eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. "Aaron put up a great ball on it I think. We got the perfect coverage that we wanted. We were able to connect and make a big play. It's fun to make those. It's something we've connected on quite a bit, and it's always good to get them."

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was supposed to be a building block, that defensive stand the Green Bay Packers made at Lambeau Field only eight days earlier against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to preserve their best win of the season. Surely, it was going to be what helped defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit flourish down the stretch.

"And now, it's doomsday," linebacker Clay Matthews said, anticipating the line of questions that was coming after the Packers' 43-37 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. "Write it. Put it in there so we have something to talk about, so that way we can overcome it and be like, 'I told you so.' Write it."

This story wrote itself.

Just when the Packers thought -- or at least hoped -- their defense had moved past the kind of slapdash performances that have come back to bite them in postseasons past, in walked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones.

Yes, the Packers got another stellar performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdowns without an interception in his 100th career start, and a strong, two-headed rushing attack from Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who combined to help the Packers to a season-best 179 yards rushing. And at 10-3, they kept their lead in the NFC North and remained tied for the best record in the NFC.

But it was no thanks to a defense that allowed Ryan to throw for 375 yards, most of them to Jones, who caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown despite being unable to finish the game because of a hip injury.

Never before had the Packers allowed a receiver to pile up that many yards against them. Jones bettered Calvin Johnson's 244-yard performance against the Packers in the regular-season finale of 2011. Guess who comes back to Green Bay in three weeks for another Week 17 game? Johnson and the Detroit Lions.

Between now and then, the Packers' defense best figure out what went wrong against the Falcons.

"Coming off the field, I think that it's definitely a bitter taste," said Packers safety Micah Hyde, who allowed one of Ryan's four touchdown passes. "We definitely don't want to finish like that, but at the same time, those good teams win ugly games. You get a win in the NFL, especially the 10th one, you've got to be happy about that."

Capers relied heavily on zone coverages, and Jones easily found the soft spots. Of his 259 yards, 212 came on throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I just think we did everything on the back end wrong," Hyde said. "We're going to have to watch film to know exactly what they were doing, but they were scheming our zones, scheming our man calls. They were just getting him the ball, and I don't think that we did anything right in the second half."

Jones opened the second half with a 79-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage, wiping out all the positive vibes the Packers had from their 31-7 halftime lead. The Packers knew then this was not going to be another one of those Lambeau Field blowouts.

"We've got to play the whole game," Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. "We can't play one half or three quarters or anything like that. We have to play the whole game out regardless of how big of a lead we have. We've got to finish games."

The defense did just that against the Patriots one game ago, when it sacked Brady on his final third-down play and handed the game over to Rodgers, who secured a victory that made the Packers the popular Super Bowl pick.

And yet now, there are once again questions about whether the Packers have a championship defense to go along with their MVP-caliber quarterback and his array of offensive playmakers.

"We made Matt Ryan look like Matty Ice again out there," Matthews said. "He was fantastic tonight. More power to him, but a lot of that was our doing. We've got to get better, and we will."

Ten wins not enough for Packers

December, 9, 2014
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Green Bay Packers' 43-37 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night at Lambeau Field:

Talking in tens: Packers coach Mike McCarthy usually says you can't start talking about the playoffs until you get to 10 wins. Well, the Packers (10-3) are there and are tied for the best record in the NFC, but this year ten wins might not be enough to get them in the playoffs. "Obviously, with the way things are sorting out in the NFC, 11 wins would probably be more of a benchmark this year," McCarthy said. Six NFC teams already have at least nine victories, and that does not include anyone from the NFC South, which will send one team to the postseason perhaps with a losing record. "We've said around here, you can't really talk about the playoffs until 10 wins, so now that stuff starts to come together," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "If you look at the NFC, you might have to win 11 to guarantee a spot, maybe 12 depending on how everybody plays."

Lacy ailing: James Starks did the job at the end, helping the Packers run out the clock, but why wasn't Eddie Lacy in the game? It turned out Lacy sustained a hip bruise late in the game that prevented him from finishing. Lacy said he thought he would be OK despite the short turnaround to Sunday's game at Buffalo, but he couldn't go at the end against the Falcons. "I mean I tried, but no," Lacy said. Lacy and Starks combined for 148 yards rushing (Starks had 10 carries for 75 yards, while Lacy had 13 carries for 73 yards) and each scored a rushing touchdown. Lacy also caught a touchdown pass, but it was Starks who was there at the end. "He had a great game out there tonight," Lacy said of his backfield mate. "And we have to go out and continue to do this for the rest of the season."

Just win, baby: Although the mood in the locker room was a bit deflated, especially on the defensive side of the room after their inability to stop Falcons receiver Julio Jones (11 catches for 259 yards), veteran Julius Peppers insisted spirits were still high. "It's good; we won," Peppers said. "That's what we wanted to do -- get the win. So it's on to next weekend."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Ask Eddie Lacy about his home, and the Green Bay Packers running back can't tell you much -- except what his family has told him.

That will change next week, when he returns to New Orleans to start his bye week. And he'll spend it in the house his family longed for ever since theirs was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

His parents finally moved into that new house in August -- while Lacy was busy with training camp -- after living in a trailer for the better part of a decade since the disaster wiped out their home in Gretna, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.

"They sent me pictures," Lacy said this week. "They're excited to have their own house, their own back yard, pretty much everything is theirs. It's not a trailer. They've got a lot of room. It's crazy, but they're definitely more comfortable."

Lacy will see that soon enough.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy has seen his numbers drop in his sophomore season but could be in line for a big workload against the Saints.
First, he has business to take care of on the other side of the Mississippi, where the Packers play the Saints Sunday night at the Superdome.

In what can perhaps be described as a disappointing encore to his rookie season, Lacy is coming off his most efficient game of the season. Last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, he rushed for 63 yards on just 12 carries. His 5.3-yard average was his second best of the season, behind only his 105-yard performance on 13 carries two weeks earlier against the Minnesota Vikings.

Lacy was in full grind-it-out mode against the Panthers. Unlike the game against the Vikings, when he had a long run of 29 yards, he did not have a gain longer than 11 yards against Carolina. He also matched his season high with three catches. credited Lacy with nine broken tackles on rushes and receptions combined, although the Packers' coaching staff said their total was well into the teens.

Despite a reduced number of touches this season -- an average of 13.1 carries per game this season compared to 18.9 last season -- Lacy has four rushing touchdowns in his last four games. During most of that stretch, he has split snaps with James Starks. But with Starks battling an ankle injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday, Lacy could go back to being the workhorse back he was last season, when he led all NFL rookies with 1,178 rushing yards.

"You want to score, you want to get 100 yards, you know, you want to do everything that makes you look good," Lacy said. "But I just want to be able to contribute, and that's pass blocking, getting out on the check-down, the whole nine yards. I may not have 100 yards. I may not even get 60, but you know, the yards that I do have definitely will contribute and make sure we're in a great position to win the game, which is the ultimate goal."

So if Lacy's trip goes according to plan, he'll travel with the Packers to New Orleans on Saturday, have a productive game in a victory on Sunday night, fly back with the team to Green Bay early Monday morning and then turn around and head back to New Orleans on Monday night.

And he'll finally see that house.

"It's a great feeling, especially for me coming home," Lacy said. "I don't have to worry about coming home, staying in the trailer and sleeping on the sofa no more. I get to come home to a house, air conditioning, everything's working, [a] sofa, my own bed. It's just a homely feeling now."

Four key Packers sitting out practice

October, 22, 2014
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Maybe the Green Bay Packers’ bye is coming a week too late.

When they began preparations on Wednesday for the New Orleans Saints, their final game before their week off, they did so without four key players – cornerback Sam Shields, safety Morgan Burnett, defensive end Datone Jones and running game James Starks.

Neither Shields nor Jones played in last Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. Shields sustained a knee injury in the Oct. 12 game at Miami. Jones has missed the last two games because of an ankle injury.

Starks left Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury, while no injury was announced for Burnett during or after the game.

All four players were in attendance but did not take part during the portion that was open to reporters.

The full injury report will be available after practice.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With time to reflect, Aaron Rodgers may see this stretch of football -- one that has all sorts of historical milestones that we'll get too soon enough – as one of the finest of his career.

But late Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, who last week insisted the offense he directs still was not humming along as he would like, remained unwilling to concede that much has changed.

Who knows what it will take to get Rodgers to acquiesce, but apparently this kind of start to a game -- touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, punt, touchdown -- in Sunday's 38-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers apparently did not satisfy his criteria.

At least he was willing to give an inch or two this week.

"I think we're getting closer," Rodgers said.

Rodgers wants more yards (the Packers managed 363 on Sunday) and more opportunity (they ran just 56 offensive plays). But here's why it might be time for Rodgers to admit this offense is rolling: For the first time this season, it resembled days like in 2011, when Rodgers was in the midst of his MVP season and had a smorgasbord of options in the passing game.

In Sunday's dismantling of the Panthers, Rodgers' 19 completions were spread amongst nine different players, a season high. That's in contrast to three times this season, including last week's game at Miami, when Rodgers completed passes to just five different players.

In 2011, Rodgers had seven games in which he completed passes to at least nine different players. Last season, it happened once, and it came against the Philadelphia Eagles when Rodgers was a spectator because of his collarbone injury.

"Back in '11, I feel like we spread it around a little more," said Rodgers, who was 19-of-22 for 255 yards with three touchdowns on Sunday. "We've had a lot of targets for Jordy [Nelson] and Randall [Cobb] this year, so we've tried the last four games to find ways to move those guys around and get them positive matchups."

This wasn't just the Jordy Nelson show, although the NFL's receiving yardage leader entering the week still managed four catches for 80 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown (his fourth straight game with a score).

Five different Packers scored touchdowns, including rushing touchdowns by Eddie Lacy and James Starks (who combined for 99 yards on 19 carries). When Rodgers also can include Cobb (six catches for 121 yards and his eighth touchdown of the season) and Davante Adams (who had a 21-yard touchdown catch) plus completions to two different tight ends, it qualifies as offensive diversity.

"Everybody got involved," said Cobb, who has matched his career high for touchdown passes in just seven games. "We were able to move the ball really well. Just drive after drive, able to capitalize and put points on the board. At the end of the day, that's the kind of offense we want to be, continue to be. We ran the ball well, we passed the ball well. Everything was open for us."

Had Rodgers not sailed a ball over tight end Richard Rodgers' head in the end zone on his final throw of the game late in the third quarter, he would have finished with four touchdown passes and a passer rating of 157.6 (on a scale in which 158.3 is the max). Still, he finished with just two other incompletions, and a harsh grader might consider both of them drops. When he gave way to Matt Flynn in the fourth quarter, Rodgers' final rating of 154.5 was the second-best mark of his career.

For the fourth straight game (all wins for the 5-2 Packers) he threw at least three touchdowns without an interception. Only Tom Brady (in 2007) has done that in a season.

He ran his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 192, his career high and the second-best total in team history behind Bart Starr (294, 1964-65).

All of it is starting to feel like 2011, when Rodgers was on the best roll of his career.

"I'll say this about Aaron: Aaron is a much better today than he was in 2011," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "His responsibility level has increased a lot since then. So, what he does during the course of the week, during the course of the game, at the line of scrimmage, the communication between Alex Van Pelt and myself, he is, in my opinion, watching him grow throughout his career, he's clearly a better player."

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The crowd that surrounded Eddie Lacy at his locker late Thursday night had swelled considerably when someone pointed out the scene a few paces from where the Green Bay Packers running back held court.

There sat T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, the Packers' starting guards, alone at their lockers with nary a microphone, recorder or notebook-toting soul within talking distance after the Packers' 42-10 destruction of the Minnesota Vikings on a rainy night at Lambeau Field.

"I think that sucks," Lacy said. "I really think it sucks, man."

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
John Konstantaras/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy broke out for 105 yards on 13 carries, most of them coming between the tackles.
Like any appreciative running back would, Lacy wanted Lang, Sitton and the rest of the blocking unit to receive credit for his first 100-yard rushing game -- 105 to be exact, on 13 carries (two of which were touchdowns) -- of the season.

But even Lang, who finally drew a few inquirers after Lacy finished talking, knew what was different about the running game on this night after four weeks of struggles had left the reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year frustrated with his lack of production.

"That's Eddie, man," Lang said.

Or perhaps more accurately, that was the Eddie of 2013.

The indecisiveness that Lacy showed early this season -- when his first four games produced just 161 yards and an average of 3.0 yards per carry -- was nowhere to be found. On the first carry of the Packers' second series, Lacy ran off right tackle and accelerated around the end for 18 yards.

On the next play, it was much the same, except this time it went around left tackle for 29 yards. On consecutive carries, he had his two longest runs of the season.

So what changed?

It might have started with a conversation between Lacy and running backs coach Sam Gash earlier in the week.

"One thing that I noticed that I did, and Coach Gash pointed out, was when I made my decision, I made it," Lacy said. "I just got my pad level down and just drove it and made whoever had to hit me make it a tough hit on their behalf instead of slowing down and hitting the air brakes, as he said."

There were cut-back runs, too, like his 11-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The play, on which Lacy ran into left tackle David Bakhtiari, looked like so many others early in the season that had gone nowhere. But this time, Lacy quickly changed his course and found a hole to the right.

"It was just a natural reaction just to run the other way," Lacy said. "I didn't know what was there or who was there, but it ended up working."

And then there was his final carry of the night, his 10-yard touchdown with 3:42 left in the third quarter. When he turned the corner on an outside zone play, he lowered his shoulder and drilled Vikings safety Robert Blanton with such force that Blanton's helmet flew off.

"It was just me and the safety, and it's a business decision on his behalf," Lacy said. "So I just lowered my pads, and we just went from there."

It was vintage Lacy, if the word vintage can be used to describe a second-year running back. Even though Lacy's best runs of the first month of the season had come on shotgun plays, all of his action against the Vikings came with Rodgers lined up under center. The fact that he gained 91 of his yards and scored one of his touchdowns on runs between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, proved beneficial for an offense that had relied so heavily on receiver Jordy Nelson coming in.

The combination of Lacy and James Starks (46 yards on 12 carries) helped the Packers rush for a season-high 156 yards that nearly doubled their previous best of 80 yards (in both Weeks 1 and 2).

"It's important to get Eddie and James going," Rodgers said. "You have to have two backs in this league. Eddie didn't have a lot of carries tonight. We talked during the week about maybe 20 to 25 touches, but he had 13 efficient carries. He finished off his touchdown run the way he finishes off runs."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Coach Mike McCarthy tried and tried to get the Green Bay Packers running game going with Eddie Lacy last Sunday at Soldier Field, neglecting James Starks in the process.

It was the second time in four games this season that Starks failed to carry the ball.

"James Starks should touch the football every single game," McCarthy said Tuesday. "That will not happen again."

So expect Starks to have some kind of role in Thursday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Considering he has averaged 5.0 yards per carry on his limited (15) attempts this season, perhaps that could jump-start a running game that has sputtered through the first four games.

The Packers stuck with Lacy exclusively against the Bears. He carried a season-high 17 times but managed just 48 yards despite scoring his first touchdown of the season. For the season, he has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on 53 attempts. With 161 yards at the quarter pole, he is on pace for just 644 yards -- or a little more than half of what he gained last season when he was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.

The result is this: The Packers have the 28th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL so far. If you think yards per carry is a better measure because the Packers have run only an average of 55.75 plays per game, well, the Packers aren't much better in that area, either. They rank 26th at 3.5 yards per rush.

And, according to running backs coach Sam Gash, his backs have gotten just about all they can.

"Right now, we're getting what's there," Gash said. "There are times where sometimes the runner might be a little quick getting a feel for certain plays and stuff. But right now, you don't see the production and stuff that's there, but we're trying to be as effective as we can."

One play from Sunday's game demonstrated the Packers' struggles in the run game. On second-and-7 from his own 45-yard line in the second quarter, Lacy took a handoff and angled off left tackle, at which point he ran into the back of tight end Andrew Quarless, who was blocking linebacker Jonathan Bostic and was stopped for just a 2-yard gain.

"Anticipating," Gash said of what went wrong on that play. "That's getting a feel for things and guys hitting and holding their ground and different things like that. It's just the runner for getting a feel for how things are. Once we get everybody on the same page, I think it's going to be very nice to see."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – When a team ranks 27th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, there are myriad problems with its running game.

And that's the case with the Green Bay Packers, who after three games are averaging just 78.7 yards on the ground.

But a review of Sunday's 19-7 loss at the Detroit Lions – a game in which the Packers rushed 22 times for 76 yards – showed a particular problem on one specific run call: the toss play.

The Packers ran that play six times in their 22 rushing attempts (or 27.3 percent of their runs) and netted just 12 yards. And on one of those plays, James Starks took a toss on third-and-1 in the second quarter and picked up 15 yards.

The other five toss plays produced the following:
  • Zero yards (by Eddie Lacy) on a first-and-10 play in the first quarter.
  • Zero yards (by Starks) on second-and-10 play in the first quarter.
  • Two yards (by Starks) on second-and-3 in the second quarter, one play before his 15-yard gain.
  • Minus-2 yards (by Lacy) on a second-and-3 play in the third quarter.
  • Minus-3 yards (by DuJuan Harris) on a first-and-10 play in the third quarter.

On those five plays, the Packers netted minus-3 yards.

Four of those five plays helped contribute to drives that ended with punts.

On Lacy's run for minus-2, right tackle Bryan Bulaga got beat by defensive end Jason Jones, who made the tackle.

On Harris' run for minus-3, fullback John Kuhn made a diving block attempt and missed.

"It seemed like we had some plays and opportunities to have big runs and just couldn't finish the play," Packers right guard T.J. Lang said of the running game in general. "It's always tough running the ball against them. We know that with their defensive front. I think when we watch film [Monday], we're going to see that we left some yards out on the field. We have to find a way to pick the running game up. The first three games, it’s been disappointing."
DETROIT -- It was just one play, one failed play, but in many ways it encapsulated everything that was wrong with the Green Bay Packers' offense in Sunday's 19-7 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

It was fourth-and-5 from the Lions' 20-yard line with 6:59 remaining. Jordy Nelson, the NFL's receiving yardage leader through the first two weeks of the season, found himself open up the right seam. It's a route he has run, and run successfully, hundreds of times. As Nelson took the route to the post, quarterback Aaron Rodgers saw him break free and fired what would have been a touchdown that could have at least given the Packers a chance at a comeback victory for the second straight week.

And the ball came up short and well behind Nelson.

Game over.

With the Rodgers-Nelson connection off -- Nelson had just five catches for 59 yards after combining for 18 receptions and an NFL-high 292 yards the first two weeks -- the Packers (1-2) had little chance given their lack of a running game and dearth of playmakers at the other skill positions.

The result was the lowest scoring output of a game that Rodgers started and finished -- and his second-lowest passing yardage total in such games -- since he took over as the Packers' quarterback in 2008, leaving it open to wonder what exactly is missing from what has been and what was supposed to be a prolific offense.

"There's a lot missing," said Rodgers, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 162 yards. "There's execution missing. We haven't been able to run the ball very well in any of the three games. We just haven't executed as well as we have in the past in the passing game."

Forget for now about the Packers' woeful running game, which totaled just 76 yards on 22 carries and featured a fumble by Eddie Lacy on his second carry of the game. That Rodgers & Co. could not shred a Lions' second-handed secondary which was missing starting strong safety James Ihedigbo and also had to play its fourth, fifth and sixth different nickel defensive backs of the season at various points on Sunday is perhaps most troublesome.

It showed that even a patchwork secondary can take away one player -- Nelson -- if it wants to and expose the lack of weapons around him. The Packers dropped at least three passes, one each by Randall Cobb, James Starks and Jarrett Boykin.

Cobb called his three-catch, 29-yard showing "embarrassing."

"I've got to figure out what it is that I can do to help and do more and give this team more," Cobb said.

Although the only points came on a 10-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless in the first quarter, the Packers' tight ends have not come close to replicating the big-play threat that Jermichael Finley provided before his neck injury last season.

"We need to find a way to get those guys the ball when they're really trying to take Jordy away," Rodgers said. "Find a way to get Randall the football more, and we've got to run block better and we've got to run better."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy admitted that perhaps he stuck with an unproductive running game too long, saying he "maybe should have given [Rodgers] the ball completely earlier," but the normally accurate Rodgers missed his mark more than usual, so it might not have mattered.

Even before the missed fourth-down throw to Nelson, Rodgers overthrew Cobb on a roll-out pass on third down that killed the opening drive of the third quarter and then short-hopped a ball to Boykin on third down that ruined the next possession.

Counting the Nelson play, five of Rodgers' incompletions where underthrown, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That came a week after six underthrown incompletions (the most of his career).

"We got what we wanted," Nelson said of the fourth-and-5 play. "We had an opportunity to make a play and just weren't able to connect on the throw. It's not an easy game. Sometimes we make it look easier than what it was, but today was not easy at all."



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