NFL Nation: James Starks

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."
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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."

Observation Deck: Green Bay Packers

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
11:35
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers' preseason was significantly more productive this summer than last -- not that the Green Bay Packers quarterback needs it to get ready for the regular season.

But a year after he played just five series and 45 plays without scoring a touchdown in the preseason, Rodgers and the starting offense looked regular-season ready for the most part in Friday's 31-21 win over the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field.

In six series, Rodgers led three touchdown drives, throwing a pair of touchdown passes. The only black mark was a pair of three-and-out series in which there were offensive-line breakdowns. Although he completed just 9 of 20 passes, Rodgers threw for 139 yards and had touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson (12 yards) and Andrew Quarless (6 yards). There was one troubling stretch in the first quarter during which Rodgers got hit on four out of five dropbacks, including a sack by Raiders defensive end LaMarr Woodley.

With Rodgers almost certain not to play in Thursday's preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, his preseason will consist of eight series that went for four touchdowns, one field goal and three punts. In two preseason games, Rodgers combined to complete 20 of 33 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. That's a passer rating of 116.6.

Here are some other thoughts on the Packers’ third preseason game of the year:
  • Maybe it was because he was playing against lesser competition in the fourth quarter, but Scott Tolzien was more productive than Matt Flynn. The Packers put up just three points in four possessions with Flynn, who completed just 4 of 10 passes for 37 yards with one interception (an 11.2 passer rating). Tolzien led a touchdown drive on his first possession, capping it with a 15-yard pass to Alex Gillett. Tolzien completed 8 of 11 passes for 107 yards and looked sharp doing so. The backup quarterback competition likely will go down to the end of the preseason.
  • The Packers' tight ends had all kinds of trouble blocking in the running game but made up for it in the passing game. On the first drive, rookie starter Richard Rodgers missed a block that led to a 1-yard loss for Eddie Lacy. However, on the next play, Rodgers ran a post route for a 32-yard completion. On a second-and-goal from the 3 in the second quarter, Quarless couldn't handle first-round pick Khalil Mack, who dumped James Starks for a 3-yard loss. On the next play, Rodgers found Quarless for a 6-yard touchdown pass.
  • Lacy played only one series for the second straight game but was productive once again. He carried six times for 36 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown run. He has carried 11 times for 61 yards in the preseason.
  • DuJuan Harris, the No. 3 running back, does not look like he has lost any of his quickness or elusiveness after missing all of last season because of a knee injury. He rushed for 56 yards on 12 carries and had a pair of receptions for 42 yards.
  • Outside linebacker Julius Peppers has gotten better with each game. Playing almost the entire first half, Peppers recorded one sack and four tackles overall (including one for a loss on a running play).
  • After it gave up 60 yards on the Raiders' opening drive, the only yardage the Packers' No. 1 defense allowed over the next five series came on a pair of pass interference penalties on cornerback Sam Shields. Otherwise, the Raiders gained zero net yards on those drives.
  • Jayrone Elliott did it again. The undrafted rookie outside linebacker, who had three sacks in a four-play stretch the previous week against the Rams, got another one in the third quarter when he beat Raiders backup left tackle Jack Cornell, an undrafted free agent in 2012. He also batted down a pass.
  • The only injury announced was to nose tackle B.J. Raji, who left with an arm injury in the first quarter. Raji remained on the sideline for the rest of the first half but did not return to the game. The Packers got a scare when center JC Tretter appeared to injure his knee, but after getting checked out by Dr. Pat McKenzie, he returned to the game without missing a play.

Packers Camp Report: Day 16

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
9:30
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Green Bay Packers training camp:
  • Maybe Monday will be remembered as the day the light went on for first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. After going 15 straight practices without an interception, the rookie safety picked off two passes during a one-hour and 29-minute session without pads inside the Don Hutson Center. Clinton-Dix's first pick came off fourth-string quarterback Chase Rettig, who badly overthrew receiver Chris Harper. His second one was a little more impressive because it came on the second play of the two-minute drill by the starting offense. Running back James Starks let a dump-off pass from Aaron Rodgers ricochet off his hands and Clinton-Dix plucked it out of the air. You could argue that both interceptions were gift-wrapped to him, but at least he made a couple of plays. "I thought it was great to actually touch the ball again after a while, so that felt good," Clinton-Dix said.
  • The defense won both two-minute drills, although Matt Flynn went a little longer with the No. 2 offense than Rodgers' two-plays-and-out possession. Flynn directed an eight-play drive that ended on fourth-and-10 from the defense's 21-yard line. On the last play, safety Chris Banjo picked off a pass that went off the outstretched hands of tight end Justin Perillo.
  • Other than the two-minute period, it was a stellar day by both Flynn and Scott Tolzien, who remain in a competition for the backup job. Flynn's best throw was on a deep corner route to Alex Gillett. He placed the ball perfectly out of the reach of cornerback Jarrett Bush. Tolzien had a couple of noteworthy throws, a go route down the right sideline that Myles White caught without breaking stride and a 30-yard corner route to Perillo over Clinton-Dix. "I thought they had sharp practices," coach Mike McCarthy said of Flynn and Tolzien. "It was our best tempo of the year. We were done extremely early in every period and the takeaways by the defense in the two-minute drill obviously added to that, so I was very pleased with the energy and the tempo. I think it's going to be a lot of good video. So, I thought both of those guys did a lot of good things."
  • The only new injury was to tight end Brandon Bostick (lower leg). He is expected to miss the rest of the preseason. Others who did not practice were: running back Rajion Neal (knee), tight end Colt Lyerla (knee), offensive lineman Don Barclay (knee), receiver Jared Abbrederis (knee) and defensive tackle Letroy Guion (hamstring). McCarthy would not say whether Abbrederis or Barclay had their ACL reconstruction surgeries yet. Both will eventually be placed on injured reserve.
  • For the first time all camp, rain forced practice inside the Don Hutson Center. That means there are only four open practices left in training camp. The next one is Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. local time.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's only his second NFL training camp, but the Green Bay Packers are taking a veteran approach with running back Eddie Lacy.

Maybe not quite the Adrian Peterson tactic, but close.

Lacy
The reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year was held out of Saturday's preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans and indications are Lacy might not do much, if anything, in the remaining three exhibition games.

It's not an injury issue; the 24-year-old Lacy has taken on a full workload in practice. But just like the Minnesota Vikings do with Peterson, the Packers may be taking a similar approach with their workhorse running back when it comes to the preseason.

"It's not my goal for his workload to be very high in preseason games," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday.

Peterson, 29, played one series in the third preseason game last summer, but before that had not carried the ball in the exhibition season since 2011.

Lacy said Tuesday he did not know if that was going to be the Packers' approach but doubted he would go into the regular-season opener at Seattle on Sept. 4 without any game action.

"That's definitely something else that you would have to ask the coaching staff," Lacy said. "But as far as me as a player, whatever opportunities I'm given, whether it's [playing in] preseason or held out until the first game -- which I highly doubt that -- whatever work I get will definitely help as far as getting timing and rhythm down."

If anything, Lacy's snaps in practice have increased. McCarthy wants to turn Lacy into a three-down back and practiced him extensively in that role during the early portion of camp.

But when it came time to suit up against the Titans, Lacy joined quarterback Aaron Rodgers in sweats on the sideline. James Starks started in place of Lacy and picked up where he left off last season, when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry as Lacy's primary backup. Starks rushed for 49 yards on just six carries, including a 20-yard touchdown, against the Titans.

Matt Flynn got the call in place of Rodgers, who is expected to start Saturday against the St. Louis Rams and again in the third preseason game against the Oakland Raiders but almost certainly will not play in the finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, one week before the opener.

"That's usually how it goes," McCarthy said of the preseason plan for Rodgers.

Questions about Lacy's durability have followed him since his days at Alabama. But his pounding style largely held up last season. He missed one full game and most of another because of a concussion early in the season and then missed half of another late-season game because of ankle injury. In 14 games, he rushed for a Packers’ rookie record of 1,178 yards.

But given the his penchant for contact, it's worth wondering how long Lacy can last.

"That's kind of a tough question," Lacy said. "It doesn't matter if you're a power back or a speed back, as long as you're a running back, nobody knows how long you can play the game."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Rajion Neal did exactly what Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy wanted someone to do in Saturday's preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans: The rookie running back got the attention of the coaches.

He did so by rushing for 39 yards on just five carries, including a 12-yard touchdown run in which he ran over a Titans defender at the goal line in the third quarter. And then without a moment's notice, his night ended when he took a blow to the knee at the end of his 22-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.

The undrafted rookie from the University of Tennessee did not practice on Monday, when a pair of crutches were propped up against his locker. Walking without the crutches, Neal vowed to return quickly, perhaps even for preseason game No. 2 at St. Louis on Saturday.

"I've got to play; there ain't no way around it," Neal said. "Being in the position I'm in, I can't afford it."

There's no denying his position improved based on his performance against the Titans. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Neal had shown signs of that kind of ability during the first two weeks of practice and validated it when he averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his preseason debut.

Neal still faces a difficult task to make the team given the depth the Packers have in front of him with Eddie Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, but at the very least he has caught the attention of McCarthy, who said last week that he wanted players to "jump out" against the Titans.

"I thought he ran strong," McCarthy said Monday. "I thought he did a nice job running his course. Obviously, you like the finish on the touchdown run. I thought he played very well."

He also got the attention of teammates like Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson.

"Aaron and Jordy and all those guys gave me handshakes and told me they like the way I run," Neal said. "So it was definitely a moment you'll remember, and it felt good."

The Packers don't think Neal will be out for long. He said his knee is sore but otherwise sustained no other damage. He has three more preseason games to make his mark, and he intends to be ready.

"There's still a whole lot to prove and a lot more fun to be had," Neal said. "So I'm looking forward to it."
It had all the makings a quarterback's worst nightmare. A hard-driving rain soaked the playing surface at LP Stadium on Saturday night and turned the football into a wet bar of soap.

It barely seemed to bother Scott Tolzien.

Tolzien
In his bid to become Aaron Rodgers' backup with the Green Bay Packers, Tolzien was able to accomplish more than incumbent No. 2 Matt Flynn in the preseason opener, a 20-16 loss at the Tennessee Titans.

With Rodgers given the night off, Flynn got the start. But it was Tolzien who made the most of his playing time. Not that Flynn did much, if anything, that would have caused coach Mike McCarthy to downgrade him, but Tolzien performed better.

"It's a start, but it's nothing more than a start," Tolzien told reporters after the game. "It's up to us as a team to continue to improve. That's what this time is for is to get ready for the regular season."

Along the way, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have to decide on their backup quarterback.

Tolzien gave them something to think about. He completed 8 of 12 passes for 124 yards and had a passer rating of 100.7. He showed the same, if not better, arm strength than he displayed in his three appearances last season but none of the poor decision that resulted in the five interceptions he threw in those three games.

"Really, it's the first preseason game," said Tolzien, who would have had even better numbers if not for two dropped passes by receivers among his four incomplete passes. "I don't want to get too excited. It's one game. I think more than anything, it's just exciting for us to play against a different opponent rather than colliding heads with other guys. It's nice to do it against someone else."

Perhaps what impressed McCarthy most was that Tolzien followed his worst play, a fumble on a ball that slipped out of his hand while he was rolling to right, with a 38-yard looping completion to Chris Harper that helped set up a touchdown run by rookie Rajion Neal.

"To come back and hit the second-and-20 play to get us down there in the red zone," McCarthy said, "I thought Scott did a lot of good things."

Praised for his work ethic during the offseason, his first in McCarthy's system after arriving in Green Bay last September, Tolzien did not make many attention-grabbing plays during the first two weeks of training camp. So with Rodgers held out of the game, it was no surprise that McCarthy opened the preseason with Flynn, who replaced Tolzien last season and kept the Packers' season alive with a pair of wins in four starts before Rodgers returned from his broken collarbone.

Like Tolzien, Flynn led one scoring drive against the Titans. His came on the opening possession and against the Titans' defensive starters, but it was mostly the work of running back James Starks, who carried six times on the drive for 49 yards (including a 20-yard touchdown run). Tolzien played mostly against the Titans' backups.

Flynn finished 5-of-10 passing for 49 yards with a long completion of 24 yards on a short pass to tight end Brandon Bostick, who broke two tackles along the way.

"I was comfortable out there, but it was tough," Flynn said of the conditions. "It was coming down out there. Didn't feel like I handled the ball really well grip-wise making throws. There was some poor throws out there, but you take a step back and a game like this, you have to pick out the positives out of it. I thought the decision-making was good. I thought I was going to the right places with the ball. Just didn't really handle the ball really well."
The Green Bay Packers decided not to play starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Saturday's preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans in part so that they could take a long look at their backup quarterbacks.

They probably liked what they saw from Scott Tolzien in the 20-16 loss in tough weather conditions at LP Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Not that there was anything wrong with Matt Flynn, who started and played most of the first half against the Titans' defensive starters, but he did not move the ball as well as Tolzien did against Tennessee's backups. After Flynn went 5-of-10 for 49 yards, Tolzien relieved him for the final series of the second quarter. He played into the fourth quarter and completed 8 of 12 passes for 124 yards. At least two of Tolzien's passes were dropped, not including Chris Harper's drop on a two-point conversion pass.

Each quarterback led one touchdown drive, both of which ended with rushing touchdowns, and neither threw an interception while playing in near-constant rain.

Some other thoughts on the Packers' first preseason game of the year:
  • It was startling to see first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix fail to tackle 5-foot-8, 170-pound running back Dexter McCluster, who turned the miss into a 10-yard gain, but the rookie safety recovered on the next play to dump Bishop Sankey after a 1-yard gain. Clinton-Dix also had a nice pass breakup on a seam route by Taylor Thompson. Thompson beat Clinton-Dix off the line, but he recovered to knock the ball out.
  • It was surprising to see rookie receiver Davante Adams get the first crack on punt returns, given that he has had limited opportunities to do so in practice, but he might not get another chance after muffing his two opportunities. He recovered the first one and returned it 8 yards, but the Titans got the second one, and it led to their lone first-half touchdown. Maybe it was the wet ball, because the normally steady Micah Hyde muffed a fair catch in the third quarter, although he recovered it. Running back DuJuan Harris returned the opening kickoff 40 yards, but bobbled his second turn.
  • With Eddie Lacy held out, James Starks looked like the same running back as last season, when he averaged a career-best 5.5 yards per carry as a backup. Starks made a nice cut on his 20-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and carried six times for 49 yards, mostly against the Titans' starters. Harris, in his first game action since the end of the 2012 season, carried seven times for 18 yards with a long run of 11 and had a pair of short receptions. Undrafted rookie running back Rajion Neal had an impressive debut with five carries for 39 yards (including a 12-yard touchdown in the third quarter).
  • The Packers had to like what they saw from starting center JC Tretter in his first NFL action. While the No. 1 offensive line played just one series, the second-year pro remained in for two more series with the second unit. He had a good block on the backside of Starks' touchdown and had no problems snapping the wet ball.
  • The only other injuries announced during the game were to Neal and linebacker Joe Thomas. Both undrafted rookies sustained knee injuries.
Examining the Green Bay Packers' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)
The Packers have not kept three quarterbacks on their opening-day roster since 2008, but they might be inclined to do so this season in order to avoid a situation like last year, when Rodgers broke his collarbone. Coach Mike McCarthy is high on Tolzien, who made two starts last season, but Flynn has proved he can win as a backup in Green Bay.

Running backs (4)

The return of Harris, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, gives the Packers insurance behind Lacy and Starks. Kuhn is valuable both as a fullback and on special teams. It's possible they'll keep a fourth halfback, but the loss of Johnathan Franklin to a career-ending neck injury has left them without a strong in-house candidate for that spot.

Receivers (6)

The Packers often keep only five receivers, but given that they drafted three -- Adams (second round), Abbrederis (fifth round) and Janis (seventh round) -- there's a good chance they will keep six. Abbrederis and Janis will not only have to show they're better prospects than second-year pros Myles White and Chris Harper, but they also could help themselves if they can return kicks.

Tight ends (4)

McCarthy likes tight ends (he has kept five before), and the wild card is undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla.

Offensive linemen (8)

The Packers typically only activate seven offensive linemen on game day, so they can get away with keeping just eight on the roster. Barclay's ability to play all five positions also allows them some freedom. Lane Taylor could be the ninth lineman if they go that route.

Defensive line (7)

Worthy and Guion have work to do to make the roster, but there's room for them if you count Julius Peppers and Mike Neal among the outside linebackers, which is where they lined up more often in the offseason.

Linebackers (8)

There will be some tough cuts here. Second-year pros Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba both played last year as rookie outside linebackers. It also may be tough for highly touted undrafted rookie Adrian Hubbard to make it.

Cornerbacks (6)

Hayward's return from last season's hamstring injury means he likely will return as the slot cornerback in the nickel package, a role played last year by Micah Hyde (who may primarily play safety this year).

Safeties (4)

The major question here is whether Hyde or Clinton-Dix will be the starter alongside Burnett. Chris Banjo, who played primarily on special teams last season, might be the odd man out.

Specialists (3)

There's no competition at any of these spots.

Packers want to speed up offense

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
10:00
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The faster the better.

That's what Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has planned for his offense this season.

And why not, especially with Aaron Rodgers on board with the idea?

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerAaron Rodgers and the Packers are determined to play faster and thus run more plays in 2014.
McCarthy and his quarterback have one primary goal in mind for 2014: Run 75 plays per game.

Do that, and everything else -- big numbers for Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and possibly one of the new rookie receivers; another 1,000-plus-yard season for Eddie Lacy; solid pass protection -- will fall into place.

"That seems to be the answer to some of the different things that defenses are doing," Rodgers said during an interview this offseason.

The first hint of McCarthy's plans came in February, when he stood at the lectern at the NFL scouting combine and declared that he wants Lacy -- and all of his running backs -- to turn into three-down players in order to limit the need for substitutions, which, of course, slows down the game.

"We play pretty fast, but you always want to play faster," McCarthy said during an interview near the end of the offseason program last month. "With a guy like Aaron, he plays faster than anybody I've ever been around."

McCarthy's offense isn't Chip Kelly's, which averaged 80-plus plays per game when he ran the fastest game in college football at Oregon. But Kelly's offense in the NFL -- despite 53 plays in the first half of his first game as the Philadelphia Eagles' coach last season -- wasn't Kelly's offense in college, either.

The Eagles finished last season 13th out of 32 teams in total offensive plays with 1,054, an average of 65.875 per game.

The Packers ranked 11th with 1,074 total plays (67.125 per game) -- their second-highest total in McCarthy's eight seasons as head coach -- but averaged nearly 69 plays in the games Rodgers finished last season.

"Aaron Rodgers is a beast the way he plays the game, the way he attacks the defense, whether it's his cadence, his ability to recognize defenses to take advantage of a certain pressure, and then on top of it he's so well-rehearsed in this offense," McCarthy said. "If anything, you worry about him just sometimes playing too fast. Not that he's playing too fast, he has the ability to play at such a fast level, it's keeping everyone coordinated to be able to play with him."

And that's where the running backs come into the picture.

As Lacy pounded his way to well-earned yards on first and second down last season, he usually came off the field on third down -- not because he needed a blow but because McCarthy and his offensive staff felt better about using another back (often fullback John Kuhn) in pass protection. That plan usually worked (remember Kuhn's game-saving block on Julius Peppers in the Week 17 division-clinching win over the Bears), but the Packers had to downshift in order to make the change.

This year, McCarthy sees no need to change speeds and no reason to give the defense time to adjust.

"We've always been a fast-tempo offense," he said. "To me, there are two approaches to playing the game of football. Historically, in my opinion because I don't want to offend anybody, defensive coaches want to slow the game down, run the ball, shorten the game. Your offensive coaches more want to pick it up.

"I've always been of the belief of getting as many shots as you can, so we've always emphasized playing as fast as you can. When you have as many three-down players as you can possibly have, obviously your substitution patterns are cleaner. You're not subbing because you have to, you're subbing just when you need to."

That could mean even more no-huddle series this season. Rodgers, who has excelled in the no-huddle offense, likes the plan.

"We always kind of struggle with that, trying to get guys to stay on the field and play all three downs," Rodgers said. "We've had so many injuries over the years, it's made John Kuhn such an irreplaceable guy because he can be the guy who can run and get you a few yards and also be a third-down protection back. He's been amazing at it in two-minute drills. I mean, last year, he made the block of the year. But it would be nice if we could have drives where Eddie can go three plays in a row or James [Starks] could go three plays in a row or DuJuan [Harris] could go three plays in a row and not have to take them out, so we could not have to bring in any subs and you could stay pressuring the defense.

"There’s a lot of substitution that goes on by both teams. The key substitution is usually for third down, because teams run so much on third down. After second down, if you're subbing four or five guys on and off, it's tough to run an offense where you're up-tempo, because everybody has to get the call, and it just takes a little longer. We'd like to play a little faster."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Let's get this out of the way from the top; we know Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson does not draft for need -- or so he says.

But in the months leading up to this week's draft, Thompson and his scouts have spent hundreds of hours not only discussing the prospects who will be available to them but also their current roster and its strengths and weaknesses.

With that in mind, let's break the 12 position groups that make up the roster into four parts based on the following categories of draft needs.

We will define them this way:
  • Part 1: Negligible -- positions where there is little or no need.
  • Part 2: Non-essential -- positions where there is a need but it is not paramount to fill.
  • Part 3: Secondary -- positions where there is a need but not at the critical level.
  • Part 4: Pressing -- positions where it is imperative that help be found.

First up are the negligible needs.

10. Defensive line: Whether you count recently signed pass-rusher Julius Peppers here or as an outside linebacker, it's still a deep position with the return of nose tackle B.J. Raji (who signed a one-year contract), a pair of draft picks last season in first-rounder Datone Jones and fifth-rounder Josh Boyd, and an emerging star in Mike Daniels. If the Packers need short-term help, they could re-sign veterans Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. That said, Thompson has never been one to pass up a big-bodied player so it wouldn't be a total shock to see him take a defensive lineman high in the draft if the right one fell into his lap.

Possible players of interest: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota; Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame; Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State; Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame.

11. Running back: This could be as deep a group as coach Mike McCarthy has had in his nine seasons thanks to reigning offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy plus the return of James Starks, DuJuan Harris, Johnathan Franklin and John Kuhn. The only issues here would be if Harris' knee injury that kept him out all of last season and Franklin's neck injury that ended his rookie year in November remain problematic.

Possible players of interest: None.

12. Specialists: The Packers are set at all three spots -- kicker, punter and long-snapper. Mason Crosby's bounce-back year means the Packers may not even bring another kicker to training camp. Crosby is signed through 2015. Punter Tim Masthay is signed through 2016 and snapper Brett Goode through 2015. There are no issues with either one.

Possible players of interest: None.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers’ search for running back depth has them meeting with a seemingly unlikely candidate for help in that area.

Three-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew is visiting the Steelers today, per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and Pittsburgh is among the teams that are interested in the eight-year veteran.

Jones-Drew
Le'Veon Bell is entrenched as Pittsburgh’s featured back but the Steelers have no proven backups behind him. They were scheduled to meet with James Starks on Tuesday but Starks re-signed with Green Bay before visiting the Steelers.

That a player the caliber of Jones-Drew is willing to visit a team that doesn’t need a starter at his position may be a sign of how depressed the market is for running backs.

Jones-Drew has more than 8,000 career rushing yards and is just two seasons removed from a 1,600-yard campaign. Squat and powerfully built, the player who is aptly nicknamed “Pinball” has been a workhorse in Jacksonville, which makes it curious that he would return the Steelers’ interest in him.

Jones-Drew's base salary last season was $4.95 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Steelers are only $2.31 million under the salary cap, and they don’t have the flexibility to pay what Jones-Drew is likely seeking unless they restructure contracts or sign players to new long-term deals to lower their cap hit for 2014.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is an obvious candidate for a contract restructure.

His base salary is $6.75 million this year and the Steelers could turn a significant chunk of that into signing bonus and spread the money over the final three years of his contract to reduce his 2014 cap hit.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Shortly before free agency opened, the Green Bay Packers had the sixth-most salary-cap space in the NFL.

Since then, they have re-signed cornerback Sam Shields, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal, tight end Andrew Quarless, tendered restricted free-agent linebacker Jamari Lattimore and added free-agent defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion.

They began the month with nearly $34.2 million in cap space and even after all that activity, they still have about half of that remaining.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers had $20,627,413 in available cap space as of the start of the second week of free agency. However, that did not include Raji’s one-year, $4 million contract. It also did not include the new two-year deal that running back James Starks has agreed to but has yet to be announced by the team.

According to NFL Players Association salary information, counting the Packers' top-51 players under contract -- which is all that must be counted for cap purposes at this time of the year -- the Packers still had $17,024,449 in salary-cap space as of the start of business on Wednesday. That also did not include Starks' contract.

The Packers will need around $5 million for their rookie salary pool but even accounting for that, general manager Ted Thompson still has room to maneuver.

Among the things he has to consider is having enough space to extend the contracts of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, both of whom are entering the final years of their contracts. Their situation likely played a role in Thompson's decision not to re-sign receiver James Jones, who signed a three-year, $10 million deal with the Oakland Raiders on Monday.

Free-agency primer: Packers

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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Key free agents: TE Jermichael Finley, CB Sam Shields, DT B.J. Raji, DT Johnny Jolly, DT Ryan Pickett, WR James Jones, OLB Mike Neal, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, RB James Starks, QB Matt Flynn, FB John Kuhn.

Where they stand: The Packers, who have $35 million in available salary-cap space, on Thursday moved closer to re-signing Raji, one of their three starting defensive linemen who were in the final years of their contracts. Last month at the NFL scouting combine, coach Mike McCarthy sounded optimistic that Finley would be cleared to play again after undergoing neck fusion surgery in November. The Packers were in on-and-off negotiations with Shields dating to this past June, but they remain significantly apart, making it more likely he will hit the open market next week. There's a chance that many of, if not all, the remaining free agents could do the same. That doesn't mean they won't re-sign, but it means the Packers will let the market help determine their value, which means they could risk losing them.

What to expect: Everyone knows that general manager Ted Thompson does not use free agency as a tool for restocking his roster very often. But Thompson usually tries to retain many of the players who have come through the organization. He could lose more of them than usual if he can’t get any more deals done before Tuesday. However, it remains to be seen what kind of market there will be for players like Jones (who will turn 30 on March 31), Dietrich-Smith (who has just one full season as a starter to his credit), Starks (who has a long injury history) and Flynn (who failed to win starting jobs in Seattle and Oakland).
The Cleveland Browns might not want to admit it, but they need a running back.

Todd McShay offers an interesting free agent option in the team's offseason blueprint Insider written by several ESPN Insiders. McShay posits Green Bay’s James Starks would be a good choice for the Browns in free agency.

In one sense, it makes sense. Starks would not command top dollar, and new coach MIke Pettine wants to run a two-back system. That would help Starks, who has had trouble staying healthy (he played 32 games the past three seasons).

But when Starks plays, he’s been productive. He had a 100-yard game last season, and 88 yards on 11 carries in the season finale when Green Bay had to beat Chicago to make the playoffs. Over his career Starks has averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

If the Browns decide not to pay the big money for a guy like Ben Tate, McShay has a point: Starks might be a good option.

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