James Starks was fantastic for the Packers against the Panthers, while Ryan Grant was average. Was it just a one week thing, or should Starks be RB1?
The first quarter of the Week 2 game between the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers was a bit scary. Thankfully, the team settled down for the most part and won comfortably on the back of some great offensive plays, as well as some rookie mistakes by Cam Newton (and bad playcalling by his OC). Personally, I don't mind getting a little scare going into a rivalry game. Between this game and the Week 1 performance against the Saints, the Packers should be confident, but well aware that they're human. This is perfect.
It took the Packers until their second drive - which didn't start until the second quarter - to get anything going. What should have been the Packers' first drive was instantly taken away by Randall Cobb's kick return fumble. When the team took the field for the first time with just under six minutes remaining in the first quarter, they went three and out and looked bad doing so. Ryan Grant didn't hit the hole on first down, the swing pass to him on second down was a bad call, a false start backed up the offense five yards, and James Jones came up one yard short on an otherwise nice play on third down. Ugly.
The second drive, though, much better! A grand total of 11 plays for 80 yards and four minutes, 50 seconds of brilliance. Jermichael Finley and the two running backs were dominant on a perfectly called series, the highlight of which was Finley's 39 yard reception. John Kuhn finished it off with a touchdown to make it 13-7 Carolina in the second quarter, and suddenly the Packers were in the game.
Cobb had an excellent play for a first down on the Packers' third drive, but that was the only highlight. After that play, the drive was stalled by a Chad Clifton holding penalty that was hardly the left tackle's fault. On first down, following Cobb's excellent reception and run, Aaron Rodgers took way to long to make a decision with the ball and Clifton held to keep his QB from getting creamed after blocking his man for more than five seconds. The silver lining here is that causing his left tackle to commit and unnecessary holding penalty was the worst mistake Rodgers made all day. Teams will win most games in which that is their QB's biggest error.
Greg Jennings had a memorable touchdown catch in this game, but otherwise, he did not put in one of the better performances of his career. On the Packers' fourth drive, he was targeted on an incredible four consecutive plays. On the first play, Rodgers made a questionable, but catchable throw and Jennings was not able to come up with the ball. The second was a completed pass for six yards. The third was a poor throw by Rodgers. The fourth, on fourth down was a terrific throw by Aaron and a straight up drop by Jennings. I'm not going to dog a guy who's been as consistent as Jennings has, but that was not his finest hour. This drive had some good news, though! The run blocking on the two runs by Ryan Grant was terrific.
The Packers would get the ball back one more time before the end of the half, but took a knee to send the game into halftime, trailing 13-7.
The second half had more positives for the Packers than the first half, but it was also much more telling of the few negatives that the Packers (and the Panthers) had on display. Case in point: The first drive of the half.
James Starks got this drive started with a couple of fantastic plays, both picking up good yardage and opening up Carolina for the big pass. He was given the ball on three consecutive plays and made spectacular cuts to find the hole and pick up great yardage on the first and third runs. Not to discredit Grant, but they were the kind of cuts that we have not seen him make since before his injury...or perhaps ever. Grant is perhaps a better downhill runner than Starks and more able to take a hit from a linebacker, but he can't cut like Starks can, or at least he isn't showing it at the moment.
And then, the touchdown pass. The glorious touchdown pass that featured a glorious Jennings route and a glorious Rodgers throw. The defending, though...good god. What abysmal coverage. As good as Jennings and Rodgers are, almost any professional starting-caliber QB and WR could have made that play. Carolina was running three safety packages during the game, and somehow all three safeties completely missed their assignments. Jordan Pugh had atrocious positioning on Jennings in coverage, while both Charles Godfrey and Martin Sherrod were frozen by the play action, then failed to give Pugh help over the top. It was extra special fail all around, and it was a play I'm pretty sure Matt Flynn and Tori Gurley could have made.
The second drive of the second half started from the Panthers 20-yard line after an interception and resulted in a field goal, so I'm sure you can figure out on your own that it was incredibly uneventful. Finley dropped a touchdown pass and I made a frowny face.
Drive No. 3 was one of huge positives and huge negatives to me. The biggest positive was the massive 40-yard run by Starks, and the easy 17-yard pass to Finley was excellent as well. However, I was not a big fan of the third and goal call - a hard back shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson - and I was even less of a fan of the decision to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the one-yard line. All is well that ends well, but at that point, we had the chance to make it a two score game while Newton was struggling. If we fail, Newton has to go 99 yards to take the lead. I like my defense's chances in that scenario. Good news is, Newton threw a bad pick in the next series to give us complete control of the game, but I feel like him throwing that pick kind of proves my point.
The fourth drive of the half was a simple seven play, 33 yard drive that resulted in a field goal, but it produced what I think is the biggest talking point to come out of this week's game. On second down and eight, Rodgers passed to Grant for a seven yard gain that appeared to set up third and one. In the box score, this looks like a pretty good play. Also, Rodgers got nailed after the play and the roughing the passer penalty gifted us 15 yards and a first down. However, this seemingly unimportant play was the straw that broke the camel's back on the Grant-Starks debate.
When Ryan Grant caught the ball on this play, he had acres of space in front of him, as well as blockers. It looked like a free 10 yards at minimum and a bigger play if he was able to make a good move or break a tackle. Instead, Grant looked indecisive and slow. Somehow, on a play that should have been a free first down, he came up short of the sticks. I firmly believe that Starks would have done much better with that play. It was the first time I saw Grant do something and think "I know Starks would have done much better than that."
And what do you know? The next play from scrimmage was a screen play for Starks. He executed it perfectly for an 11 yard gain and the speed difference was obvious. It was a lightbulb moment for me. Grant and Starks aren't equally proficient running backs with different skill sets. James Starks is better than Ryan Grant. Period.
The Packers' fifth drive of the half was an uneventful three and out that featured some pretty awful blocking by Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga, but these things happen. They both had pretty good games. No big.
Drive No. 6, though. Awesome. Two plays, 97 yards. A 12-yard run by Starks, then BOOM. Jordy Nelson finally gets involved in the game. His run on the 84-yard touchdown pass was spectacular, but the best part of the play was easily Jennings' block that took out two Panthers and allowed Nelson to score easily. Definitely the best play of the game, and a great way to finish off the Panthers.
James Starks, who was terrific. TJ Lang and Scott Wells, who were more or less flawless. The other three linemen made noticeable mistakes.
Ryan Grant, but not because he was terrible. Starks was just much better. Josh Sitton, but I'm not the least bit concerned about him. He had to be knocked down a peg from 'perfection' to 'elite' at some point.
What did we learn?
1. James Starks is better than Ryan Grant. I'm finally willing to say it without qualifiers.
2. Jermichael Finley is going to be a consistent threat. Yes, he dropped a touchdown, but he was just as good as last week.
3. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson can play whatever role we ask them to. Consistent first down machines who take hits? Guys going for the big play? Blockers? Whatever the gameplan demands.
What to watch for next week
I have, unfortunately, not watched either Bears game. I hope to get a chance to watch them during the week. However, I do know that their corners are very physical guys and it will be interesting to see how our receivers cope with getting pushed around by guys who are not significantly smaller than they are.