There are a litany of old-school football cliches about running the football. It's the key to set up the pass, it's the key to winning in the cold, it's the key to winning in the playoffs; we could go on forever. While no one is running the Woody Hayes offense in today's NFL, those cliches do ring true to a degree. It's very difficult to throw the football effectively if you don't have balance, and if you're not throwing or running effectively, you are unlikely to win games against good teams in the playoffs.
Before James Starks came back from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, the Green Bay Packers' running game was substandard for a playoff contending team. Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn did their best to attempt to hold down the fort after Ryan Grant went down with a season ending injury, but they both lacked Grant's complete skill-set. In Week 13, along came Starks.
In the time that Starks has been on the roster, the Packers have posted a record of 5-3 in the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs. In those three playoff games, Starks has carried the ball at least 22 times. This lays in very stark contrast to the Packers' offense before Starks' arrival; they didn't run the ball much at all. Now, here come your cliches.
If the Packers want to continue their winning streak for one more game, they are going to have to successfully run the football with James Starks yet again. The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is one of the best in the NFL, and the Packers are in deep trouble if they know the pass is coming on a regular basis. This much is obvious, though. What's not obvious is how much success Starks will be able to find, and how his play will make life easier on Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense.
Today, the Green Bay Press-Gazette ran a story on Starks' importance to the game which featured quotes from Packers coaches. Here's an interesting one from Mike McCarthy, who I think makes a great point.
"Run attempts and third-down production are the two key statistics to an offense," McCarthy said, "because when you want to be a tempo offense and you're operating in the realm of 70-plus plays a game, those are two important statistics that are tied together."
Maybe he didn't articulate that as well as he possibly could have - and who can blame the guy, I'm sure he's exhausted - but the point is that the Packers need to be successful running the ball on first and second downs to set up third and manageable. The reason those stats are tied together is that when teams are running well, they're setting up third and short. When teams are running well, they will continue to run the ball, setting up more and more third and short plays. When teams aren't running well or are behind in a game, they will get away from the run and as a result, get first downs before third down happens, or end up in third and long.
Steelers linebacker James Farrior is also featured in the article, and while his comments might come across as "stating the obvious," I think that what he has to say is important.
"We know they're going to try to run the ball," linebacker James Farrior said. "I don't think they can throw the ball every play.
"So, we're definitely going to have to be prepared to stop the run. But we know sometimes the run really sets up the play-action pass and we have to be aware of that."
In a bit of a roundabout way, James Farrior is saying that the Packers have a lot of ways they can hurt a team. If the Steelers get too committed to stopping one of them from happening, they'll just get bit by another. Most of the ways that the Packers can hurt a team, including the most dangerous one - the play-action pass - revolve around the success of James Starks.
If Starks gets the ball 20 or more times and averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5 to 4 yards per carry, the Packers will be very successful. Not only because Starks is moving the ball down the field in his own right, but because he is setting up play action, setting up third and short, and keeping the Steelers defense honest. If the Packers get away from the run, either because they are trailing or because Starks isn't having any success, they're likely to find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.
So, how likely is Starks to find success against the Steelers. Unfortunately for the green and gold, not likely at all. The Steelers only allowed their opponents for 3 yards per carry in the regular season, and they rendered LaDanian Tomlinson and Ray Rice useless in their two playoff games. The Packers went up against a tough run defense in the Bears in the NFC Championship game, but the Steelers are on a different level. The Bears held opponents to an average of 3.7 yards per carry this season, and those seven tenths of a yard make a massive difference. James Starks only managed 3.4 yards per carry in that game.
The Packers don't need a superstar performance out of James Starks to win the Super Bowl, but they need something better than what Ray Rice and LaDanian Tomlinson gave their teams, as both players averaged less than 3 yards per carry in their games against the Steelers. If Starks can just break that 3 YPC threshold, the Packers' offense will have a very good chance to succeed.
James Starks production prediction: 21 carries, 70 yards, 0 touchdowns. 2 catches, 10 yards, 0 touchdowns.