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Stats suggest Packers should throw to Starks and Lacy against Cardinals

Arizona has few weaknesses on defense, but defending passes to running backs is one that Green Bay can and should exploit.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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The Arizona Cardinals have fielded an excellent defense in 2015. That unit is in the NFL's top five in yards allowed, top ten in points, and is top five in the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA as well, a metric that assesses overall performance on a per-play basis.

Not only that, but the unit is balanced against the run and the pass as well, with top-five DVOA rankings in both phases. Looking through Football Outsiders' numbers helps give a little perspective on how well they are playing this season.

One area where the Packers have an advantage, however, is revealed upon closer inspection of the Cardinals' pass defense.

DVOA is assigned to each team based on their performance against the opposition's various receivers, and the Cardinals have excelled against wide receivers and tight ends. They rank no worse than seventh in the NFL against all opposing wide receivers (broken down by #1, #2, and all others) as well as the tight end position.

Where they do struggle is covering running backs, as they rank just 22nd with a +9.6% DVOA. (Remember that negative numbers favor defenses and positive numbers favor offenses.) The Packers even got a little bit of first-hand knowledge of this advantageous matchup in week 16, as the team's only touchdown came on a 28-yard screen pass to Eddie Lacy.

However, that was the only pass that the Packers completed to a running back in that game. Lacy was targeted twice, catching that one pass, while James Starks, John Crockett, and John Kuhn did not see a pass thrown their way at all.

Starks, in particular, has had his finest season as a pass receiver in 2015. He has set career highs in every receiving category, catching an impressive 43 of 53 targets (an impressive 81%) for 392 yards, three touchdowns, and a career-high 9.1 yards per reception. Some of his workload has come at the expense of Eddie Lacy, whose receiving numbers dipped, but who still averaged 9.4 yards on 20 receptions this season.

Further illustrating Starks' impressive season as a receiver are his Football Outsiders numbers. His per-play results rank him 13th among 58 running backs in the league in DVOA, while his total production given by the DYAR stat puts him 10th in the league.

This week, the screen game and check-down passes to the running backs should be a more significant part of the gameplan for Mike McCarthy and his offense. They have a pair of running backs who are clearly equipped to be productive in that area, and it's one of the few weaknesses of Arizona's defense.