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Can the Falcons stop James Starks?

January 10th, 2011
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The Eagles defense swarms Packers RB James Starks

I imagine when the line comes out today or tomorrow, the Falcons will only be favored by one or two points in this game. Considering Vegas gives the home team an automatic three points and the Falcons are one of the teams with one of the more widely known home-winning records, such a low line is actually an indicator that Vegas thinks Green Bay is the superior team.

The emergence of running back James Starks is a worrisome development for the Falcon faithful. When the Falcons took on the Packers in Week 12, Green Bay had no real running game. In that game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the team’s leading rusher with 12 carries for 51 yards. The Falcons rushed three for much of that game, which allowed Rodgers ample room to step up in the pocket and scramble for first days down all day. Among the Packers running backs, Brandon Jackson had a paltry 10 carries for 26 yards. The Packers were one dimensional on that November day in Atlanta, and it greatly helped the Falcons achieve victory.

In the following week, Starks emerged with 73 yards on 18 carries. It wasn’t a mind-blowing statline to the conventional fan, but one has to remember that it was the best single total by a Packers running back since Brandon Jackson’s 115-yard performance in Week 5. And with Stark’s 23-carry, 123-yard performance on Sunday afternoon against the Eagles, it doesn’t seem like the Falcons can count on the Packers being one-dimensional again.

Starks emergence is reminiscent of the one seen by Ryan Grant in 2007 when the Packers went all the way to the NFC Championship game. Starks, a rookie, was a 6th round pick by the Packers this past April. He could have gone much higher in the draft had a shoulder injury not sidelined him for his entire senior year at Buffalo. Starks missed much of the summer and the early part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a hamstring injury. Three seasons ago, the Packers were a fairly one-dimensional offensive attack as well, being a pass-heavy team. They had traded for Grant at the beginning of the regular season for depth, but due to injuries Grant emerged around midseason as a viable option to help give the Packers offense some balance. Grant finished the season with 956 yards on 188 carries, despite essentially not playing in the first six games. He had an exciting 201-yard performance in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Seahawks.

Could Starks be that same type of player that his emergence can be a driving force to a new balanced Green Bay postseason attack? Perhaps. And it will be key for the Falcons to try and prevent that from happening by making the Packers once again one-dimensional by neutralizing him. The Falcons will need to adjust, which means that with a heavier emphasis on stopping the run can potentially open up opportunities for Aaron Rodgers to attack them via the air.

Using Football Outsiders’ team DVOA ratings as an indicator of efficiency, the Falcons rank 13th this year in run defense. That is still good, but a significant dropoff from the 2nd-rated run defense from a year ago. The Eagles by the way were rated 14th best during the regular season.

Starks likely won’t catch the Falcons off guard like he may have done the Eagles. But it shouldn’t instill the Falcons with a ton of confidence that they can shut down the Packers running game, especially when coupled with some of the performances of the Falcons run defense down the stretch. Over the final five regular season games, the Falcons gave up an average of 132.6 yards per game, when they averaged allowing only 93.7 through the first 11 games. Most notably, a combined 349 yard allowance in two matchups with the Carolina Panthers and 151 yards allowed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ground attack should be causes for concern.

The extra rest that the Falcons have gotten from the week off should help. Jonathan Babineaux was sporting a bum shoulder for the final week of the season, although he did manage to suit up. Curtis Lofton was limited by a knee that week as well, and was one of the first starters pulled off the field took a big lead late in that Panther game. Rookie Corey Peters has played some of his best football down the stretch as well. So there is cause for optimism that the Falcons run defense will be a bit more stout this weekend than it was in previous ones.

It does bode well for the Falcons that the Packers still overwhelmingly threw the ball on third downs against the Eagles. So while Starks emergence has given them more balance on first and second down, the Packers success in sustaining drives still rests largely on the shoulders of Aaron Rodgers. So if the Falcons

In the end, a lot of the team’s ability to take Starks out of the game may rest on the Falcons offense. Michael Turner rushed for 110 yards against the Packers in their previous matchup. And the offense’s ability to get an early lead and shorten the game should help the run defense out. If the Packers are playing from behind, they will be less likely to run the ball. Against the Eagles, the Packers were able to build an early 14-0 lead, allowing Starks to be more of a factor late in the game. He was a key contributor on all three of the Packers scoring drives.

In their last meeting, the Falcons held a 10-3 lead going into halftime, thanks in large part to a 14-point swing due to a goalline stand by the defense. Curtis Lofton forced a Rodgers fumble at the one-yard line midway through the second quarter, which led to the Falcons marching down the field 80 yards on a 14-play drive that chewed up over 7 minutes of clock. That was one of three scoring drives that the Falcons had that consisted of 10 or more plays and chewed up at least 5 minutes of clock.

In the end, the Packers are a tough out, and will be even tougher if the Falcons cannot contain or eliminate Starks from the Packers second half gameplan. Whichever means is necessary: the run defense physically stopping him, or the offense keeping him on the sideline with long drives. The Falcons can take either one.

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