Packers running back James Starks ran for 123 yards against the Eagles in an NFC wild card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Jan. 9, 2011.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
IRVING, Texas -- Even the most casual football fan knows that Aaron Rodgers will start at quarterback in Super Bowl XLV Sunday night. By contrast, even the most ardent fans might not know who will be lining up behind Rodgers at running back.
History suggests the Packers will have to run the ball effectively to beat the Steelers, and the player charged with the task of trying to penetrate the Steelers' top-ranked rushing defense is James Starks, a rookie out of the University of Buffalo.
The NFL has transformed into a pass-happy league with offenses geared around quarterbacks and talented groups of receivers. The Packers fit that mold as Rodgers directs one of the league's best passing attacks, but coach Mike McCarthy is keenly aware that running the ball effectively will be a key component in the outcome.
"I've always said it, time and time again, run attempts and third-down production are two key statistics to an offense," McCarthy said.
McCarthy is a student of the game and must be aware of a little-known Super Bowl fact. In the previous 44 Super Bowls, the team with the most rushing attempts won the game 37 times. On five occasions, the team with the most rushing attempts have lost. (Opposing teams twice had the same number of carries in the game.)
Think of the most-prolific passing offenses in recent history. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots come to mind, but did you know that the Patriots had more rushing attempts than their opponent in each of their three Super Bowl victories? In the one Super Bowl the Patriots lost under Brady, the New York Giants had 26 rushing attempts compared to 16 for the Patriots.
The 1994 San Francisco 49ers creamed the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX. Steve Young and Jerry Rice dominated the game, but the 49ers also rushed the ball 32 times to 19 for the Chargers.
This is not to suggest that the Packers have to run the ball early and often against the Steelers. But, at some point, the Packers are going to have to run the ball effectively if they want to win.
Starks figures to get most of those carries. The Packers lost starter Ryan Grant for the season in Week 1, and a host of others filled in as the featured running back the remainder of the season.
Starks is one of them, but he does not have much experience after dressing for two regular-season games once he overcome a hamstring injury.
In those game, he rushed for 93 yards. It was not until the playoffs that Starks became more effective. He rushed for 123 yards in a wild-card victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, the highest rushing total for a rookie in franchise history. He rushed for 66 yards in a divisional-round victory against the Atlanta Falcons and 74 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship victory against the Chicago Bears.
"He's earned his opportunities," McCarthy said. "We're very pleased with the way he has matured and taken full advantage of his opportunity. He will be a factor in Sunday's game."
Starks rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his college career at Buffalo, but he missed his senior season with a shoulder injury and was not on the NFL general managers' short list last draft day. The Packers waited until the sixth round to take him.
"Everybody doubts you, and they don't know what you're capable of," Starks said. "So, when you get an opportunity to go out there and be successful and prove everybody wrong ... I just get a thrill out of that."
Starks will face a Steelers defense that allowed the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets to rush for 35 and 70 yards in the first two playoff games. Despite the stinginess of the Steelers defense, the Packers do not plan on abandoning their running game. In each of their three playoff victories, they had more rushing attempts than their opponent.
"I think a team would play into the hands of the opposition if you throw every down," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "Your quarterback will be in one spot, and you would be asking your offensive linemen to block all day against every blitz and every defensive-line game. I don't know that you can do that."
The plan is to lean on Starks and other running backs to keep the Steelers honest.
"I think as an offensive lineman you want to believe you can run the ball on anybody," Packers guard Daryn Colledge said. "The word is the stats don't lie, and we know we're probably not going to go out there and break off 200 yards rushing, but we have to find a way to run the ball a little bit.
"It's part of what we do on offense. It's part of what sets up your play action and your fakes, so we've got to be able to threaten them with the run. I think when you play the best defense in the NFL, you get a little bit of a chip on your shoulder and you say, 'All right, let's go out and face them.' If we can get something done then, maybe we can say we were a little bit better than you were today."