Packers Running Backs: Will the starter be decided tonight?

ALLGBP.com All Green Bay Packers All the Time
Packers RB Alex Green
Packers RB Alex Green

Cedric Benson has only been a member of the Green Bay Packers for slightly over a week, but he’s already been getting reps with the No. 1 offense in training camp.

In just two practices wearing full pads, Benson has broken off a handful of impressive runs, and he certainly appears to be as natural a runner as any running back on the roster. Although he’s coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Benson has never been known as a game-breaker in the backfield.

His career average of 3.8 yards-per-carry suggests Benson is more of a workhorse than a true home-run threat.

And despite James Starks entering training camp as the No. 1 back, his spot in the starting lineup–and on the roster–may be in serious jeopardy. Starks has missed 16 games in his first two seasons, and he’s out of the lineup again with turf toe. If second-year back Brandon Saine is able to return to practice next week and proves his worth to the coaching staff, the Packers may consider cutting ties with Starks.

With Starks at least temporarily out of the picture, the battle to be the team’s starting running back comes down to Benson versus second-year player Alex Green.

The “starter” may be a somewhat subjective label, as the Packers may very well decide to use multiple backs within the offense this year. Of all the running backs, Green is the best receiving threat within the Packers’ spread offense, while Benson is certainly the most proven runner of the bunch.

The third preseason game–or “dress rehearsal” for the regular season–traditionally gives starters increased playing time. And as the Packers head to Cincinnati to play Benson’s former team, the Cincinnati Bengals, the spotlight will shine brighter on the running back battle than perhaps any other position.

In all likelihood, head coach Mike McCarthy will rotate his running backs to take advantage of each player’s strengths. Green will be utilized as a receiver, John Kuhn is the team’s best pass protector and short-yardage back, Saine is solid in every area, and Benson is likely the Packers’ best runner between the tackles.

If the Packers are able to build a lead late into games, Benson may be called upon to run the clock and carry the team to victory.

AllGBP.com’s Adam Czech provided an insightful look at Benson in the fourth quarter on Wednesday:

Last season with the Bengals, Benson had 67 carries for 289 yards in the fourth quarter. That’s an average of 4.31 yards per carry.

Not bad.

When the Bengals were ahead in the fourth, Benson had 24 carries for 110 yards and a 4.6 average.

Again, not bad.

But while these numbers certainly appeal to the Packers, not all of Benson’s fourth quarter production was ideal. The coaching staff routinely emphasizes the importance of pass protection and ball security from its running backs, and Benson struggled in both areas with the Bengals.

Ball security was an issue with Benson when trying to preserve late leads. He fumbled three times with his team ahead in the fourth and lost two of them.

At this point in their careers, Benson is clearly a more recognizable name than Green. His production the past few seasons with the Bengals speaks for itself.

Packers RB Cedric Benson
Packers RB Cedric Benson

But Benson isn’t the only back expected to see time with the first-team offense on Thursday. Green has the same gigantic opportunity knocking at his door.

With the starters expected to play the entire first half, Green should receive more touches than he has at any point of the preseason to date. And with Greg Jennings both returning to the lineup, the Packers’ running game will be the least of the Bengals’ concerns.

I’m expecting a solid showing from Benson on Thursday, but an even better performance–and a leg-up in the competition–from Green.

With the uncertainty surrounding the starting running back position, Green versus Benson will be as intriguing  a battle as Packers versus Bengals.

——————

Follow @MJEversoll

Marques is a Journalism student, serving as the Sports Editor of UW-Green Bay\'s campus newspaper The Fourth Estate and a Packers writer at Jersey Al\'s AllGBP.com. Follow Marques on Twitter @MJEversoll.

——————

  • CSS

    Interesting that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel projects Starks as a potential cut when looking ahead to the 53 man roster while the Green Bay Press Gazette considers Starks a lock when projecting their 53.

    Personally, I would be a bit shocked if they went with a 30 year old, a guy coming off an ACL and an UFA (Saine) that can’t stay healthy himself. I like what they’ve all shown, but it doesn’t exactly feel like your confidently hedging your bet at the position.

    Hopefully the final pre-season games provide some clarity.

  • http://cheeseheadzone.com James Meyer

    The Packers will have an improved running game in 2012 no doubt about it. I envision Benson being used as a 4th quarter grinder to close the game out. Think back to the Bennett / Levens combo. This year we’ll have Green as the scat back early in the game and Benson come in 2nd half and pound.

  • http://grizzlymitch@bresnan.net montanacheezhead

    Haven’t seen much from Saine this summer eithter. I wouldn’t count Starks out. Starks has proven himself on the biggest stage. One quarter of the first pre-season game and everyone is writing him off. I agree that he should go if he can’t get on the field. Benson, Green and Starks looks pretty good.

    • Oppy

      I take offense to the ‘I can’t believe people are judging his overall performance on one quarter of a pre-season game’ line of thought.

      I judge Starks on his professional career. He looked good in the post season of 2010. He had a good game in our post season loss of 2011. Everything in-between was nothing short of disappointing and a ‘stark’ regression.

      Overwhelming body of work shows a guy who has had every opportunity, but isn’t getting it done. I can’t watch any more Packers RB’s stammer and stutter, only to run up the backs of the OL and fail to read the cutback lane.

      They don’t get how to run in this system. Thank god for Cedric Benson.

  • Dan

    Benson looked good tonite, To me, there’s no doubt that he should be the no1 back. I’m glad TT stepped up to the plate at this possition and brought in a half way decent RB instead of relying on 2nd tier players at an important possition. Maybe Starks getting hurt again was a good thing. We needed a grinder. I hope green can turn out to be productive and we have a 1-2 punch

  • Chad Lundberg

    Wow, you guys are SERIOUSLY jumping the gun on James Starks.

    The guy has is only entering his third season in the NFL, and already everyone talks as though this guy is near dead-weight.

    What will your guys’ reaction be if Starks eventually lands the No.1 running back job? Because I won’t be surprised one bit.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Chad,

      Unfortunately, if they thought Starks could be counted on, they would not have gone out and signed a guy like Benson, they would have picked up a camp body. Benson was brought in for one reason – he’s immediately the best running back they have. He will be your starter.

      • Chad Lundberg

        I disagree, I feel they picked up Benson for no other reason than the fact that they only had to pay him as much as they wanted to pay him.

        All I’m saying is that Starks is still relatively new to this league, and we’ve seen what he can do so we know his potential, but it seems as though everyone is already convinced that this guy can’t be counted on.

        • Oppy

          You can’t count on a guy to consistently run for positive yardage week in and week out, when that guy is consistently not available to play from week to week.

          Not to mention, as I stated above, he seems to have regressed throughout 2011 and his early camp showing this season was a continuation of that trend.

          Hope he bounces back, but there’s no reason to believe he will. PLus, you gotta hope if he does bounce back, he won’t miss time due to injury incurred from the bounce

          • Chad Lundberg

            You can’t count on a guy that’s not available to play? Sounds a lot like Cedric Benson…

            In fact, Benson wasn’t even good until he left for the Bengals. You just made my argument.

            • Oppy

              …Because Benson has missed four of the last 48 games? I don’t think any of those were for health reasons. 4 missed games in 3 years is pretty reliable for a RB that had roughly 900 attempts over that time period.

              • Chad Lundberg

                In his first three years, Cedric was unreliable due to so many injuries. The Bears even let him go because they felt he was such a failure.

                James Starks is in his third season, and all I’m hearing from everyone is that he’s “unreliable”. A lot like how Cedric’s career began.

                That was my point. James deserves a lot more chances, if not more so than what Cedric was given.

    • CSS

      I wouldn’t dispute Starks talent, he’s definitively a starter in that regard. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy in almost 6 years if you include college.

      I love the talent, his reliability makes continuity in the offense a bit of a challenge.