Packers by Position: RBs

If you don’t think the running game matters to a team with the National Football League’s MVP at the controls of one of the most high-powered passing games in the league, well, then Greg Jennings disagrees with you.

The Green Bay Packers two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver went on NFL Network’s “Total Access” last week, and when asked what the Packers’ biggest question mark is entering the 2012 season, Jennings didn’t respond with fixing the league’s 32nd-ranked defense, or finding a serviceable left tackle to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. No, Jennings said the biggest issue facing the team is its less-than-fearsome ground game.

“The biggest question … I’m going to do a little self-scouting because defenses don’t prepare for our run game,” Jennings said. “Defensive coordinators aren’t wracking their brain, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to stop their running game.’ So can we sustain this high level of explosive level offense without a run game? It’s going to be interesting to see.

“I’m (of the) belief that we’re going to fix our running game and we’re going to get it going this year. But that’s probably going to be the number one focus of us – us meaning us within that locker room that know we need to change something on that side of the ball.”

That may be true among the players, but according to new running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, the running backs’ list of priorities remains the same. As it has always been under head coach Mike McCarthy – with Jerry Fontenot as running backs coach last season and Edgar Bennett as running backs coach for five years before that – the running backs’ to-do list remains protecting the quarterback, ball security, and then to run the ball productively.

“I think it speaks to the way this offense operates. Obviously with a guy like Aaron Rodgers, you’re going to use his ability to throw the football, especially with the talent that we have around him at receiver,” Van Pelt said. “First and foremost, we have to keep him upright. Then when we do run the ball, we’ve got to protect the ball. Those are the two things we say in our room – ‘Protect our football, and protect our quarterback.’ That’s it. If we can do that, we’ve got a chance.”

Last season, the Packers’ leading rushers were James Starks, who carried 133 times for 578 yards (4.3-yard average) and one touchdown, and Ryan Grant, who remains on the free-agent market after carrying 134 times for 559 yards (4.2-yard average) and two touchdowns.

Without Grant, whose locker has been given away and hasn’t heard from the Packers all offseason, the lead role presumably will go to Starks, despite a troubling track record with injuries. He missed his entire senior at the University of Buffalo with a torn labrum in his shoulder; spent the first half of his rookie season with the Packers in 2010 on the physically unable to perform list with a torn hamstring and was severely hampered down the stretch last season by knee and ankle injuries he suffered on Nov. 20 against Tampa Bay. Although he ended up playing in 13 regular-season games, he was unable to finish three of those late in the season, after the injury.

While Starks was a godsend on the Packers’ road to the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010, his lack of durability is a major issue.

“I see a powerful, slashing runner that he can do some great things. Obviously he’s done it, he’s proven it,” Van Pelt said. “(He’s an) explosive guy, powerful guy … (We’ve) just got to keep him healthy. That’s the difference. He’s got to play 16 games this year. Got to. We’ve got to get him through it. I know he’s put in the work now with the weights and the offseason program. He’s done a nice job there. That’s the first part. Then going in with the mentality of, ‘I’m not going to miss a game. If I have to play nicked, I’m going to do it.’ Having that toughness to go out there and be there every week for your team.”

Starks said he’s spent the offseason “stretching a little more at night and trying to get my endurance up so the legs don’t get as tired,” but his primary solution for his injury problems: Prayer.

“It’s football. You never really know what’s going to come about,” Starks said. “Past years, I happened to get little nicks and bruises here and there, but I’m going to pray on it and God willing have and injury-free year and I’ll keep getting better.”

The coaches also see big things for second-year running back Alex Green, who missed most of his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered Oct. 23 at Minnesota, even though he’s unsure of whether he’ll be ready for the first practice of training camp on July 26.

“Physically, I’m doing good. Each week I’m progressing a lot. I’ve been cutting at as close to full speed as possible, and just my conditioning, my endurance in my leg, I’m getting back in the rhythm of things,” Green said. “I knew all along they weren’t going to let me go (in minicamp). I’d always bug them, ‘C’mon, just one day,’ but it’s not going to happen until – at the earliest – camp.”

Asked if he’s gotten a feeling that the coaches want to give him a significant role in the offense, Green replied, “They don’t really tell us. I’m not getting any vibe. I haven’t talked to the coaches about it. Just the way things play out, you kind of get the sense. With only three running backs, we’re probably all going to get a little piece of the pie. As far as that goes, that’s the only vibe I’ve gotten. I’m just worried about getting back on the field again and see what I can do from there.”