GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Every time the Green Bay Packers send a running back out on the field, they ask themselves, can this guy stand guard over the franchise?
Having the guy be a 1,000-yard rusher is always nice. Being a decent receiver is a plus. But if he can't protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he might as well not put on his cleats.
This is not breaking news around here, but it does speak to the difficulty the Packers can encounter when they construct game plans. It is something they have to consider before taking the field to play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
There is a chance the Packers will be without rookie Eddie Lacy (concussion) and veteran John Kuhn (hamstring), who represent exactly one half of their backfield. Neither practiced for the second straight day Thursday, and each has one more practice to show he can help against the Bengals.
"Eddie Lacy took a step today in the (concussion) protocol, so we'll see where he is tomorrow," coach Mike McCarthy said. "The medical staff still feels like he has a good opportunity, so he has to practice tomorrow for us to be able to gauge him. We'll see where he is tomorrow."
Even if he were to practice Friday, the odds of the Packers suiting him up for what would be a part-time role don't seem very good. They have already declared James Starks the starter and are prepared for him to handle the bulk of the snaps at halfback.
Kuhn's status is unknown, and his absence could create a serious problem, especially where pass protection is concerned. In the past, he has been Rodgers' personal bodyguard on third downs because of his ability not only to pick up blitzes, but also to point out to others that they are coming.
"John is a big loss in a lot of ways, special teams, protection," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said of the potential not to have Kuhn. "His ability to play the game, he knows the ins and outs of the game. He understands what we're trying to get done."
If both are out, that leaves Starks and rookie Johnathan Franklin, who has not played a single snap from scrimmage this year, to handle the halfback duties. Tight ends Andrew Quarless, Jermichael Finley and Ryan Taylor would handle fullback duties.
McCarthy did not rule out the possibility that practice squad running back Michael Hill would be signed to add some depth. Hill proved to be a reliable blocker during training camp with San Diego and was edged out of a roster spot on the final cutdown before joining the Packers.
"The preference is not to go into the game with two running backs," McCarthy said. "I did that one time in Kansas City, learned a hard lesson, especially when one of them was nicked going into that game. It hurt us in the second half.
"We'll be much better prepared than we were two years ago in Kansas City."
Through the first two weeks, McCarthy has opted to use Lacy and Starks on third downs because they provide a better run-pass threat than Kuhn and allow the no-huddle offense to keep rolling without personnel changes.
But Lacy was complicit in getting Rodgers sacked against San Francisco on the first series and wasn't tested much the rest of the way because the 49ers don't blitz much. Rodgers got hit at the end of the second quarter against Washington after Starks failed to pick up a blitz.
The good news for McCarthy is that Starks rebounded from his second-quarter miss to be flawless on a half dozen or more pass plays after that. The most impressive was a play-action pass in which he faked the dive and then caught out of the corner of his eye cornerback Josh Wilson blitzing from the left and knocked him off course.
Rodgers completed a 37-yard pass to receiver Jordy Nelson on the play. On the next one, Starks ran 32 yards for a touchdown.
"He was good," Van Pelt said. "I thought he held up. He was on the right guy. He had one error on an assignment, but as far as his ability to pass protect, I liked what James did. His understanding of the protections is the highest it's been."
Starks not only protected well, he ran for a career-high 132 yards on 20 carries.
Cincinnati did not blitz a lot Monday night against Pittsburgh, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer could be planning a stampede aimed at Rodgers on Sunday. Starks, who played an exceptionally high 63 snaps against Washington, would be challenged to play that much again.
So if Kuhn and Lacy are out, Franklin might make his debut from scrimmage.
McCarthy said earlier in the week that he had intended to get Franklin into the game against Washington but rode the hot hand of Starks. Assuming Starks needs a break on third downs and McCarthy doesn't just stick Quarless or Taylor in the backfield to block, Franklin is going to have to play.
"He needs game experience and game reps," Van Pelt said. "He grew as the preseason went on as a runner. First game, a little shaky, but kind of smoothed it out the last three.
"I think early on it was a little nerve-racking for him and it showed a little bit in his tracks and footwork in the run game. But now I feel confident he would go in and give us a spark if we need it."
Van Pelt has thrown the rookie onto the scout team offense on third downs so he can get extra work on pass protection. Despite Franklin being 5-10 and 205 pounds -- Starks is 6-2, 218 and Kuhn is 6-0, 250 -- Van Pelt said he wouldn't hesitate to put him in the game to protect Rodgers.
In fact, he would like to see him in that situation so the Packers can take advantage of his open-field running ability on screens, wheel routes and check-downs. He also knows the Bengals would like to see him in that situation, too, so they can send one of their rugged linebackers at him.
"Guys are going to try to run him over," Van Pelt said of pass blocking. "He knows that, so he's going to have to set and take away that move first and then react to the rest."
If pass blocking is a problem, the 5-10, 210-pound Hill would be another option. The leading rusher in Division II last year at Missouri Western, the undrafted Hill said he made the protection calls before the snap in college, not the quarterback.
When Van Pelt talked to people in San Diego, they told him whenever they needed one of their young backs to play on third down in the preseason, they put Hill in because they knew he would block the right guy.
"You have to be able to block, to protect the quarterback, especially this one," Hill said. "That's big here. If I'm activated that would be awesome. If that happens, I'll step up and do my job and make plays."
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