GREEN BAY, Wis. — Prior to Cedric Benson’s foot injury, there was no question he had become the Packers’ No. 1 running back. Unlike a year ago, when James Starks and Ryan Grant split carries, nearly all handoffs this season had been going to Benson through the first five games.
Now that Benson has been placed on injured reserve with the designation that he could return in Week 14, coach Mike McCarthy has to figure out what to do with the running game for at least the next two months.
“I have no time for competition,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “We’re going to take the hot hand. Alex (Green) and James both got reps today and so did Brandon Saine.
“The first carry will be Alex Green. He’s a little farther ahead than James is right now and that’s the way we’ll go. But we have three halfbacks and we’ll utilize all three of them.”
Starks has been a healthy inactive the past two games but entered training camp as Green Bay’s starting running back. When Starks suffered a turf toe injury in the first preseason game, the Packers signed Benson.
Against the Colts on Sunday, with Starks inactive, Green became the featured running back. However, Green Bay’s run-to-pass ratio drastically changed after Benson was carted to the locker room. To begin the second half, the Packers called passes on their first seven plays, one of which resulted in an interception and three consecutive on the next drive that ended in a punt.
When Green had his two most successful runs in that game, one for nine yards and a 41-yard burst, both plays were immediately followed by touchdown passes.
Even with Benson out, that’s why quarterback Aaron Rodgers believes there needs to be a better mix of run and pass plays.
“With Ced in there, we wanted to give him some opportunities – 15 to 20 rushes, bare minimum,” Rodgers said. “I think (his injury) makes the backfield more of a running back by committee with Alex and James and Brandon, but we’re still going to try to have balance — probably more than we have in the past.”
Green, the Packers’ third-round pick in 2011, has recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 7 last season. Though he has only 15 career rushing attempts, he displayed a few terrific cutbacks to spring his big gain on Sunday.
“It’s definitely an exciting opportunity for me,” Green said. “I just feel comfortable, coming in with the offense. I feel confident. That’s the most important thing about being a running back is confidence. Coaches have done a good job of teaching me the little things.”
Without a commitment to the running game in the second half against the Colts, Green Bay’s offensive line gave up five sacks. Indianapolis was having success with its pass rush partly because it had become apparent the Packers weren’t getting Green involved nearly as much as they had Benson.
“The biggest thing for an offensive lineman, you want to be able to run the ball to keep the defense on their heels and keep them guessing,” right guard Josh Sitton said. “If you’re throwing the ball 10 times in a row, it makes their job a little bit easier. So, for an offensive lineman, you want to keep them guessing.
“And it opens up the passing game when you run the ball. You want to be able to play-action pass and things like that.”
Considering that Green Bay is right back to where it was on the first day of training camp with its running back group, the team should be relatively prepared to play without Benson. Had Starks never gotten injured, it’s likely Benson would be playing elsewhere or still waiting in free agency for a team to call.
“I felt confident in the running game before Cedric,” Sitton said. “I still do. I think we got to see a little bit of Alex. It was good to see him break that big run last week and get out in the open field and make a couple guys miss. I definitely have confidence in those guys.
“They’re going to be getting all the reps this week and from here on out, so they’re just going to get better and better. I’m definitely confident.”