Rookies stepping up for Packers in playoffs

What a special class.

Finding one or two starters in a draft class is typical, but sometimes it can take a few years of development. Every once in a while a team scores a draft class where it finds several players who contribute, but it still may take a few years. Due to the obscene amount of injuries incurred by the Packers this year, the 2010 rookie class has gotten a chance to show its stuff in its first year and it helped them upset the Eagles Sunday.

The Packers have gotten 36 starts out of their rookies this season. Bryan Bulaga has stepped in for injured tackle Mark Tauscher and although Bulaga has had growing pains, he hasn’t been a problem. Morgan Burnett filled in nicely for injured safety Atari Bigby, but Burnett also fell victim to the injury bug and only got to start four games. Andrew Quarless has filled in for Jermichael Finley, C.J. Wilson has filled in at times at defensive tackle, and Sam Shields and Frank Zombo have both been amazing for undrafted free agents, amassing 14 starts between them.

Oh yeah, and that James Starks guy.

With Ryan Grant going down in the first game, so did the Packers’ running game. They have struggled all season to try and replace the production Grant had provided the last several years. Brandon Jackson has shown some glimpses of success, but ultimately dances around a little too much behind the line of scrimmage.

Starks, after missing the first half of the season while recovering on the PUP list, showed a spark against the 49ers in week 12, but didn’t really show up again until last week against the Eagles. Starks showed what the running had been lacking so far by hitting the hole and he hitting it with zeal.

That was just what the Packers needed. A running performance like the 123-yard game Starks had Sunday allowed the Packers to keep the ball out of the Eagles’ hands. The four-yard runs also allowed for more favorable second and third down situations.

Against the Eagles’ offense, the Packers’ defense was going to have its hands full. Everyone knew that. The Eagles had arguably the most explosive offense in the NFL this season with Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy.

On the defensive side of the ball, C.J. Wilson put in some time against the Eagles, registering one tackle. But Sam Shields made his presence felt right away, hanging step for step with Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, knocking the ball away from Maclin just as he was about to come down with a long gain early in the game. Shields ended up with four tackles and one pass defended in the game, and Jackson and Maclin combined for only five catches and no touchdowns.

Shields has done that all season, continuing the impressive transition from wide receiver to cornerback he started his senior year at the University of Miami (Fl). With the Packers playing nickel defense pretty often and Charles Woodson moving into the slot in those situations, Shields is a basically a starter, making six official starts in the regular season. If he continues at the rate he is progressing, Shields will be a valued member of the defense for years to come.

Last season against the Cardinals in the playoffs, the secondary was victimized to put it nicely. This season, the emergence of Shields along with Tramon Williams has minimized that problem. The defense has allowed only 16 passing touchdowns this season versus 29 last season.

The running game was a problem this season, and Starks might be the spark the offense needs to take that extra step to make opposing defenses account for more than Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.

With Shields, Starks, and the rest of the rookies that are contributing right now, the Packers could be poised for a deep playoff run.

Just ask the Eagles.