Ground game sets tone as Lacy runs past Lions
The game film churned their stomachs all week. A whiffed block here. An unfinished assignment there.
Over and over, the Green Bay Packers' offensive line was sickened by its mistakes.
This was the last time Green Bay met the Detroit Lions. Back in September, a putrid, vanilla offense stumbled at Ford Field. Collectively, the offensive line was determined to make Sunday's rematch different.
It vowed it would start on the ground.
"I think everybody knew it," rookie center Corey Linsley said. "It was just the minor tweaks that we had to make, and they paid off."
With the NFC North title on the line, Green Bay's offensive line made those minor tweaks. The result was not so minor. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned in an MVP performance that had teammates grasping for superlatives, but the Packers' running game set the tone in a 30-20 win that clinched the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
Detroit entered Sunday's game with the NFL's top rushing defense, allowing 63.8 yards per game. By halftime, Green Bay had rushed for 112.
The Packers' 152 rushing yards by game's end were exactly double the production from its first meeting with Detroit.
"From this game to the first game, we just finished better," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "From re-watching the first one, we didn't finish well enough in the run game. We just never got anything started. Today, that was one thing we knew coming in, was finish, finish, finish. Churn those extra yards up, push piles. I think we did that."
There were no changes to Green Bay's game plan Sunday. Linsley said the Packers mostly called the same rushing plays with the same blocking assignment used in their first meeting with the Lions. Unlike September, the offensive line was able to get into a rhythm, starting with its first drive.
The Packers opened by ripping off runs of 22, 5, 8 and 21 yards on its first four plays. Tailbacks Eddie Lacy and James Starks carried Green Bay from its 37-yard line to the Lions' 7. The drive stalled at the 1-yard line, but Bulaga said a tone was set.
At the end of their first possession, the Packers had 61 rushing yards. For the next four quarters, they never stopped running the football.
"You really can't say enough about (the offensive line)," Lacy said. "Coming in against that front four we had to play against, I think they did a tremendous job. I mean, every play wasn't blocked perfectly, and with that front four that they have, you can't expect it to be. They have physical guys, they're strong.
"It's all about mindset. Our offensive line came out with that mindset, and they created a lot of holes that I was able to run through and make the most of those opportunities."
It wasn't all the offensive line.
Downfield, Lacy broke tackles. He fought for extra yards. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back carried tacklers with him, kept driving the pile, finished runs the way he's done for much of his two seasons.
With 100 yards on 26 carries, Lacy became the first running back to hit triple digits against the Lions this season.Before Sunday, Detroit hadn't allowed more than 90 combined rushing yards to any opponent in a game this season.
With a calf injury limiting Rodgers, Lacy and the offensive line knew they had to carry a significant portion of the workload. They delivered.
"It's something we talked about all week," right guard T.J. Lang said. "If we wanted to beat these guys, we needed to run the ball. Nobody's really done it against them well all year. They were No. 1 against the run, and we knew that was one of our major goals. It was a productive day for us on the ground. I think it kept us well balanced."
Slowly, Green Bay's rushing offense has become a team strength. The Packers entered Sunday ranked 11th with 117.7 yards per game, ninth with 4.4 yards per carry. In their past three games, their 152.7 yards per game ranked fifth in the NFL.
Lacy, especially, has found his rhythm in the season's final weeks. He's rushed for at least 97 yards in five of his past six games, giving him 1,139 this season.
In recent postseasons, a lack of offensive balance has been one reason for flameouts. Down the stretch, this Packers offense has a different feel. It was punctuated Sunday with a season-high performance against the NFL's best run defense.
"I think it's kind of what we built up to all year, is being able to run the ball late in the season, and keeping guys healthy," Lang said. "Eddie didn't really have a great amount of carries early in the season. Second half, we definitely amped it up a little bit. That's something you've got to do late in the season and in the playoffs if you want to beat some good teams."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood