The power, balance and field vision are nothing new. Two years ago, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy entered the NFL with a natural gift to make tacklers miss.
By now, Lacy's ability to be a threat catching the football surprises nobody. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers remembers when the Packers hosted the Atlanta Falcons last December. Lacy's five catches for 33 yards – including a 1-yard touchdown – didn't adequately highlight his value in the passing game that night.
Rodgers was left without a receiver open downfield several times. Repeatedly, he found Lacy wide open, making a play out of nothing.
"That was like a personal highlight film for him with some of those check downs," Rodgers said. "… He has such great vision and balance. You just kind of want to give him the ball and get out of the way. He's tough to bring down."
There's a reason Rodgers remembers those check downs nine months later. At a glance, they don't look like much. Lacy escapes the backfield, catches the football, shows that natural gift downfield.
But there's a science to it. Before each snap, a Packers' running back often is responsible for multiple potential pass rushers. Transfer from blocker to receiver too soon, and the play is ruined.
"He's very instinctive," center Corey Linsley said, "in terms of sometimes the backs have three guys to check before they go out. Maybe I'm over-touting him or whatever, but I don't remember last year being like, 'Oh, Eddie missed that guy.'"
Coach Mike McCarthy frequently discusses the importance of players developing from Year 1 to Year 2, Year 2 to Year 3. It's hard to see Lacy's progress.
The former second-round pick entered the league already playing at a Pro Bowl level. He was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, well earned with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
But, McCarthy said, his starting running back has improved. For him, it's his ability to seamlessly pick up blitzes, choosing the right time to become a receiver.
"I would say Eddie Lacy's biggest growth would be in the pass protection," McCarthy said, "and really pass receiving check downs. That's where he's made the biggest improvement, particularly from Year 1 to Year 2 and even more so this year."
No, it's not exciting. Running backs are expected to chew up yards, score touchdowns. They don't hand out fantasy football points for pancakes blocks.
Of course, Rodgers appreciates his pass protection. When he watches Lacy on film now, he sees more than a big, powerful back moving the offense. Rodgers said Lacy has proven to be more comfortable with the Packers' intricate blocking schemes.
"The progression I see," Rodgers said, "is just a feel in the passing game. Because the guy can run – that's why he's here – but when you can really pick up pressures and do a good job reading the rotation of the safeties, that's when you kind of can be a three-down back."
At times, Lacy made football look easy during his rookie season.
Now, he said, the game is even slower. He's more comfortable running behind the same offensive line for the third straight year. His reads are more natural, almost second nature. Lacy said he's able to better predict where tacklers are going to be before they get there.
But, Lacy said, the game has also slowed down before the snap.
"It's a lot easier for me now," Lacy said. "My rookie year, it was a bit difficult because I would overthink too much, and it could get confusing at times. But now I'm keyed in after going on three years in the offense. So I know what to look at, the key safety rotation. So it's a lot better now."
Lacy has the luxury of learning from Sam Gash, the only position coach he's ever played for in the NFL. Few understand the science of executing check-down passes better. Gash, a two-time Pro Bowler, was one of the league's best blocking fullbacks a little more than a decade ago.
Gash said Lacy was a willing blocker when he arrived in Green Bay as a rookie. He just needed fundamentals. Blocking wasn't always a high priority for Lacy in college. His primary job at Alabama was to help pave the way to a national championship while carrying the football.
When it's the NFL MVP under center, pass protection is critical. To stay on the field every down, Lacy could have no weaknesses in his game. Entering Year 3, he doesn't.
"He's improved his (blocking) footwork," Gash said. "His balance at the point of contact. I just think that every day just seeing it when he's not in there, and when he's in there just kind of seeing it, has helped it slow down for him and being able to recognize.
"He's gotten a lot more comfortable with the offense. It seems to be a lot easier communication between him and Aaron when they're in there. I just think he's getting more comfortable being an every-down guy."
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