A year ago, the Green Bay Packers rode running back Eddie Lacy to a road win against the Minnesota Vikings.
In a closer-than-expected game, the Packers won by a field goal in Minnesota with Lacy rushing a season-high 25 times for 125 yards and one touchdown. There was nothing flashy about Lacy’s performance. He averaged 5 yards per carry, but his longest run was just 16 yards.
The Packers won inside their division rival’s home stadium because they were able to use Lacy as a workhorse, grinding down the Vikings’ defense. After their lead was cut to 24-21 with less than four minutes left, the Packers used their final possession to run out the clock. Lacy had five carries for 27 yards on the game-winning drive, converting one third down.
“They probably felt the game went the way they would’ve liked it to have gone as far as the number of plays, time of possession,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “They did a good job of shortening the game, but our execution was at a high enough level. We made the big plays, and we were actually able to run the football there to finish the game.”
Lacy is in a different position this week as the Packers prepare for their annual trip to Minnesota. He’s on track to play Sunday after missing last week’s game against the Detroit Lions because of a groin injury, but it’s uncertain how many carries he will get.
Lacy was demoted on the depth chart after a miserable first half of his season, losing his starting job to James Starks. McCarthy said he’ll give Starks the first possession Sunday before turning to Lacy with the second series.
It may be hard to stay patient with Lacy given his struggles, but the Packers’ best chance of winning in Minnesota probably requires them to once again use Lacy as a workhorse.
It’s something they’ve been surprisingly hesitant to do. While Lacy’s production has been disappointing, he has had few opportunities to find a rhythm. With 308 yards, Lacy is on pace to finish the season with a career-low 547. If that number is relevant, so are his 83 rushes. Lacy, after consecutive 1,100-yard seasons, is on track to finish with 99 fewer carries than last season.
Lacy hasn’t done much with his carries. His 3.7-yard average is well behind the 4.3 he averaged in his first two seasons. The dip could have as much to do with his lack of carries as any other factor.
“You look at a running back’s average,” left guard Josh Sitton said, “he doesn’t run 15 plays that have 5 yards every play. That average comes from a 15-, 20-, 25-yard run. When you’re only getting 10 carries a game, it’s tough to get that explosive run.”
There’s no guarantee giving Lacy 20 carries Sunday will be a successful game plan. He’s coming off an injury, and he hasn’t played particularly well when he has been healthy. Lacy uncharacteristically has fumbled in each of his last three games, losing one two weeks ago at Carolina.
McCarthy said earlier this season Lacy has a heavier playing weight than his rookie year in 2013. While Lacy has denied his weight has any bearing on his production, it seems to be the most plausible reason he has struggled.
It seems the Packers prematurely turned away from Lacy. They can’t know whether giving him 20 carries would work because they haven’t in any game this season. He has hit the 15-carry mark only twice. In those two games, Lacy had 19 carries for 85 yards at Chicago (4.5 yards per carry) and 18 carries for 90 yards at San Francisco (5 yards per carry). It’s probably no coincidence his two longest runs came against the Bears and 49ers.
Lacy has produced when given an increased workload. Dating to last season, Lacy has had at least 85 yards in each of the past seven games he carried 15 times.
“If you look at how things played the last two years,” Lacy said last week, “you would think that, or you would assume that, but I really don’t think that matters. Whenever you get a chance, you’re supposed to make the most of it.”
Everyone inside the Packers’ facilities agreed they need to recommit to the running game. When the offense was clicking through the season’s first three weeks, the Packers led the NFL in rushing. Since then, they’ve dropped to 16th. They’re on pace to have their fewest carries since 2011, when their perimeter weapons dwarfed what they now have on the outside.
The Packers’ offensive ceiling is limited with Starks as the featured tailback. Given the chance Sunday, Starks averaged 2.8 yards per carry on 15 attempts against the Lions, who entered as the NFL’s 29th-ranked run defense. His four-yards-per-carry average is only slightly better than Lacy's, as are his 93 carries and 376 yards.
Starks appears to be most effective as a complementary running back. He has been especially dangerous as a receiver on screen passes, something that could be a change of pace for the Packers' offense.
The Packers also learned Sunday what won’t fix their offense. They can’t merely throw their way out of this mess. McCarthy looked back at the game plan against the Lions, the 61 passes Rodgers threw, and realized it was too much.
“Throwing the ball 61 times,” McCarthy said Wednesday, “that’s excessive in one game. You can see the way the game was going. In hindsight, you might want to back up and rethink that, and learn from it as you get ready for the next one.”
The Packers’ overreliance on Rodgers was logical. In a crisis, teams tend to ask more from their best players. When healthy and in a rhythm, Lacy has the potential to be the Packers’ second-best offensive player.
He may need a little more patience and a lot more carries.
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