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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Eddie Lacy thought he had the linebacker beat. He was running almost 20 yards down the right sideline. Just a safety between him and a breakaway.

That’s when Lacy felt a strange, yanking pain. The beaten linebacker was trying desperately to catch up. With his right hand, San Francisco 49ers veteran Gerald Hodges reached out and grabbed the only thing he could.

He caught a fist full of dreadlocks.

“It definitely hurts,” Lacy said standing at his locker after the Green Bay Packers' 21-10 win. “The first thought in my mind was a word I can’t really say.”

In increments, the NFL has abolished the horse-collar tackle. Defender can’t reach inside the ballcarrier’s shoulder pads. New this year, defenders can’t tug above the nameplate on a jersey.

The only thing that remains fair game? Hair.

Lacy knew this, but until Friday night never had a reason to be concerned. Despite dreadlocks long enough to cover the top of his No. 27, Lacy said a defender hadn’t tackled him by his hair since he was a high school junior. That was eight year ago this fall.

So Lacy was surprised when he felt a hand grab his dreadlocks, but that’s not all. Lacy admitted he was also scared.

“For my legs,” Lacy said. “They’re important. Because that’s how most guys hurt their knees, because you get pulled from the back. Which is why the horse collar rule thing (exists). So luckily that didn’t happen.”

Lacy personifies happy-go-lucky. Ask him about a preseason that has gotten him back on track, and he responds with two words: “I’m cool.” It’s hard to shake him.

But Hodges’ tackle was certainly a surprise.

When asked how long his hair is right now, Lacy only responded “longer than I want it.” Though he trims it periodically, he hasn’t cut his hair in a year. After Friday night, Lacy said, he’s “debating” getting a haircut when he travels home to Louisiana during the Packers’ bye week in late September.

"I’m debating after that," Lacy said. "I don’t know how many more of those I’d like to experience. We’re in camp. So I’ve got to wait until I get out of camp, and then I’ll assess it.”

On Saturday, Lacy tweeted that he’s “not cutting my hair completely off just trimming it.”

Add it to a list that has become Lacy’s offseason makeover. He already shed more than 10 pounds for the start of training camp. Through three preseason games, Lacy has done everything the Packers could’ve hoped.

Lacy has 20 carries for 114 yards (5.7-yard average) and a touchdown in three preseason quarters. He also has a 20-yard carry in each of his past two games. His play has impressed quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“I’ve never worried about Eddie,” Rodgers said. “I never had any worries about his play on the field. He’s a gamer. He comes ready to play, and he’s tough. He finishes runs, he knows how to run the football between the tackles. He’s been doing a good job of making plays outside the tackle as well. So I think he’s ready to go.”

The Packers will continue to rely on James Starks as a change-of-pace tailback. Rodgers said Starks complements Lacy well, providing a “great one-two punch” in the backfield.

But Lacy has looked like the lead running back of his first two seasons, when he finished with consecutive 1,100-yard seasons.

In theory, the Packers could rest Lacy during their preseason finale Thursday in Kansas City. Starters traditionally stay on the sideline during fourth preseason exhibitions. With three solid outings, Lacy could be a candidate to shut it down.

But it has been an important preseason for him. Lacy has enjoyed how the Packers established their running game to start each of their first three exhibitions. Rodgers said he’s seen Lacy improve in pass protection as well as a runner.

“That’s the steps you’ve seen (from) him in his growth,” Rodgers said. “It’s more than just running. We know he’s a tough guy, smart and finishes runs. He’s a big body and tough to tackle. But he’s been doing a good job in pass protection and his reads, as he reads defenses and protects well.

“So there’s things I’m really impressed with, and that goes back to preparation. He’s got a great approach.”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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