There was reason to wonder what was going on with running back Eddie Lacy through the Green Bay Packers' first four games.
The NFL's 2013 offensive rookie of the year was averaging only 40.3 yards a game and 3.0 yards a carry. That's down from 78.5 yards and 4.1 yards last season.
Then Lacy broke out in the Packers' 42-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. He had 105 yards and 8.1-yard average while playing only half (27) of the Packers' offensive snaps. And after reviewing the game video, it's hard not to think that the difference from the first four games was more the blocking than anything Lacy was or wasn't doing.
It's also hard not to wonder how much the Packers' emphasis on throwing the ball the week before against the Chicago Bears might have helped Thursday night. Last Sunday, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers went after the Bears early and often through the air, and put up 302 yards passing and a 151.2 rating in a game they won by three touchdowns. It was by far their best performance of the young season.
The Vikings watched that video and saw McCarthy revive his offense by putting the game in Rodgers' hands. It had to affect their game plan and influence their defensive players' approach to certain plays. Maybe on a couple of early-down snaps their linebackers were leaning back a little thinking they'd be dropping in coverage; or their safeties lined up a step or two deeper wary of the deep ball; or their defensive line was thinking rush the passer as much as play the run.
Regardless, several plays illustrated how well the Packers run blocked on Thursday night, and another play or two showed how just a single defeated blocker can subvert a run play.
The Packers' second series alone showed everything you need to know about good run blocking, and how a good back such as Lacy can exploit it.
The first play of the drive was a Lacy zone run to the right. The right side of the line (guard T.J. Lang, tackle Bryan Bulaga and tight end Andrew Quarless) got some push blocking three against two. Center Corey Linsley jumped out to the backside linebacker, Anthony Barr, and cut off his pursuit.
But another key block was on the backside by left guard Josh Sitton, who cut defensive tackle Linval Joseph in the hole Linsley had vacated. That left the Vikings with no backside pursuit, which allowed Lacy to cut back on the one defender unaccounted for in the front seven, front-side linebacker Gerald Hodges. Lacy went untouched for about 10 yards on his way to an 18-yard gain. Downfield blocks by Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb helped spring him as well.
The next play was a Lacy run to the left. Linsley blocked the front-side linebacker (Hodges) at the line, Lang blocked the backside linebacker (Barr) a few yards downfield, and Lacy had a huge hole. He went untouched for 17 yards, then barreled over safety Robert Blanton and rumbled to another 12 on his own.
Later, Lacy's first touchdown showed a first-rate back turning a nothing play into something. On first down from the Vikings' 11, Lacy ran left. Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen nearly blew up the play when he held a strong left edge against tackle David Bakhtiari.
But Lacy had the vision and ability to stop in his tracks and reverse to the right side. Quarless was a few yards downfield on that side, saw the cutback and blocked safety Harrison Smith. Nelson did the same with cornerback Josh Robinson at about the 1. It's not as easy as it might appear to maintain those blocks in the open field, where officials have a great view to spot holding, but they did it, and Lacy had a wide alley to the end zone.
On the other end of the continuum, you saw how one mistake can doom a run play in the second quarter, when the Packers had a first down at the Vikings' 20. On a stretch run to the left, the line had mostly stalemate-type blocks. Linsley fired out to block Hodges but missed, so Hodges was able to trail the play and take away Lacy's cutback. The run strung out, and Lacy was tackled for no gain, rather than the potentially nice gain he might have picked up if Hodges hadn't cut off the cutback.
No doubt the quality of the defense has something to say about how well the Packers run the ball. Seattle and Detroit rank in the top seven in yards allowed and yards allowed per carry, and they shut down Lacy (70 yards on 23 carries combined). Running well against them is much tougher.
But with Rodgers orchestrating the offense, the Packers don't need to run well to win, they just need to run well enough. Maybe now they've found the rhythm for their passing game to help the run, instead of vice versa.
An inside job
It looks like Brad Jones is going to have a tough time getting back his starting job at inside linebacker.
Fourth-year pro Jamari Lattimore has played well in the four games he's replaced Jones and had probably his best game Thursday night.
Lattimore is the Packers' best inside linebacker at pressing the line of scrimmage against the run. That's the main reason he's likely to hold the starting job. He's tied for third on the team in tackles (28) even though he's played only 59.2 percent of the defensive snaps. And he showed similar aggressiveness on his second-quarter interception Thursday night.
On that play, little halfback Jerrick McKinnon (5-9, 208) circled out of the backfield into Lattimore's zone, faked to the outside and then cut inside. When Lattimore saw quarterback Christian Ponder start to throw, he drove hard on the ball, which was slightly behind McKinnon, and intercepted. A lot of times you see the linebacker on that kind of play content to go for the tackle and not drive on the ball. And how many times do you see a defender drop that pass and stand there with his hands on his head wondering how he didn't catch it?
Jones returned from his quad injury Thursday night but played only seven snaps on defense to Lattimore's 52. Jones still offers good length in pass coverage — at 6-3 he's harder to throw over — but with the way Lattimore's playing, it's hard to see him coming out of the lineup. Coach Mike McCarthy suggested as much at his Friday press conference.
"I like the way Jamari's played, particularly coming from Chicago into the Minnesota game," McCarthy said.
Julius Peppers sure didn't look 287 pounds or 34 years old when he ran across the field and scored on that 49-yard interception return Thursday night.
He doesn't play much in coverage, and for a guy his size and age, that was an incredible display of athleticism. Now that the games are for real, he appears rejuvenated by his offseason move from the Bears to the Packers. He's playing the run well, rushing the passer, doing it all.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty