Lacy, Starks making most of early platoon
An encore wasn't going to be easy. Eddie Lacy knew that.
The Green Bay Packers' running back was only one of five players in the NFL who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His 18.9 carries per game were the fourth-most among his peers.
In a league where the every-down back is a dying art form, Sports Illustrated made Lacy the poster boy for one of its season previews because everyone was ready for a second helping.
Six weeks into the 2014 season, however, Lacy has yet to see more than 17 carries in a single game. As a rookie, he ventured north of 20 attempts in 10 of the 13 games he finished last season.
There's reason for the changes. The star quarterback is running the show again and Packers coach Mike McCarthy is favoring a backfield platoon with veteran James Starks to keep both players healthy for the long haul.
There's no qualms about using either Lacy or Starks on an entire series without substitution, but the quandary with power backs is getting them enough touches to get going. Right now, the Packers rank 24th in rushing offense (94.8 yards per game).
"It's definitely not easy, but it's different," said Lacy, who is averaging 13.3 carries per game. "It's two different years. No two years are the same. And you may be able to run the ball good one year and you can't run the ball as good the next year. It's time to pass the ball or something like that."
First-year running backs coach Sam Gash said he never was a part of a meeting about limiting Lacy's workload even though he's on pace for 80 fewer carries as his rookie year. The only conversation Gash was privy to was winning.
Last year, the offense rode Lacy when Aaron Rodgers was lost for half the season with a broken collarbone. He rushed for 666 yards with seven touchdowns on 151 carries in the eight games Rodgers missed time.
Starks was the perfect complement. He shook his injury label with the most productive season of his career (93 carries for 493 yards and three touchdowns). Gash agrees backs like Lacy and Starks need more work to get going, but there's still more to the mindset than just touches.
"In terms of the carries, yeah, with the bigger backs, you want Eddie's carries, his eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh carries are some of his better runs," Gash said. "There's some truth to that, but you know these guys are going to play. If they get eight carries, they're going to try to get 100 yards, or at least four yards a carry. If they get 20 carries, the same kind of process and thinking. It's a long season, so we don't ever say, 'OK, we have to get 25 touches today, or 20 touches to get going.'"
There's logic in the Packers' reasoning. When Rodgers finally returned in the regular-season finale against Chicago, Lacy was gutting through an ankle injury.
The last two weeks – both wins, mind you – reps have been almost even. Lacy outpaced Starks in offensive snaps 66-65 and carries 27-20, though it was Starks who started the Packers' game-winning drive in Sunday's 27-24 win over Miami.
Lacy's workload and production (3.8 yards per carry) is lower, but he's still among the league-leaders in broken tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, his 20 forced misses on the ground is the sixth-most in the league. He's broken another five in the passing game.
"When you're a player like Eddie and even James also, you're talking about big backs. They want the carries," McCarthy said. "They want to get in the 20s and start pressing the defense in the third and fourth quarters.
"Particularly when you have big running backs, I've always felt you gain 1 or 2 yards in the first quarter, 2 or 3 in the second quarter, 3 and 4 yards in the third quarter and then the fourth quarter, man, Katy bar the door. That's the philosophy of having big backs."
At the moment, Lacy and Starks are making the most of their situation. As Gash illustrates, there's no animosity between the two players. Lacy even bequeathed Starks a Green Lantern T-shirt to wear under his jersey last week, while he continues to wear his customary Hulk undershirt.
The only thing both men are pitching for is more production from a rushing offense that ranked seventh in the NFL last season. They seemed to turn a corner in combining for 151 yards against Minnesota (6.0 yards per carry), but then had only 71 yards on 22 carries (3.2 ypc) against the Dolphins.
They'll have a prime opportunity this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, who are allowing the fifth-most rushing yards to opposing offense (140.2 yards per game).
"It's been a very comfortable situation," Gash said. "Both the guys are great guys, they want the best for each other, they work hard every day and always trying to help each other get better. … Whoever plays plays, and the other guy stands there and supports him and when his number is called, go right in and go."
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