At this time last season, the Packers' playoff hopes rested on Eddie Lacy's sprained ankle, a recurring issue that wouldn't subside until after the season was over.
With Aaron Rodgers out with a broken collarbone, the Packers leaned heavily on the eventual NFL offensive rookie of the year, who spent the final month of the season playing on limited practice reps. During many weeks, he'd have his foot encased in a walking boot.
That hasn't been the case this year. Whatever the Packers' intentions for Lacy's reduced workload earlier this season, the 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back is fresh entering the final month of the regular season.
Lacy hadn't rushed the ball more than 20 times in a game until the past two weeks, picking up important yards on the ground in close victories over New England (26-21) and Minnesota (24-21). A year ago, he already had seven games with more than 20 carries entering December.
"I definitely feel a lot more fresh like now down the stretch than I did last year," said Lacy, who's had 175 carries compared to 207 at this time last year. "Me and (James) Starks, we've been switching a lot, too. We didn't run the ball as much in the beginning. I definitely think that helped out."
The recent increase in carries has Lacy back on target for back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing season (233 carries, 1,026 yards and eight touchdowns). It would be the first time since Ryan Grant did it consecutively in 2008 and 2009.
If you throw in his 352 receiving yards, Lacy is on pace to surpass his 1,435 total yards from scrimmage as a rookie. Despite a slow September when he averaged only 3.0-yards per carry, Lacy's 4.4-yards per attempt is actually an increase over last year's 4.1.
Lacy ran well on a bad wheel late last season, though he had to pull out of games against Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Rodgers' return has lightened his burden for the stretch run, which could come in handy with their upcoming series of opponents.
The run defenses from Atlanta (21st, 118.2 yards per game) and Tampa Bay (19, 116.0) don't appear to be too much of a concern, but upcoming dates with Buffalo (seventh, 96.3) and league-leading Detroit (first, 65.9) are on the horizon.
Anything can happen in any given week, but Lacy likes how things set up. Along with his availability, veteran James Starks is on target to play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career.
"Whether we ran the ball earlier or the whole season or whatever, this is when it really counts, especially because of the weather," Lacy said. "To have two backs that's fresh, definitely helps the team out."
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