With one-half of the Green Bay Packers' one-two punch at running back shelved for the year, it is now a reasonable expectation that rookie Eddie Lacy will assume a role equal or greater to that which Cedric Benson held to start the 2012 season.
Originally, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy planned to use Lacy in concert with DuJuan Harris, who burst onto the scene as Green Bay's go-to running back to end last season.
But Tuesday's developments will force McCarthy to formulate a new blueprint for his running game in 2013.
At his post-practice press conference, McCarthy announced that a recurring knee injury would obligate the Packers to place Harris on season-ending injured reserve. The 24-year-old running back first dealt with the injury to start camp, but he re-injured the same knee during his 2013 debut against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday and now needs surgery.
The Packers, who finished 20th in rushing yards and 22nd in rushing average in 2012, received only a brief snapshot of what their running back combination could have been this season.
“Last week was really the first opportunity to play DuJuan and Eddie Lacy in a game as kind of a 1-2 type punch format, and that has now changed," said McCarthy, who also called a Harris an important part of his "individual focus" for the Packers running game.
Now, the offense's plan to feature two running backs is likely headed for the trash bin.
In its place, the Packers will have to lean heavily on Lacy, who has flashed game-breaking abilities at times this preseason.
In his debut against the St. Louis Rams, a game in which Harris did not play, Lacy rattled off 40 yards on eight carries while working with the first-team offense. He unofficially broke at least four tackles, while also catching a pass in which he used his trademarked spin move to get free and pick up 11 yards.
To be fair, his stat line against the Seahawks (eight carries, minus-five yards) was hurt by both poor blocking by the second-team offensive line and a catch in the flat that was recorded as a run for minus-six yards. He also had an 11-yard run early on that was wiped out by a holding call.
It's unknown if Lacy will play much more than a few snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs in the preseason finale.
With Harris unavailable for the 2013 regular season, Lacy could very well see a workload that mirrors or even exceeds what the Packers gave Benson before he suffered his own season-ending injury in 2012.
Over his five games as the starting running back, Benson received 71 carries and caught 14 passes. His averages of 14.2 carries and 2.8 catches a game to start last season equate to 227 and nearly 45 over a 16-game sample.
Here's Benson's 2012 game log:
Lacy might not come close to catching 45 passes, as the Packers will likely use a combination of players in the third-down role. But a total of 227 carries certainly seems possible if he can stay healthy for an entire season.
With 227 carries, even a 4.2-yard average—or what Harris was able to manage to end 2012—would put Lacy in the range of a 1,000-yard rushing season. The Packers haven't had a running back eclipse that milestone since 2009, when Ryan Grant ran for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns.
However, usage is another factor.
In the four-and-a-half games before Benson went down with a Lisfranc injury, the Packers ran just eight times with running backs other than Benson. He was the definition of a lead back, a role Green Bay might not want to force on Lacy early on in his rookie season.
The Packers have veteran backups in Alex Green and James Starks, both of whom could spell the occasionally injury-prone Lacy at a higher rate than Benson received last season.
Still, the feeling from the Packers locker room is that Lacy's role just expanded exponentially with Harris' trip to the IR. Guard Josh Sitton is expecting Lacy to assume a bigger chunk of the Packers offense, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.
“He’s going to have to step up and probably have a larger role,” Sitton said. “He’s going to have to grow. He can’t be a rookie anymore.”
The Packers' other options at running back don't inspire a great deal of confidence.
Green, a former third-round pick, led the Packers in rushing last season with 464 yards, but he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. Lingering effects from reconstructive knee surgery hurt his effectiveness late in the season, but at no point did Green eclipse even 70 yards rushing in a single game.
Starks has been an effective runner at times in the past, but staying on the field has always been his biggest problem. The fourth-year back has missed more games (26) than he's actually played (22) during his NFL career. Starks has been healthy this year, but he certainly looked like the odd man out of the backfield before Harris' injury.
Even fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin has been underwhelming throughout the summer, and it's unlikely he'll be a major contender for carries, especially early in the season. His best-case scenario might be developing into a player similar to Harris, but that progression schedule looks further into the future than many thought when the Packers used a fourth-round pick on the UCLA product in April.
With Harris no longer in the equation, the Packers running back job looks like Lacy's to own.
McCarthy's plans for a one-two punch in the backfield are likely history, leaving Lacy with an opportunity to gobble up carries and touches in much the same way Benson did to start last season. As long as he can stay healthy, the rookie running back should be expected to carry the load for the Green Bay running game in 2013.