Given the recent report by the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Pete Dougherty that Green Bay is looking to cut down Eddie Lacy's carries, it would seem counterintuitive that the Packers' future offense would feature him prominently.
Though Mike McCarthy and running backs coach Alex Van Pelt want Lacy to move away from the whopping 29 carries he had Week 8 toward a more reasonable 20 carries per game, that fact only underscores the vital role they foresee the rookie back having in the Packers offense for many years.
Lacy has cemented his role as a game-changer for Green Bay's offense at exactly the right time.
The Packers got a glimpse of how their offense looks without Aaron Rodgers at the helm Monday night, when he suffered a fractured collarbone in a takedown by Chicago linebacker Shea McClellin. A source told ESPN's Rob Demovsky that it's going "to be a little while" before Rodgers returns. No timetable is currently known.
The organization has taken some heat for not having done more to prepare for this situation, and backup quarterback Seneca Wallace's performance in Rodgers' stead (114 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) didn't give fans a strong measure of confidence.
But in many ways, the emergence of Eddie Lacy has prepared the team to win no matter who is at the helm.
Let's take a look at how the Packers' running game went from No. 20 in the league in rushing yards per game in 2012 to No. 2 through nine weeks in the 2013 season—and how the Packers can keep it up while ensuring Lacy is not overburdened.
It makes one wonder whether the Packers still would have used their fourth-round pick on Johnathan Franklin in the 2013 NFL draft—after having taken Eddie Lacy just 64 spots earlier—if there weren't concerns about Lacy's injury history.
Lacy missed the combine with a hamstring injury, which in addition to having a surgically repaired toe, reportedly drove Broncos general manager John Elway to select running back Montee Ball ahead of him in the draft.
The Packers, meanwhile, had the opportunity to select Lacy in the first round, but Ted Thompson didn't see the value there.
But when Lacy was still on the board at pick No. 61 in the second round, Thompson saw a value pick that also filled a need. He knew he had a similar but injury-prone halfback already on the roster in James Starks, who has missed time in three seasons to four separate injuries.
And so the Packers drafted Lacy, in spite of scouting reports that, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, cautioned that "he'll be good but probably won't be great;" that he "doesn't have that dynamic skill set;" that "he's an accident looking for a place to happen."
But one scout saw that Lacy would be capable of exactly what the Packers need from him now: "He's tough enough to pass block and take 20 carries a game."
Pass-Blocking and Play-Action
Turns out, Lacy does have a dynamic skill set. How that relates to the different ways he gets yards on the ground, we'll explore below. But almost as important as being No. 4* in rushing yards per game is what Lacy does to help the passing game.
(*A note about Lacy's average yards per game - if we toss out the Week 2 Washington game, in which Lacy was knocked out after just one carry for 10 yards, Lacy actually is No. 1 overall in the league in rushing yards per game, at 97.7.)
With a respectable ground game, opposing defenses are kept honest by being forced to bring an extra safety down into the box, showing one-high safety looks which then in turn open up passing lanes for the quarterback.
Lacy has had just that sort of impact on the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus analyst Bryan Hall, Lacy "was the biggest weapon in the passing game, even without a catch" Monday night against the Bears.
Seneca Wallace's passer rating when using play-action? 102.7. His rating without play-action? 24.7
Lacy's value in opening up the passing game is important whether Rodgers or Wallace is taking snaps from center, but it's certainly more useful to a backup quarterback who is unestablished in the offense.
Defenders haven't failed to notice the surge in Green Bay's running game this season. They'll expect the Packers to rely on it even more to move downfield and put points on the board.
Using Lacy to successfully sell play-action gives Wallace the best chance to complete a higher percentage of his passes.
The below All-22 film from the matchup against the Minnesota Vikings shows a great example of a successful play-action fake from Rodgers to Lacy.
When Rodgers fakes the handoff, linebacker Erin Henderson and cornerback Josh Robinson hesitate momentarily to locate the ball. That leaves Myles White, who has a blocker in Boykin on the outside, open for Rodgers.
Lacy's presence in the backfield will give Wallace many one-high safety looks, which should give the backup and Green Bay's talented receiver corps some downfield opportunities.
As for the scout who had confidence in Lacy's pass-blocking? He deserves a raise for seeing potential in that area when many other scouts didn't.
Lacy is the No. 11 blocker among all halfbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Though there were some concerns that Lacy was merely a power back who couldn't protect the quarterback, Van Pelt has been very pleased with his development there.
"He made some improvements in pass protection this past game over the previous game," Van Pelt told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after the Packers faced the Browns. "He's getting better, becoming more of an all-around back."
In the future, when Rodgers is healthy, it's important for Lacy to demonstrate he has the skills of a third-down back as well as a power back, so that the Packers can continue to run the no-huddle without interruption.
But especially with Wallace at the helm, the Packers will find themselves in situations where they need to slow things down to give Wallace time, with the added benefit of controlling the clock.
That's where Lacy's ground game comes in.
Lacy's ability to spot a hole is one of his strongest assets and has quickly become a huge factor in the Packer's explosiveness.
It also helps that he's enough of a bruiser to create his own holes.
In the below All-22 film from the matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, Lacy takes the handoff, only to find that the A-gap on the left side isn't open.
No worries. He executes a masterful spin move that allows him to escape to the right side, turning what would have been a negative play into a 10-yard gain.
Possessing exceptional vision allows Lacy to have patience in the backfield and then, when he spots his hole, use his initial burst to beat the front seven and get to the second level of the defense.
He also is adept at cutbacks when the hole he plans to run through isn't open.
Lacy's quick feet off the snap are related to his next asset: his ability to make defenders miss.
Elusiveness and Strength
The saving grace of Week 9 for the Packers was Lacy's elusiveness and ability to extend plays for extra yardage.
According to Hall, Lacy finished No. 2 overall in Pro Football Focus "elusivity" rankings for Week 9. Lacy added an extra 4.64 yards after contact per attempt in addition to forcing nine missed tackles.
I previously looked at some film to show how Lacy rarely goes down upon first contact.
That combination of power and the ability to evade tacklers means opponents need to respect the run on every play that Lacy is in the backfield. Not only is he built for breaking tackles, but Lacy has enough speed for his size to turn missed tackles into huge plays.
He has the sixth-longest rush of the season among running backs (excluding quarterbacks or wide receivers) at 56 yards.
Lacy's power, with a little relief help from Starks, allowed the Packers to rush for more yards against Baltimore and Cleveland, two of the league's top 10 run defenses, than what those two teams surrender on average, as the below chart shows.
|Packers Run Game vs. Top 10 Run Defenses|
|Opponent Ranking||Opponent Average Rushing Yards/Game Given Up||Packers Rushing Yards vs. Opponent||Lacy Rushing Yards vs. Opponent||Yards Per Carry vs. Opponent|
|Cleveland (No. 7)||98.2||104||82||3.6|
|Baltimore (No. 8)||100.4||140||120||4.7|
The problem that faces McCarthy and Van Pelt in the long-term future is the same one that faces them in the immediate one: how to continue to take advantage of the huge boost Lacy gives both the ground game and the passing game while ensuring his health.
Lacy has shown incredible stamina so far, but Van Pelt refuses to push him to his limits.
"I think he can carry 30 times any day, but I'm not going to do that," Van Pelt told Silverstein. "I'm talking about November, December, January and still feeling fresh and healthy.
"That's where reps come in. I think he can do it, but there's no need to do it."
The injury concerns that caused Lacy to fall to the Packers at the 61st pick in the draft could still be an issue if Lacy is overused, especially after missing nearly two games to a concussion earlier this season.
Through Week 9, Van Pelt has kept his word. The most carries Lacy has had in one game was his 29 rushing attempts against Minnesota.
But when upcoming opponents have no reason to fear Wallace and the passing game, it will certainly be hard for Van Pelt and McCarthy to keep Lacy off the field.
|Comparing Lacy and Starks in 2013|
|Total Snaps||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs||Receptions||Receiving Yards||Receiving TDs|
|ESPN.com and Pro Football Focus|
That's why, as much as Green Bay's future is dependent on Lacy, Lacy's future is dependent on Starks. Part of the Packers problem ever since Ahman Green in his heyday is that they have not had a feature back who could do it all.
Now, with Lacy having had 134 carries to Starks' 47, the Packers need to figure out how to have the former do less while still keeping the running game strong.
The Green Bay offense of the immediate future is one that will rely on Lacy and Starks to move the ball and open lanes for Wallace.
It is also one that could easily see the Packers break 200 yards rushing in a game for the first time since Week 7 of the 2009 season. After all, they did have 199 yards against Chicago Monday night.
The Green Bay offense over the next few years, even with Rodgers back under center, will continue to depend on Lacy to make everything possible.