Lacy, Packers' run game make big strides

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

GREEN BAY--With Aaron Rodgers. Without Aaron Rodgers.

This was the type of play the Green Bay Packers must execute if they harbor any hopes of upsetting Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina.

T.J. Lang pulled left. Fullback John Kuhn cut a safety. All linemen dominated up front. James Jones was human “Stickum” on a block downfield. And off thundered Eddie Lacy for 60 yards.

To claw their way back into Sunday’s game at Dallas, the Packers turned back the clock.

“It was really going back to the basics of how we wanted to run the ball against them,” coach Mike McCarthy said.

Read-option quarterbacks are fun. Quarterbacks who process defenses like MacBook Pros are a must. Make no mistake, the Packers will need a healthy Rodgers to be considered a real threat, and Rodgers’ status remains uncertain. But as this NFC race takes form, it’s clear the “basics” will be essential. And the Packers have to be encouraged that Lacy and his offensive line returned to form at AT&T Stadium.

History proves success on the ground is a December must.

The Packers didn’t pull off this improbable, made-for-TV win via gimmick.

“I didn’t run any trick plays or any deceptives, didn’t do anything exotic,” McCarthy said, “just wanted to get after them fundamentally, and that’s what we did.”

The Packers gradually returned to earth Monday. McCarthy will let the team savor this one. The coach assured his team “can handle the success of Sunday, especially after the run we’ve been on.” Pulling off a 23-point comeback required a combination of factors—Matt Flynn’s reptile-thick skin, turnovers on defense, foolish play-calling on the other sideline, a few concerned looks from Jerry Jones.

At the core of the comeback was very basic, very fundamental execution. At halftime, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements discussed switching to a no-huddle offense. They opted against it. Instead, they stuck with huddling into conventional plays. They concluded the problem wasn’t anything Dallas did.

Said Clements, “We just felt like, ‘Let’s huddle up, call these plays and get into a rhythm.’ And when you get a 60-yard play on your first play and you’re able to score, that helps a lot.”

Once Flynn had Monte Kiffin’s talent-drained unit on its heels, McCarthy chipped away at it with Lacy. Like he said, nothing fancy. On that crucial drive to answer the Cowboys’ one fourth-quarter counter-punch, Lacy followed a pulling Josh Sitton for 11 and a pulling Lang for 10 more.

Some players admitted the season was on the line through the second half. The linemen didn’t, however. Left tackle David Bakhtiari—a guy used to being down by 20-plus points from Colorado—said he viewed the game at a “micro,” not “macro” level. He only worried about his assignment on a given play.

Center Evan Dietrich-Smith took the same approach.

“We started making plays,” Dietrich-Smith said. “One thing led to another and next thing I know we’re taking the lead and there’s less than 2 minutes left.”

If there’s anyone who knows the importance of a run game at this precise point of the season, it’s McCarthy. The coach has reached the postseason five times in seven seasons. While he has worked with two of the best quarterbacks this generation, a late-season surge on the ground has been the crucial variable.

In 2007—one of Brett Favre’s finest seasons ever—Green Bay averaged 139.4 rushing yards per game with six touchdowns the final five regular-season games. That momentum carried into a playoff blowout of Seattle and Ryan Grant’s 201-yard, three-touchdown day in the snow. And that strange, frigid-cold NFC Championship loss to New York, the Packers ran the ball only 14 times for 28 yards.

Two years later, Green Bay averaged 114.8 on the ground with 11 touchdowns its final five games before the wild-card epic at Arizona.

That 2010 Super Bowl season, the Packers dusted off James Starks in December and the rookie rushed for 315 yards on 81 carries through a four-game rampage. Green Bay was the aggressor, and Green Bay hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

Through Rodgers’ record-setting 2011 MVP season, the run took a backseat. Green Bay mustered only 97.8 yards a game before its stunning divisional-round exit. And in 2012, McCarthy was absolutely committed. The talking point that he wasn’t is a myth—Green Bay ran the ball 30 times per game the final five contests last year. The problem was production. Green Bay averaged 3.5 per carry.

Green Bay was blown out in San Francisco. Lacy was drafted in the second round.

Nobody will kid themselves off Oneida Street. To be a contender, the Packers need Rodgers.

But they also need the rushing attack to click if and when he returns. Through one month of 3 yards and a cloud of dust against eight-men boxes, the Packers busted loose at Dallas. Clements dismissed the theory that the inverted wishbone on Play No. 1 of the second half was any sort of message.

If the intent wasn’t to kick tail, instantly, the Packers did anyways.

Into these final two games in the cold—one in Green Bay, one in Chicago—expect more (and much, much more) of Eddie Lacy.

“Yesterday wasn’t a cold-weather game, but we have a couple of cold-weather games coming up,” Clements said, “and we still feel like we can throw it in the cold weather, but running it is a bonus. We’ve been running it fairly well all year, and we hope to continue to do that.”

Lacy is earning credibility in the locker room, McCarthy said. He fits. After a month-long haze for the run game, Green Bay hopes the rookie saved his best for last.

“He’s still a rookie, but he’s a rookie that’s a hell of a football player having a great year,” McCarthy said. “I can’t say enough about the way he’s performing, and he keeps getting better.”

His offensive line has gotten better these past two weeks, too. The temperature dipped below zero, the Packers will need to win in the trenches.

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