If Eddie Lacy gets too frustrated, at least he has a built-in support group at the ready.
The Green Bay Packers rookie running back knows how good he had it back when starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers was happy, healthy and under center, forcing opposing defensive coordinators to focus first on the Packers’ passing game. Now, Rodgers is on the sideline, still nursing a broken left collarbone, and from his vantage point, he sees quite clearly what defenses are thinking.
“They’re daring you to throw the football,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to stop the run, and we dare you to throw the football.’”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the two games Rodgers has missed with the broken collarbone he suffered against Chicago Nov. 4, the Packers’ two opponents – the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants – played with at least seven men in the box on 48.8 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps. In their first eight games, including the loss to the Bears in which Lacy ran for 150 yards and the Packers finished with a season-high 199 total rushing yards, opponents had seven or more defenders in the box on just 25.5 percent of their offensive snaps.
And so, after rushing 14 times for 27 yards – his lowest output of the season, excluding the Sept. 15 game against Washington, when he was knocked out with a concussion on his first carry, a 10-yard run – in last Sunday’s loss to the Giants, Lacy goes into this week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings expecting more of the same.
“It’s real difficult to make a play work in situations like that, but my mindset is just try to get anything that’s positive and just make sure I don’t get tackled for like a loss of 1 or 2 because it can put the offense in an even worse situation,” Lacy said at his locker Wednesday afternoon. “They’re starting to bring a safety down, and it’s unblocked. We don’t have a person for that unblocked defender so no matter what run we play, he just shoots a gap and he’s a free hitter.
“We have to game plan, try to figure out what we can do to try to figure out what we can do to be able to get a blocker on that defender.”
After the crowd around Lacy’s locker dispersed, retired Packers running back Ahman Green, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher who still lives in the area and does part-time TV work for CBS affiliate WFRV, approached. Even with Brett Favre as his quarterback in the mid-2000s, Green saw plenty of the same defensive looks. And while coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements can scheme until the cows come home to get Lacy an extra blocker, in many ways, it’s on him to run around or through that unblocked defender.
“I just told Eddie, you’ve got to take it as a sign of respect. There’s nothing else you can do,” Green said after the locker room media access period closed. “There’s eight, nine guys in the box. They’re doing that to stop you. You just have to run hard, drop your shoulder. If it’s one-on-one, you have to beat him.
“As a runner, it’s a sign of respect – that they’re going to put that many guys out there, forget about the receivers and deal with you.”
While McCarthy and Clements said there are schematic things they can do – “Obviously, depending on what plays we have, we have various answers, which I’m not going to get into, that we can use to take care of that problem,” a truculent Clements said on Monday – their options are limited. Green said the Packers can use fullback John Kuhn, who played 26 of the Packers’ 54 offensive snaps, more, as he had with William Henderson serving as his lead blocker. But the Packers’ scheme under McCarthy is vastly different than it was under Mike Sherman, so other than having the wide receivers crash down on would-be tacklers, Green said it’s going to be on Lacy to make plays until replacement quarterback Scott Tolzien commands more respect.
Perhaps that will happen this week. Against the Giants, Tolzien hit on basically ever over-the-top, play-action deep shot he took – he had completions of 25, 45, 26, 25, 19, 18 and 52 yards – against almost exclusively one-high safety looks. The irony is that the Packers spent all of last season praying for such defensive schemes while teams dared the Packers to beat them with the run, and now they’re getting those looks because of Rodgers’ absence and Lacy’s emergence. Lacy enters Sunday’s game having carried 172 times for 656 yards (4.0-yard average) and five touchdowns, ranking him eighth in yards and tied for ninth in rushing TDs.
“Obviously, the Giants came up and (said) it was going to put it on (Tolzien) to make the plays, and he made the plays. So it will be interesting to see if Minnesota makes the adjustment,” said Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who said he is “absolutely” seeing more single coverage – and was smiling as he said it. “I still believe they'll come down to stack the box and see if he can make enough of the plays. I think we can as a team, we just need to go out and do it.
“I mean, if I was a defensive coordinator, I'd be doing the same thing. You've got a young quarterback back there; you're going to make him make the plays to win the game. I think we should be able, and need to be able, to run the ball versus an eight-man front, or a seven-man front, or whatever it is. . It's going to be hard, but I think we can still do it, and I think if they do that, the play-action game will be there for us like it was last week. We just need to continue to make more plays and eliminate some more mistakes.”
A few hours earlier, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who came within 9 yards last year of breaking the NFL’s single-season rushing record, dialed in for his conference call with Wisconsin reporters and basically said to Lacy, Welcome to my world, kid.
Like Lacy, Peterson is dealing with less-than-stellar quarterback play from Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman, which is allowing teams to overcommit to stopping him. While that was often the case last year, too, the Vikings’ offensive line and Peterson himself have been unable to overcome those stacked boxes.
“I’ve been dealing with it for a long time. I adjusted a little bit. But, yeah, it’s always difficult when you have the extra guy in the box to stop the run,” said Peterson, who had 10 100-yard rushing games last season but has just three this year, as he’s rushed 194 times for 851 yards (fourth in the NFL). “Obviously there’s only five guys on the offensive line, so you don’t have enough heads to block those guys. You just have to be patient and continue to hit it up in there and press and hopefully you catch the defense slipping. Sometimes, those guys overpursue. Sometimes, they have misreads and you can take advantage of those opportunities.
“I would say any time you’re not consistent at the quarterback position, it impacts the entire team. Not just me. But the run plays off the pass and vice versa. So when you’re not really passing the ball that well, teams can focus on the run, especially when you’re a run team first. So it makes it difficult when the quarterback play is not up to par.”
Asked if that’s what’s happened to the Packers, Peterson replied, “Yeah, that’s a perfect example. Lacy, he had come in and helped their running game tremendously. But it shows with Aaron Rodgers not back there how big of a difference he makes and what he means to that offense. So that situation right there is a perfect one to look at.
“It’s the NFL. Defensive coordinators are going to try to attack your strength. That’s what teams have been doing.”
Now, it’s up to the Packers to figure out a counter-move.
“We kind of know that until Aaron gets back, teams are probably going to keep playing us the same, bringing a safety down, trying to make us one-dimensional and daring us to throw the ball,” guard T.J. Lang said. “We know that from here on out that’s how teams are going to play us.
“That’s something that a defense kind of takes a risk. If they’re going to bring those guys up and give us one-on-one coverage, we’ve got to take advantage of it. We have to make a big play. That’s something that would be a good way to counteract that. Without getting into specific detail, there’s some (other) things we’ve looked at when we have an extra guy in there. We’ve got some adjustments now that we can make to try to take care of that.”
But the truth is, if a defense is hell-bent on stopping the run, and Tolzien doesn’t change the play to something more advantageous, there’s not a ton the Packers can do to help Lacy out.
“You don’t like to admit that, but at the same time, a lot of times we keep those on and ask the running back to make a guy miss,” Lang said. “As a line, we have to make sure we’re blocking better. Because last week, there were times when they were bringing guys down and [the Giants] had a good call, but there were other times when we should have blocked it better. It’s not an excuse. You have to at least give your running back a chance for a one-on-one with the safety, and we didn’t get that done.