As they sat down to refine their game plan for Sunday’s winner-take-all NFC North showdown with the Chicago Bears, the members Green Bay Packers coaching staff could feel the buzz.
Although they’d started planning early – even before last Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh – because of the Christmas holiday and didn’t know for certain who’d be at quarterback, it seemed clear to them that Aaron Rodgers was trending toward his return.
And while getting their franchise quarterback was exciting enough, the idea of him working in tandem with running back Eddie Lacy – now that Lacy has emerged as one of the league’s top backs and the frontrunner for the NFL offensive rookie of the year award – left offensive coordinator Tom Clements, quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, running backs coach Alex Van Pelt and head coach Mike McCarthy almost giddy at the possibility.
“We’re excited,” said Van Pelt, who also lends his quarterback expertise in the offensive meetings when asked to do so. “Anytime you get a player like Aaron back – I don’t even care about running the football – it’s just great for your team, great for the locker room. The energy was amazing today, just the fact that knowing he’s going to be out there on Sunday.
“When you’ve got a guy like Eddie and Aaron back there, you’ll be able to run the ball into some decent boxes, and take advantage of that. The play-action game, all that comes with that – it’s exciting. It’s been awhile since we’ve had that combination going, and hopefully we can use it to our benefit this week.”
According to the calculations of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein, only 287 of Lacy’s 636 offensive snaps this season (45.1 percent) came with Rodgers at quarterback. Although Lacy’s now hobbled by a right ankle sprain that dates back to the team’s Dec. 8 game against Atlanta, the Packers coaching staff is confident that Lacy will play.
“The type of guy he is, he’s not going to be one that’s going to not play if he’s not 100 percent. Eighty percent of Eddie is still darned good,” Van Pelt said. “So whatever he’s at, when you ask him, ‘Hey, are you going to be there on Sunday?’ He says, ‘Absolutely, I wouldn’t miss it.’”
Given that the Packers will be facing a Bears defense that ranks dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (161.5) and in yards allowed per carry (5.4) and gave up 291 rushing yards to Philadelphia last week, Lacy figures to have a field day even if the Bears load the box to stop him.
But here’s the thing: Unlike defenses were able to do with Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at quarterback, the Bears won’t be able to focus solely on stopping the run while daring the Packers to throw the ball. That’s what happened after Rodgers suffered his broken collarbone Nov. 4 against the Bears, and it’s the polar opposite of what Rodgers dealt with last season, when teams dared the Packers to run the ball with their inept stable of backs and committed to not letting Rodgers and his receivers beat them deep. Tolzien was able to make the New York Giants pay multiple times for that approach,a dn Flynn managed to complete a few balls downfield in recent weeks as well.
But neither presents the threat Rodgers does, and defenses now will be forced to figure out how to defend an elite quarterback and a highly productive running back simultaneously.
With Rodgers set to make the start after missing seven games, defensive coordinators finally will face the quandary of stopping the run or stopping one of the league’s greatest quarterbacks. Last year, when the Packers’ running game by committee approach failed, Rodgers got a steady diet of defenses playing both their safeties back to take away big-play opportunities. While Rodgers was out, teams brought at least one safety and oftentimes two down into the box to stop Lacy.
“Obviously, with having [Rodgers] back, teams for that stretch there last year, the year before, were playing us two-high all the time,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “You’d like to think that that’s how defenses are going to react when he’s back. But we don’t know. We’ve still got to go execute. Hopefully, that helps make us that much better.”
When Rodgers went down at the end of the Packers’ opening series against the Bears seven weeks ago, the Bears came in with a game plan that had both safeties back. They stuck with that plan even after Rodgers departed, and Lacy finished with 22 carries for a season-high 150 yards and a touchdown.
“Eddie, as most runners do, as the year goes along, the blocking becomes more solid because they’re used to seeing different things. He’s been running the ball very well,” Clements said. “He ran the ball well when Aaron was in there. I don’t know how to quantify when they were both at their best, but at times they were, now they’re back.”
Even before Rodgers’ injury, though, his time with Lacy was limited. Lacy sustained a concussion on his first carry against Washington in Week 2, then sat out the Week 3 game at Cincinnati because of it. Upon his return against Detroit on Oct. 6, Lacy carried 97 times for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
Then came Rodgers’ injury, which left him on the sideline to watch opposing teams run the defenses he’d have given anything to have seen himself.
“They’re playing almost exclusively one-high safety,” Rodgers observed after the team’s Thanksgiving Day loss to Detroit. “They’re daring you to throw the football. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to stop the run, and we dare you to throw the football.’ And that’s why you’re going to have opportunities to hit those over-the-top ones.”
On Thursday, Rodgers touted Lacy’s rookie of the year candidacy and likened his style to that of Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Rodgers’ teammate in college at California-Berkeley. Together, they can only make each other better.
“[The running game] is a big part of our offense, and it has been for most of the year. We made a better commitment to being a better running team and we are,” Clements said. “We’re going to run it, we’re going to throw it, we’re going to do whatever gives us the best chance to win.
“You obviously like to have all of your guys at their optimum physical level, so it would be nice to have them both in there.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.