For years, the running game of the Green Bay Packers has consistently been a liability to the team's offense. It wasn't until earlier this season that Green Bay ended a drought of nearly three years since the team had recorded a 100-yard rushing game.
That has changed over the last month, as running back Eddie Lacy has given Green Bay a ground game it has lacked since Ahman Green got too old to be effective. With Green Bay's receiver corps severely depleted, as hard as it might seem, the Packers are going to rely more on their run game than they have in years, making the battle between Lacy and Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Sharrif Floyd and Fred Evans this week's key matchup.
The critical component of Lacy's game is to run north and south between the tackles. In the mold of recent Alabama running backs who have been drafted high only to underachieve in the NFL (Mark Ingram of New Orleans and Trent Richardson now of the Colts), Lacy has a very similar style. His bread and butter is hitting interior holes quickly and getting the most out of it. Force him to the outside and running east to west and his success rate drops exponentially.
Lacy's role in the offense has been increasing with each subsequent receiver injury suffered by the Packers. Aaron Rodgers has become an elite quarterback due in part to the lack of a running game to balance the offense. For the last three or four years, the Green Bay running game has been so pedestrian that the Packers have often abandoned the run for long stretches of games, forcing Rodgers to dominate games with his arm.
But, with Greg Jennings gone, Randall Cobb out for two months at a minimum, James Jones likely out at least another week or two and Jermichael Finley more than likely done for at least this season, the Packers have to incorporate a lot of young, inexperienced receivers. As such, the timing and playmaking ability between Rodgers and his replacement receivers is far from polished. If the Packers are going to control the game Sunday night, they can't be one-dimensional. They could get away with a pass-happy offense when Rodgers had Jordy Nelson, Cobb, Jennings, Jones and Finley at his disposal. Sunday night, Nelson will be the only receiver in that group that will be in uniform and available to Rodgers. The onus will be on Lacy.
From the Vikings side of things, having a between-the-tackles runner fits into the way the Vikings defense is built – stout in the middle with relentless pass rushers on the outside. Jared Allen and Brian Robison will be bringing the heat from the edges to get to Rodgers, so it will be the duty of the defensive tackle rotation to slow down Lacy and force him to take runs to the outside, where linebackers Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway will be looking to chase him down as he runs laterally.
The Packers don't need a 100-yard game from Lacy to be effective on offense. What they need is a high number of carries. If Lacy runs 20 times for 80 yards, he will likely get a game ball. Much like the Patriots and Tom Brady have been forced to change their offensive mindset on the fly with the absence of Brady's top receivers from previous seasons, the Packers are in an eerily similar situation due to the rash of injuries that has gutted their receiver corps. Rodgers has struggled much of the season because the innate rapport he had with his veteran receivers is gone with his new crew of talent. There are no guarantees that he will be able to light up the Vikings through the air like he has done so many times in the past. It's a new day from Green Bay and Lacy may be the most important player on the offense for the Packers Sunday night.
The Vikings are prohibitive home underdogs because the assumption is that Rodgers can succeed with practice squad type receivers. If Rodgers is going to have a big day, it's going to have to be set up by Lacy and the running game. If the Vikings defensive tackles can clog the interior running lanes and let the rest of the defense chase down Lacy and force him to the perimeter, the Vikings can create the down-and-distance problems that make defenses successful. If Lacy can consistently make positive gains on the ground, it could be another long night for the Vikings defense, making this the matchup to watch this week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Lacy vs. the line
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