When Aaron Rodgers went down, the focus of the Green Bay offense changed dramatically. With Seneca Wallace and later Scott Tolzien taking charge of the offense, the Packers went from a pass-happy offense to more of a balanced, run-based offense. The team has turned to Eddie Lacy as a centerpiece of the offense and he has delivered. With the Vikings missing middle linebacker Erin Henderson Sunday, the competition between Lacy and linebackers Audie Cole and Michael Mauti is this week's key matchup.
Even before Rodgers got hurt, the Packers were handing a larger share of the offense over to Lacy. After missing the Packers' Week 3 game at Cincinnati, when the Packers returned from their Week 4 bye week, Lacy became the main attraction in the Packers backfield. In the next six games, Lacy had 22 or more carries, posting impressive individual rush totals of 23, 23, 22, 29, 22 and 24 in consecutive games.
One of the Packers' few weaknesses over the last few years has been the lack of a solid running game to go along with Rodgers and his pass-happy offense. However, the switch to a more balanced offense has been more by force than choice of late. Sunday will mark the sixth straight game that Randall Cobb has missed due to injury and the fifth without playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley. The slack has been picked up by some young receivers in the Green Bay offense, but most of the workload has been shifting to Lacy.
The big question facing the Packers is whether Lacy, a rookie with a heavy workload over the last two months, is beginning to wear down. He is averaging four yards a carry, but, in his last two games, he has rushed 38 times for 100 yards – a miniscule 2.6-yard average. There is always talk about runners hitting the proverbial "rookie wall" and there is speculation growing that Lacy might be nearing that point.
Lacy is a power runner who makes his money between the tackles. If Lacy is running east and west, he typically gets tracked down. His bread and butter in finding a hole in the middle of the line, planting a foot in the ground and hitting the hole hard. Because of that, the onus is on the linebackers, in the case of the Vikings the middle linebacker in particular, to shoot those gaps and make the stop to minimize the gain.
Ordinarily, that would be the job of Erin Henderson. But Henderson didn't practice all week while dealing with a family matter and has been ruled out of Sunday's game. As such, the middle linebacker role is going to revert to Cole and Mauti – neither of whom has any tangible game experience.
Cole was actually cut by the Vikings Nov. 7 when the team signed offensive tackle Kevin Murphy to the 53-man roster from the practice squad after Phil Loadholt suffered a concussion and missed the Washington game. Cole was subsequently re-signed and will be starting Sunday. Cole and Mauti were both seventh-round draft picks – Cole in 2012, Mauti this season – that made the final roster primarily for their special teams skills. On Sunday, one or both of them will be asked to take on a larger role than either has ever had as a Viking in a game that matters.
Through 10 games, both have been active for eight games, but used almost exclusively on special teams. Mauti has two tackles on the defense and Cole has one – all of which came last week against Seattle late in the game when both teams pulled most of their starters. On Sunday, they will be in the middle of the action from start to finish and will be expected to provide a boost to a defense missing its leading tackler.
Henderson leads the team with 125 tackles, an average of 12.5 tackles a game. His importance to the defense can't be underestimated. Chad Greenway has led the team in tackles each of the last five seasons, but is currently 18 tackles behind Henderson. Henderson has been the rock in the middle of the second level of the Vikings defense, but, with him out of action Sunday, the next man (or men) up have virtually no tangible experience.
If the Packers are going to be successful on offense, given that Lacy is averaging 22 carries a game over the last two months – numbers typically associated with running backs like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch – they will need to establish Lacy early and keep the Vikings defense on its heels, not knowing if they will run or pass. Few teams run as many pulls and traps with their offensive linemen as the Packers. They will be looking to create running lanes by forcing the Vikings defensive linemen in the direction they want them to go. It will be incumbent on the Vikings to have their middle linebacker cut through those same running lanes that the Packers will be looking to open for Lacy. The extent to which they have success at that endeavor will go a long way to determining who wins the game Sunday, making this the key matchup of Packers 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 second-stringers
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