Examining the Packers’ approach with RB Eddie Lacy

Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy has struggled with injuries and low yards per carry which has led to him splitting time with James Starks.
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

 

Is Eddie Lacy running the ball enough? Is he still dealing with the ankle injury he sustained in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks? Is Green Bay making an effort to keep him fresher for later on, as they’ve done previously?

Does he need to just get healthy, as offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett suggested?

As a team, are they running the ball enough or putting the majority of their eggs in Aaron Rodgers’ basket—one without Jordy Nelson that seems to be losing wideouts on a weekly basis?

Despite Green Bay’s 6-0 start, there are numerous questions regarding Lacy’s ability this season. He carried the ball four times for three yards against San Diego, and before that racked up only 27 yards on 13 carries against St. Louis.

Those numbers—especially the former, as San Diego has surrendered the second-most rushing yards per game—would indicate the former Alabama man is not quite himself.

I’d imagine that’s not such a simple conclusion to come to.

In Week 1, he ran the ball 19 times for 85 yards (4.47 YPC). In the two weeks following the injury, he carried the ball 28 times for 136 yards (4.86 YPC)—10-for-46 in Week 3; 18-for-90 in Week 4.

Clearly, the Lacy we’ve come to know since 2013—who averaged 4.35 YPCC between the ’13 and ’14 seasons—still has the ability.

It’s not as though Green Bay is electing to throw the ball too much. Rodgers has played in 116 games in his career, averaging almost 32 pass attempts per contest. In six games this year, the two-time MVP has thrown 182 passes, roughly 30 per contest.

A minor difference, but enough to show Green Bay isn’t forcing things when it comes to their passing offense. So, could they attempt to run the ball a little more going forward? Well technically speaking, yes, all teams could.

On the season, they’ve rushed the ball 168 times at a rate of 4.5 YPC. Rodgers accounts for 29 of those. As a team, they’re running the ball 28 times per contest. Between that and Rodgers’ pass attempts, that’s almost as balanced as it gets.

Back to Lacy: he rushed 284 times in 2013, but had that number noticeably reduced (246) the following season—while playing in all 16 games as opposed to 15 his rookie year. The results? Higher YPC (4.6 vs. 4.1), and a negligible difference in yardage (1,139 vs. 1,178).

His production in the passing game also increased: 42 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns last season; he caught 35 for 257 yards and zero touchdowns as a rookie.

Since being drafted by Green Bay, coach Mike McCarthy made it a priority to focus on keeping Lacy fresh. Even when you factor in all of the injuries to their receivers, if they could get away with it, why would this year be any different?

When you have a dependable backup, it makes everything easier.

Mix in a couple down weeks with what might be lingering effects from an ankle injury, and that’s when James Starks enters the fray.

Starks, 29, is a sixth-year pro out of Buffalo University. He made a name for himself during Green Bay’s Super Bowl (2010), and was expected to be their featured back going forward.

That didn’t work out, but the Packers drafting Lacy might have been the best thing to happen to him. Between 2011 and 2012, he carried the ball 204 times for 833 yards at a rate of 4.08 YPC. Since Lacy came into the team, Starks has carried the ball 237 times for 1,112 yards—a rate of almost 4.7 YPC.

Not surprisingly, with Lacy not quite himself, Starks has seen an uptick in opportunities. In Week 2, he carried the ball 20 times. He out-carried Lacy the following week (17 to 10), but lied dormant until San Diego, when he averaged over 11 yards per carry en route to a 112-yard performance.

Which begs the question: why didn’t they run the ball more? Between him and Lacy, they carried it only 14 times. Rodgers, on the other hand, had an off day accuracy-wise, completing 55 percent of his passes.

It didn’t come back to bite them.

On the whole, it’s important to keep in mind that they rank 8th in yards per game on the ground.

We’ll see how many looks Lacy gets this weekend when Green Bay heads to Denver to do battle with not only an undefeated side, but one with a tough defense. Denver ranks 1st in total yards and passing yards per game allowed; 4th in rushing yards per game allowed.

Lacy is on pace for roughly 179 carries this season, which would be a career-low by far. If he remains healthy, he should eclipse 200, but don’t expect him to blow past it. That’s never how he’s been managed in Green Bay.

If the Packers want to use a running back by committee approach, so be it. Having James Starks makes that possible.

And if it keeps Lacy fresher, all the better.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference.

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