When it comes to Sunday’s ‘Ice Bowl II’ up in Green Bay, Packers running back Eddie Lacy should be the top concern for the Dallas Cowboys.
I know that sounds a little crazy given the pending weather conditions, the presence of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers and that crowd noise that’s certain to be present.
But if we consider what element has made the Cowboys as successful as they’ve been this season, the running of tailback DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2014, has to top the list.
Well, the Packers also have a potentially volatile runner in second-year veteran Eddie Lacy.
I watched Lacy run a number of times while still an amateur at University of Alabama. Among the first thoughts that came into my mind upon seeing this guy explode out of the backfield against college competition was how much he resembled former Cowboys runner Marion Barber.
Lacy (5-11, 230) is actually bigger than Barber was (5-11, 220), at least in terms of weight, and also has the appropriate blend of speed and quickness to go with that weight. His 1,139 yards rushing placed him seventh among NFL runners.
Now, that number might pale when compared to Murray’s league-leading total of 1,845, but total yards in 2014 aren’t going to mean much in Sunday’s game. A more concerning figure to me is yards per carry.
Murray averaged 4.7 yards per carry during the regular season, despite a late injury to his left hand and also a stiff commitment to stop him by most of his opposition during the month of December.
Lacy, by comparison, had a YPC of 4.6.
Why could this be an issue?
Well, for starters, the Cowboys have played rather solid run defense this season. There have been a few times, however, that Dallas has been really gashed on the ground.
Thanksgiving Day saw LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles run for 256 yards in a blowout loss for Dallas at home. Going back to Week 5 against Houston, another home game, Arian Foster of the Texans exploded for 157 yards despite a narrow victory for the Cowboys.
It’s hard to predict exactly how Dallas will perform against the run against the Packers. Much will have to do with how committed Green Bay is to placing the ball in Lacy’s hands in trying to alleviate pressure on Rodgers. But when your defense has given up a season high of 256 yards to the Eagles and then just a single yard to the Indianapolis Colts, there’s obviously a canyon of possibilities.
Since the month of December began, the Cowboys haven’t given up anything close to an individual rushing performance. McCoy’s 64 yards in the rematch against Dallas at Philly is the highest output allowed by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s surprising crew. In fact, only the Washington Redskins have combined to cross the century mark in total rushing yards (104) since the final quarter of the season.
So this should make Dallas feel pretty good about it’s chances against Lacy.
Yet again, we have to keep in mind that all is likely not well where the left calf of Rodgers is concerned and this could very well mean a surprising commitment to the running game by the Packers.
As a quick comparison, consider that the Detroit Lions were giving up 69.3 yards per game on the ground heading into last week’s wild card playoff game at the venue formerly known as Cowboys Stadium. Murray was held to a somewhat pedestrian 75 yards on 19 carries for a YPC of 3.9.
Just a week prior, Lacy ripped the league’s best run defense at Lambeau Field for a more impressive 100 yards on 26 carries, although Green Bay combined for a total of 156 against the Lions on a punishing 38 carries.
Point is this: When and if the Packers want to run the ball, they are certainly capable. Are we to believe that the Dallas defense is as good as that of Detroit’s when stopping the run?
Dallas Morning News contributor Gerry Fraley chimed in earlier this week about how Packers head coach Mike McCarthy feels about his offensive line while still recognizing the talented group in Big D:
"The pass protection is doing good, just like the running game. It’s a tribute to those five guys up front. We felt this was the best group we’ve had, and it’s clearly held true in the regular season. We want to be the best in the playoffs, too."
Maybe things are closer than they seem and for a number of reasons. But we do know that if the Cowboys don’t remain focused on the run, bigger and stronger running backs like Lacy can chip away pretty hard.
Lions running back Joique Bell (5-11, 229) may have only had 43 yards rushing against Dallas last week, but a closer look at his performance reveals more to the story. Despite a modest total in yards rushing, things started off with a bang for Bell. After zero yards on his first carry, his next five touches, which included four carries and a reception, totaled 46 yards – all in the first quarter.
It’s a good thing Detroit wasn’t more committed than they were to the running game. If so, we might not be discussing a divisional playoff between Dallas and Green Bay.
Since it’s clear that Rodgers isn’t likely to throw any interceptions at Lambeau on Sunday, the Cowboys need to make sure that Lacy does not have a big day rushing or receiving. If Rodgers ends up having to throw the ball somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 times, America’s Team could very well be appearing in it’s first NFC Championship Game since beating – wait for it – Green Bay at Texas Stadium following the 1995 regular season.