Much of the spotlight today will be on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the NFL’s elite at his position. But the Browns will also have to slow down Packers rookie running back Eddie Lacy, and they’ll have to reverse a couple of trends at the same time.
Through the first four games, the Browns (3-3) held their opponents to just 316 rushing yards, an average of 79 per game. The past two weeks, against the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, the Browns allowed 273 yards (136.5 per game) and were gashed for runs of 54 yards by the Bills’ C.J. Spiller and 39 by the Lions’ Reggie Bush.
“Those were the two longest plays of the season for us,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said on Thursday. “They were both runs and they were both not — I’ll just use a word, fit — gapped-out correctly. We’ve addressed it and we understand. There’s going to be errors every game, but yeah, they were not fitted correctly.”
The run defense still ranks No. 7 in the NFL but that ranking has been slipping and is now trending downward. The front seven is just trying to plug the leaks.
“We shut down the run at the end of the first half,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said in the locker room following the Browns’ 31-17 loss to the Lions. “Then Bush gets the big one in the third quarter, and we were trying to fix problems here and there and we just couldn’t find a rhythm. We feel like we have a tough group but we have to play much better than that, hands down.”
Lacy’s season, on the other hand, is on the rise in that same time frame.
Through the Packers’ Week 4 bye, Lacy had rushed for only 51 total yards and missed a game with a concussion. In the last two weeks, against the Lions and Baltimore Ravens, he’s rushed for 99 and 120 yards, respectively, and has taken over the Packers’ No. 1 running back position.
At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Lacy, who was taken in the second round (No. 61 overall) in the 2013 draft, is an armful. When hit, he tends to fall forward instead of being driven back to the line of scrimmage.
“You don’t want to allow him to fall forward,” defensive end Desmond Bryant said this week. “You want to try to hit him in a way that he’s going to go backward. If somebody’s holding him up and someone else is coming in, you’ve got to be thinking about getting him backward versus forward.”
Lacy’s size is one of his strong suits, though a picture taken from a bad angle during July’s training camp warranted questions as to whether he was actually overweight. His slow start to the season then amplified those questions.
Back-to-back games with at least 99 yards rushing have quieted the critics and shown that he isn’t easy to take down, and it’s not just because of his inertia.
“He’s got a power running style, downhill. But he can also make the cuts,” Bryant said. “He’s really light on his feet. You have to be careful. You think you have him in the hole and he can cut real quick. He’s a big guy so this is going to be tough.”
Rodgers is the known commodity who’s currently leading the No. 4 passing offense in the league. The Packers (3-2), through running backs James Starks, Johnathan Franklin and Lacy, also have the No. 5 rushing attack in the NFL (140.8 yards per game).
Recently, it’s been all Lacy.
Jokes could, and have been, made about his weight and his ability to plug a hole when running through a lane. It’s exactly what the Browns’ defense is trying to do after two weeks of leaking.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.