This week's selection of the player to watch comes with the caveat that I'm intentionally not choosing anyone in the Green Bay Packers' passing game. At this point in the year, we must assume that the Detroit Lions' secondary will allow a big game through the air until they show that they can stop someone.
With that in mind, I chose to focus on running back Eddie Lacy. With Aaron Rodgers out for the past four games, Lacy has been the team's workhorse and helped the Packers keep games close and control the clock. The rookie is averaging 4.1 yards per carry on the season and has 806 yards despite missing two games with a concussion. He also has 158 yards through the air, making it likely that he will eclipse the 1,000 all-purpose-yard mark on Thanksgiving.
The Packers selected Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Alabama. The Packers intended Lacy to head a new-look backfield also containing fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin and veteran James Starks. While a concussion has limited Franklin's playing time, Lacy and Starks have rejuvenated the Packers' rushing attack. As a team, the Packers rank fifth in both rushing yards (1,539) and yards per carry (4.8).
After losing Rodgers in Week 9, the necessity for the Packers to establish the run grew exponentially. While Rodgers can, and has for many years, guide the offense entirely through the air, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn cannot (fingers crossed). Week 11's loss against the New York Giants provides a great example of this. In that game, the Giants completely shut down Lacy, holding him to 27 yards on 14 carries, which forced Tolzien to put the ball up 34 times. Predictably, this was not a winning formula, and Tolzien threw 3 interceptions in the loss.
On the other hand, the Packers have found offensive success without Rodgers when they get Lacy rolling. In both Week 9's loss against the Chicago Bears and Week 12's tie with the Minnesota Vikings, Lacy led the offense to keep the game close. Lacy is simply a chain-mover. His 40 first-down runs on the year ranks him at No. 8 and puts him in the conversation with the likes of Frank Gore and Alfred Morris.
On Thanksgiving, Lacy versus the Lions' run defense should be a great strength-on-strength matchup. Regardless of injuries, the Packers still have a capable stable of pass catchers and Flynn is capable of getting them the ball, but I think this game will be decided on the ground. The Lions can't allow the Packers to control the game with Lacy and Starks.
Luckily for the Lions, stopping the run has been a strength this season. The Lions have the seventh best yards per carry defensive average at 3.8 and allow first downs on only 12.8 percent of runs, the second best rate in the league. The one weak point of the Lions' run defense is giving up the big play. The Lions have given up 4 runs of more than 40 yards, most in the league, and 7 of more than 20.
Lacy's game is not busting big runs and he only has 2 runs of more than 20 yards on the season. However, Lacy's one-cut power running wears down defenses as he grinds out first downs. The Packers then use Starks as the change-of-pace back, and Starks' obscene 5.8 yards per attempt and 5 runs of more than 20 yards (on only 56 carries) reflect the effectiveness of that strategy.
The Lions have been dominant against the run in the past several weeks. Doing that again this week will force the Packers to rely on Flynn and their depleted passing game. That does not sound too appetizing given the Lions' recent secondary struggles, but the Lions offense is built for a pass-heavy game.
If the Lions limit the Packers' ground game and quit turning the ball over, I may finally be able to enjoy my Thanksgiving without crushing depression for a change.