The Green Bay Packers score high marks in three key categories this season: passing offense, rushing offense and rushing defense. Aaron Rodgers leads a passing attack that averages 300 yards per game, rookie running back Eddie Lacy leads the charge on an team-wide 134.7 average rushing yards per game and a stout defense holds opponents to just 79.0 rushing yards per game.
That's good for fourth, sixth and third in the league in those categories. But one of them stands out among the three: the rushing statistics. Green Bay has not been great at rushing the football in a long time, relying on players like the always-good-but-never-great Ryan Grant and entering the perceived status quo. In 2012, they finished with the No. 20 running game in the league.
Last year's leading rusher, Alex Green, carried the ball 135 times and could not find the end zone once. The last time the Packers had a decent running game was in 2003, when Ahman Green rushed for 1,883 yards and 15 touchdowns all on his own.
Rodgers was always expected to throw the ball well, and the defense was always supposed to stop the run (similarly, the pass defense was expected to be just as bad as it has been), but the running game was a huge question mark coming into this season.
There was Lacy, taken in the second round this year, and Johnathan Franklin, taken in the fourth round. The two rookies were considered potential starters in the future, and then there was DuJuan Harris. Few expected Harris to be in the mix initially, but head coach Mike McCarthy is a fan and named him the starter anyway. Then Harris went down with an injury, and James Starks (thought to be the odd-man out) became more valuable.
In short: it was a pretty big mess. Nobody knew quite how the depth chart would play out initially, and it was further complicated by a concussion sustained by Lacy and then injuries to Starks.
Fast forward to Week 8 of the regular season and there are still injury concerns here and there, but the Packers are running the ball well and that's what matters. The backup job is still somewhat up for grabs between Franklin and Starks, but Lacy is the starter. More than that: Lacy is the franchise running back.
For the raw stats: Lacy has managed 83 carries for 352 yards and two touchdowns. That's a per-carry average of 4.2 yards and an average of 70.4 yards per game. The stats don't blow you away, but he's running hard and looks good for a rookie. Starks comes in second with 34 carries for 187 yards and a touchdown, with a stellar per-carry average of 5.5 yards. Franklin brings up the rear with 19 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown, with a per-carry average of 5.6 yards.
Prior to this season, the Packers went 44 consecutive games without having a 100-yard rusher, but all three guys above have done it this season. Teams just ignored the Packers' running backs in the past and in turn, the Packers ignored them as well, because they weren't very good.
It's obvious that the catalyst to their success is the fact that they have better players, but having those better players have allowed the Packers to do thing they didn't before. Last season, when it looked like Rodgers might pass: he passed. There weren't a whole lot of runs from pass looks, but now they're mixing it up.
More than that, Lacy fits with Green Bay's blocking schemes much better. Grant always tried to do too much outside, tried to move sideline to sideline when a play didn't call for it. Lacy is a one-cut runner who suits the modified zone-blocking scheme the Packers run.
Lacy has impressive cutback ability and above-average vision. He has the power teams want from a feature back and plenty of speed to break into the next level. He finds his gaps like a seasoned veteran, and that forces opposing defenses to mind the gaps and stay honest.
And the fact that the Packers are able to actually run the ball is helping out the pass game immensely. Before, it was difficult to sell a play action pass, because teams weren't threatened by the potential of the play being a run. To see how effective it has become, you need only look to this season's Week 6 game against the Baltimore Ravens.
In the end, Lacy carried the ball 23 times for 120 yards, and that had the Ravens in man-to-man coverage by the end of the game. Late in the third quarter, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 64-yard touchdown pass that came off a play action fake. Rodgers faked to Lacy, and the safety bit on it. Nelson beat his corner easily and that put the Packers up, 16-3, allowing them to hold off the fourth quarter comeback.
Taking a look at the Pro Football Focus signature stats is illuminating. In that game, Rodgers had 25 drop backs that weren't classified as play action. In those drop backs, he completed 10 passes for 201 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. That's a QB rating of 59.1 without play action. Rodgers had 12 drop backs in which he ran play action, and completed seven of 10 pass attempts for 114 yards and a touchdown, good for a quarterback rating of 141.3.
Over the past few years, the Packers have been a one-dimensional team. That singular dimension has been really, really good, but adding another one effectively has made them more dangerous than ever. The Packers still have a few issues to iron out, but Lacy is an excellent fit for an offense that has desperately needed help at the running back position, and having guys such as Franklin and Starks around also doesn't hurt.