GREEN BAY — If Eddie Lacy doesn’t carry once during the exhibition season, the Green Bay Packers still will have learned about all they need to know about how good their rookie running back can be.
In fact, maybe it would be better for them if he didn’t play so they could spring him on the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 8, the way the 49ers sprung quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the read-option scheme on the Packers in January.
“I don’t think we need to hide him,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said with a smile. “If he gets a chance to go out this week or next week, whenever it comes, we want to see him do it live.”
After sitting out pretty much an entire week with a hamstring injury, Lacy was given a limited amount of snaps in pads Wednesday morning, including a handful during the competitive team drills. Other than a bit of individual work the day before, Lacy had been a spectator since Aug. 7.
Eight practices and the scrimmage accounted for his body of work this summer, yet when he returned to the fold Wednesday and broke off a long run on his first carry, it came as no surprise to his coaches. He showed the same natural running instinct he had in the intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 3, when he carried eight times for 65 yards.
“The offensive line did a great job you know, and I took the right track, the track the coaches teach us to take and I brought the linebackers right to the offensive linemen blocking,” Lacy said in describing his practice run. “I was able to make a cut and get vertical at the same time.”
His account of that run explains why Lacy has the potential to be everything the Packers hoped. And it’s the reason he has flashed far more than fourth-round running back Johnathan Franklin despite fewer training camp snaps.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound-plus Lacy runs like he was born to be in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
There’s a chance Lacy will be held out of the second exhibition game Saturday night at St. Louis, delaying his NFL debut another week. But to say that would be a setback would be a gross overstatement because Lacy already has shown what kind of potential he has in this offense.
Plays like the one Wednesday happen because Lacy knows where to go, how fast he needs to get there and when to hit the gas. Those are things that aren’t coming as quickly for Franklin, UCLA’s all-time leading rusher and a solid long-term prospect.
“He’s a patient runner,” Van Pelt said of Lacy. “But once that decision has been made, it’s north and south. That’s the strong point of him. You rarely see him make a bad read in the running game. It’s just a natural thing as a runner.
“He’s always on track, he’s always making the right reads and anticipates where the hole is going to be.”
Lacy said he got through practice Wednesday without his hamstring tightening up, but he also was cautious about how hard he pushed it and attentive to any messages the injury was sending. The decision on whether he will play against the Rams inside the Edward Jones Dome will be left to the medical staff.
The Packers’ third game is Aug. 23 against Seattle at Lambeau Field.
Van Pelt said that before Lacy got hurt he had the second-most practice reps of any back except Franklin, and much is already known about the Alabama product. What the Packers saw in the scrimmage was an extension of the things he had started to do a few days earlier.
On his three big runs inside Lambeau Field, Lacy set up his blocks with either hesitation at the line of scrimmage or acceleration into the hole. He seems to have a good gauge as to how fast the defense is flowing in his direction and when his block will arrive.
He waited patiently for fullback Jonathan Amosa to block a linebacker on one of the runs and cut back right on the tails of guard Don Barclay and center Evan Dietrich-Smith on another. At 230-some pounds, if he gets past the first block, chances are he’s going to gain more than 4 yards.
Some people think Lacy benefited from a great offensive line at Alabama, and he probably did, but there are those like Van Pelt who saw him also set up some of those blocks and time his runs so that they were 10- to 12-yard gains instead of 3 to 4.
“He’s a very natural runner, very instinctive,” Van Pelt said. “He has a great feel when to cut and what cut to make. It seems like he feels the flow of the defense and knows where the hole is going to be and anticipates it well and sets up his blockers.
“There aren’t a lot of wasted steps. He sees it, he puts his foot in the ground and gets north and south.”
It helps that Lacy ran a lot of the inside and outside zone at Alabama. Franklin ran some of that at UCLA, but he was given more latitude to use his quick feet and bounce around looking for holes.
The Packers don’t want that. They want Franklin to follow the path that is drawn for him, stay behind his blocks and then take off when the time is right.
Franklin carried six times for 14 yards against Arizona last week and seven times for 17 yards in the scrimmage. With DuJuan Harris returning this week and James Starks having a solid camp, Franklin’s best hope for being active during the regular season is probably as a third-down back or returner.
The Packers will be able to keep only so many backs on the 45-man game-day roster and Franklin will be fighting for one of those spots.
In the meantime, the Packers will try to get their running game going against an improved Rams defense. They would love to see Lacy take part, but if he doesn’t, they’re pretty confident they know what they have.