Eddie Lacy feels playoff strong this year

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A year ago, Eddie Lacy hobbled into the playoffs. This year, he's barreling people over on his way in.

The biggest difference in the Green Bay Packers as they head into these playoffs might be their second-year running back.

"I'm not nearly as beat up this year as I was last year overall," Lacy said in a recent interview.

Lacy still managed 81 yards rushing in the Packers' wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but it was a laborious 81 yards. He carried 21 times on a bum right ankle he injured in Week 13, then reinjured two weeks later. It was so severe that Lacy could not return in the second half of the Dec. 22 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the two games that followed -- the regular-season finale at the Chicago Bears and the playoff game -- Lacy averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.

When asked whether he was over the ankle injury in time for last year's playoff game, Lacy said: "Nah, it was still there."

"Eddie was in a [walking] boot all week and then played on Sundays this time last year," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "So he feels better. He's a better football player in my opinion this year than last year. I think he's a complete third-down player. In fact, I know he is. So I think he's definitely in a better place this year than he was last year."

Although his workload was reduced slightly -- he carried 38 fewer times this season -- he put up nearly the same yardage total (1,139) as he did as a rookie last year (1,178). His yards-per-carry average increased to 4.6 this season from 4.1 last year.

So why is he healthier heading into Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys? He has quarterback Aaron Rodgers to thank for that.

"Mainly because I don't face stacked boxes like I did last year," Lacy said. "So I don't have to run into a whole bunch of people as soon as I get the ball."

Last season, defenses ganged up on Lacy while Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of his broken collarbone. Of Lacy's 284 carries last year, 140 (or 49.3 percent) came against defenses that put seven or more defenders in the box, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This season, that percentage dropped to 37.8 percent.

The Packers finished 11th in rushing offense (119.8 yards per game), while Lacy's yardage total was seventh individually.

"The offensive line is playing great; that helps," Rodgers said. "You have to be able to run the ball. We've got a big bruiser at running back who rarely goes down on the first hit, and a great changeup back in James Starks."

And Lacy finished strong. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 711 yards in the final eight games, which ranked fifth in the league during that stretch. His first-half numbers were 4.1 yards per carry and 428 yards rushing (17th in the league).

"It seems like he's running harder as the season gets later," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "He's just playing great right now. To see the way he's running the football and how he's breaking tackles, once he gets up to the second level and doing his thing, it's been fun to watch."

The running game might be even more important in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field if Rodgers remains gimpy because of his strained left calf.

Although the Cowboys finished eighth in rushing defense this season, they may have bad memories of Lacy. They led the Packers 26-3 at halftime of last year’s game at AT&T Stadium only to see Lacy rip off a 60-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, setting up a touchdown that fueled the comeback in the Packers' 37-36 victory.

"That was huge; it might have been the key play of the game, to be honest with you," Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said. "It was right out of the half. It gave us that momentum. It allowed us to get down there and score right away. The big thing is momentum, people talk all the time about what momentum can do for a team, and that was huge for us."