To the national audience, the Green Bay's week 7 victory over the Browns will be defined by the gruesome neck injury Jermichael Finley suffered late in the game. While that's certainly understandable, it overshadows an otherwise outstanding day for a Packers team that appears to be rounding into shape despite a series of hurdles. As we did a week ago, this starts with the running game.
With Eddie Lacy, Green Bay has the hottest running back in the NFL
Over the past three weeks, no running back in the NFL has rushed for more yards than Eddie Lacy (301). What makes that figure even more impressive is the quality of the defensive lines he's faced in those games.
Certainly, most fans are familiar with the Ndamukong Suh-led front four in Detroit, just as they likely know Haloti Ngata and the other run stoppers on the Ravens. Yet it's the Browns' group of Phil Taylor, Desmond Bryant, and Ahtyba Rubin that have performed best against the run, allowing the 9th-fewest yards per game in the league.
Lacy spent much of the day bowling over Cleveland defenders like a high school kid playing with middle schoolers. His powerful frame and ability to quickly and fluidly change direction makes it difficult for defenders to square up against him, resulting in plenty of missed tackles. Even late in the fourth quarter when the Packers all but telegraphed their intention to run the ball, Lacy was still able to avoid multiple tacklers.
The only fear that remains with Lacy is his ability to stay healthy. His health concerns from Alabama and the pre-draft process are well documented, as is the time he missed during training camp and the preseason. During the regular season, however, the only thing to keep Lacy off the field was a Brandon Meriweather-induced concussion on the opening drive against Washington. With James Starks hopefully returning soon and Johnathan Franklin proving capable of running effectively in limited work, the Packers would be wise to keep Lacy's workload in check so as to have him healthy for the second half of the season.
Don Barclay's hold on the starting right tackle job is slipping
One of the biggest developments of the preseason was Don Barclay beating out Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. In his second year, Barclay has shown both signs of improvement (his first three games) and signs of regression (his last three). Run blocking, once Barclay's hallmark, has troubled him all year, while his pass protection has gone from terrific to turnstile in just a few weeks.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has regularly communicated confidence in Newhouse's abilities, and this week he saw the field for a snap as an oversized tight end in a heavy formation. While many harp on Newhouse for never becoming a fully dependable blindside protector, the right tackle position is generally less demanding. Newhouse's athleticism would also allow the Packers to experiment more with their hybrid run blocking schemes.
The dark horse replacement for Barclay (should he continue to struggle) is the long-awaited Derek Sherrod. The former first-round pick is finally nearing the end of his long road to recovery, and while the small sample of his work didn't leave much of an impression, he's the most physically gifted offensive lineman on the team. The Packers don't want to put Sherrod in a position where he's set up to fail, though, so don't expect Sherrod to walk into the starting lineup in the next few weeks. If the coaches elect to make a change, Newhouse will get the first shot at replacing Barclay.
Going forward, the Packers may roll with Jarrett Boykin as the slot receiver
In the immediate wake of the fractured fibula that landed Randall Cobb on the IR, there was some ambiguity regarding how the slot duties would be divvied up. Certainly, it was expected that tight end Jermichael Finley would assumed some of the responsibility, but what other players might get involved remained a mystery. Many beat writers like Rob Demovsky even surmised that Jordy Nelson was most likely to see addition time in the slot.
However, Sunday's game clearly demonstrated that the Packers have no interest in changing Nelson's normal role. Rather, it was Boykin who received the most time in the slot after Finley. With Green Bay disinterested in changing Nelson's role and James Jones similarly better suited for the outside, the Packers will likely find more opportunities for Boykin in the slot.
Boykin does not possess the traditional skill set of a slot receiver, as he's not overly quick or shifty. However, Boykin's size allows him to break a few tackles and he's well-equipped for big runs after the catch. One other option could be recently-signed Myles White, who also possesses great run after the catch ability, but he doesn't have Boykin's knack for finding holes in the coverage nor are his hands as reliable. Unless Jake Stoneburner or Brandon Bostick earns more playing time soon, this should be Boykin's job until Cobb returns later in the season.
It's not guaranteed that Brad Jones has a starting job when he returns
Prior to his hamstring injury, Brad Jones had been perhaps the Packers' best defensive player based purely on performance. He's performed better in run defense than 2012 and his pass coverage and ability to chase down defenders made him the Packers' every-down inside linebacker.
However, in Jones' absence, both A.J. Hawk and Jamari Lattimore have excelled. Hawk has drawn plenty of praise for the 24 tackles, three sacks, and overall impressive play he's shown since Jones went down, while Lattimore has provided a level of physicality that the Packers haven't had at inside linebacker since Desmond Bishop was on the field regularly in 2011. Unless Lattimore hits a wall on Sunday or Hawk's play regresses, the Packers will have a difficult decision to make in the coming weeks.
Micah Hyde has taken over Jerron McMillian's role in the dime package
Because of prolonged absences for Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, the latter of which still persists, the Packers' sub packages have been an ongoing experiment all season. Dom Capers has toyed with Micah Hyde, Tramon Williams, and even Jarrett Bush as the slot corner while Jerron McMillian has spent most of his time coming in on dime packages lining up over the tight end.
While some combinations have worked in spots, none has been sustainable as the Packers have allowed the 24th-most yards through the air. Worst still, opposing quarterbacks have a 97.0 passer rating against the Packers defense. Perhaps the lowlight of the Packers pass coverage came against Baltimore when McMillian fell over trying to cover Tandon Doss and allowed a touchdown pass to Dallas Clark one play later.
As a result of that game, McMillian didn't receive his usual snaps in the Packers' dime package. Instead, rookie Micah Hyde took his place and managed to stick with the tight ends and slot receivers he was asked to cover. Hyde's faults are well-known by now; he's not especially fleet of foot and struggles to cover deep routes. However, this role allows Hyde to play to strengths: ball skills and sure tackling. At least until Hayward returns, Hyde should see plenty of time in the dime package.
More from Acme Packing Company:
- Browns vs. Packers Grades: How PFF Graded the Game
- Doctors Believe Packers TE Jermichael Finley Can Play Again, but IR Not Ruled Out
- 2013 NFL Power Rankings, Week 8: A New Number One
- Browns vs. Packers Performance Grades: Boykin steps up, House shuts down
- Packers Game Balls: Rodgers Leads the Way In Win Over Browns