Dougherty: Packers rediscover run game, use Aaron Jones to punish Bears' defense
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur rediscovered his run game Sunday night.
LaFleur’s offense is as good as just about any in this league, at least aside from the explosive Kansas City Chiefs, when it runs the ball the way it did in his Green Bay Packers’ 41-25 win over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
To be fair, this came with a caveat. The Bears’ formidable defense was missing its second-best player, tackle Akiem Hicks. Still, credit the Packers, and LaFleur as play caller and Aaron Jones as the instrument, for punishing Chicago for Hicks’ absence.
Because for all the problems the reeling Bears have — they’ve lost five games in a row now — their defense has kept them in games even as their season gets away from them. They came into Sunday night ranked No. 6 in the NFL in fewest points allowed and have standout players at every level of their defense (pass rusher Khalil Mack, linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson).
But LaFleur stuck to the run that had his offense rolling to start the season — after Jones had only 23 carries combined the last two games, LaFleur fed him 17 times Sunday night. And what stood out as much as anything, it wasn’t LaFleur’s renowned zone-run scheme but rather quick dives and power calls straight up the gut that did in the Bears.
When the Packers run the ball like this, Aaron Rodgers is almost impossible to stop. In fact, in a roundabout way, this game illustrated why general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted AJ Dillon instead of a receiver in the second round this year. Dillon obviously hasn’t done anything as a rookie, but that’s not the point. The point is, if this season has shown anything, it’s that when a good running back rolls in this offense, Rodgers (132.3 rating, four touchdown passes) rolls too.
“That’s the key for the offensive line and (slowing) the pass rush,” Rodgers said of what the run game does for him. “We haven’t had the run game anywhere near this efficient the last four or five weeks, I think. To have both those guys — I thought Aaron ran excellent, Jamaal (Williams) was great, both those guys I think combined for over 160 yards … I thought Matt (LaFleur) was dialing them up and going back to calls — I just thought it was an expert level the way Matt called it tonight.”
The win against an NFC North rival put the Packers (8-3) in command of the division race with a three-game lead over Minnesota and Chicago (both 5-6) with only five games to play.
But the Packers are aiming higher than that and remain in position to take the top seeding in the NFC. They’re a game behind New Orleans (9-2) and only need to tie the Saints to win the top spot, because the Packers’ win at New Orleans earlier this season gives them the tie-breaker.
“I like where we’re at,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had — obviously last week was a tough one losing in overtime to a good football team (at Indianapolis). But to bounce back against a division rival in a game that could really put us in the driver’s seat, we played the way we need to play. I said before the game, you want to be a great team these are the kind of games you gotta win. I thought we went out there and set the tone on offense.”
Jones has had bigger games statistically, but his robust 5.3-yard average on 17 carries had a profound impact on this game. It seemed like every time he touched the ball he was knocking out 6 or 8 yards and putting LaFleur in great position for his next call. The Bears, who came into this game ranked eighth in fewest yards allowed per rush, never got a handle on him.
The Packers put up touchdowns the first three times they touched the ball, and unlike last week at Indianapolis, put the game away early in the second half. On the third-quarter drive that basically finished off the Bears, Jones slashed for 14 yards on three straight carries, and then on the next snap tight end Robert Tonyan broke wide open for a 39-yard touchdown pass. It was no coincidence that Tonyan sprung free on a Rodgers bootleg off a run fake to Jones.
“It makes it a lot easier, no doubt about it, when you have your whole playbook open and you can call plays that are complementary when we’re getting big yards in the run game,” LaFleur said.
One reason the Packers came in ranked No. 4 in the league in scoring is that Rodgers and LaFleur are in their second season together. But having Jones back at full strength after he missed two games in late October because of a calf injury means everything.
With the Bears' defense only guessing what was coming, Rodgers had all the time he needed to dissect them when he got his chances (21-for-29 passing) and make a good defense look bad. When the running game protects him, every last second of Rodgers’ 13 seasons as a starting quarterback in this league shows through. He’s playing his best football since his MVP season of 2014 and run-the-table finish in 2016.
He along with Patrick Mahomes and maybe Russell Wilson are the leading contenders for MVP just past the two-thirds mark of the season.
“This is as good as I’ve seen anybody play,” LaFleur said of Rodgers.
It’s also worth remembering that just as a blowout loss at Tampa Bay or the second-half collapse in Indianapolis last week didn’t ruin the Packers’ season, a comfortable and impressive win against the Bears doesn’t make it.
The points don’t carry over to next week, and there will be momentum only if the Packers create it. Feeding Jones is a good place to start.