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Aaron Jones and Packers’ surging run game to face ‘stout’ Bears front

The return of Aaron Jones has given the Green Bay Packers run game a major boost the last two weeks, but he and the offensive line will face a difficult test against the Chicago Bears and their stingy front.

The Packers entered their Week 16 matchup with the Carolina Panthers not having an individual 100-yard rusher all season. However, upon Jones’ return from injury with an MCL sprain, he fixed that immediately.

Jones totaled 127 rushing yards against the Packers at 6.0 yards per attempt. The following week in Minnesota, Jones again topped 100 yards with 120 at 6.0 yards per carry. During that two-game stretch, Jones leads the NFL in rushing, is third in yards per attempt, first in missed tackles forced, and first in rushes of 10-plus yards.

“That’s huge,” said Jordan Love of Jones’ presence following the Panthers’ game. “Obviously, we all know the type of player Aaron Jones is. Just being able to get him back 100 percent healthy was huge and he had a great day rushing the ball. Made some plays in the pass game too. Just whenever we can get him back 100 percent, try to get him the ball as much as possible, we know the type of player he is.”

On the other side of the ball this week will be a Bears’ defensive front that is allowing only 3.7 yards per carry this season—the fourth lowest rate in football. Over Chicago’s last seven games they are 5-2, led by some dominant performances by their defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in five straight weeks.

On the ground during that stretch, running backs are averaging only 3.8 yards per rush. On three instances, opponents have averaged less than 3.3 yards per carry—although quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Taylor Heinicke did find some success scrambling, while in both games against Detroit, the Lions averaged over 5.0 yards per attempt. So it’s not as if the Chicago front is impenetrable, but the Packers need to play well.

“It looks like a group that has played 16 games together,” said Matt LaFleur on Wednesday. “If you look at their roster, for the most part, most of those guys are healthy and they’ve played a lot of ball together and they’ve grown together and you can see it—it’s evident. This is a very well coached football team with very good players. It’s a very sound scheme.

“They’re stout against the run. It’s a great challenge. They do a great job of getting their hands on a lot of balls, whether it’s punching the ball out, ripping the ball out or creating interceptions. That’s going to be a key for us, just making sure we take care of the ball. It’s a challenge just because there aren’t a lot of holes in their defense. They do a really good job of eliminating explosive gains. I mean, you have to earn everything you get.”

Having a run game to lean on helps the offense generate positive plays on early downs, keeping them ahead of, or at least even with the sticks. This then stresses the defense, who now has to defend both the run and the pass on a given play, and opens up opportunities in the passing games, specifically off of play-action and downfield.

Overall this season, Love has been effective in both situations, ranking fourth in total passing yards off play-action and third in yards on passes of 20 or more yards. Improved efficiency in each of these areas, which coincides with the run game getting better over the second half of the season, have been catalysts to the offense’s success since Week 11.

“It’s huge,” said Love of the impact the run game can have on the passing game. “When you can run the ball on first and second downs and get huge gains, kind of just convert and keep those drives going it’s huge. It takes the pressure off the pass game and keeps the defense on its heels trying to find ways to stop the run. But I think just the way we started running the ball on those first couple of drives, it’s huge and got us going.”

The last time these two teams met in Week 1, Jones averaged 4.6 yards per attempt on nine carries, but as a position group, the Green Bay running backs averaged just over 3.0 yards per carry.

This could be a game where the Packers have to lean more on the passing game—an approach that many other Chicago opponents have taken. Over the course of the season, the Bears’ defense sees on average 22.6 rush attempts per game, the second-fewest.

However, that doesn’t mean the Packers should not run the ball either. For one, Jones needs to be involved. As we’ve seen over and over again, this offense is just different when he’s full healthy and getting his touches. On top of that, Green Bay wants to avoid becoming one-dimensional as well. Chicago has generated the most interceptions in football this season and in the last five games has the lowest opponent passer rating.

Last week against Minnesota was a matchup against one of the better run defense units but Jones and the offensive line still found success. When you have a player of Jones’ caliber, a big play or a big game is always a possibility, some weeks that’s just easier to achieve than others.

“In terms of explosion runs,” added LaFleur, “I feel like we’ve had more the last couple weeks then we’ve had the rest of the season. His (Jones) ability to do that to generate some of those explosion runs has been huge for our offense. It takes so much pressure off of everybody when you’re able to do that in the run game. This Chicago team does a really good  job against the run, so we are going to have our hands full.”

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire