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Packers Friday Musings: AJ Dillon’s performance was reminiscent of 2010 James Starks

The rookie back’s dazzling night in the snow draws some similarities to Starks’s emergence during the Packers’ Super Bowl run.

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

A winter wonderland greeted the Green Bay Packers last Sunday night and they did not disappoint in dismantling the Tennessee Titans. Arguably the team’s most complete game of the season, the performance was one that highlighted the Packers’ strides on defense, an important development with the playoffs looming and a rising Bears offense awaiting the unit this week.

Still, the Packers’ quest for a Super Bowl berth will be heavily dependent on their offense. Today’s musings discuss a pair of thoughts on the Packers ground game, which prepares for Chicago after seeing a budding young player emerge against Tennessee. How much success will Green Bay find with the healthy return of one Bears defender? And what is in store for the latest chapter of Week 17 matchups between the Packers and Bears with postseason implications on the line?

AJ Dillon’s late-season power-running in the cold weather evoked memories of James Starks’ own breakout as a rookie in 2010

As the rookie from Boston College scampered to 124 yards on a snowy Sunday night in his first 20-plus carry game as a pro, and he did so with plenty of powerful cuts and thumps. Dillon’s running style looked to be the perfect complement to the speed of Aaron Jones and he seems to be exactly the type of cold-weather, beat-down back that many anticipated when the Packers drafted him in the second round. Not only was Dillon’s performance one that helped lift the Packers to the win, it was one reminiscent of another recent back.

Although Dillon and Starks are two different types of running backs and were drafted several rounds apart, they have now each played a role in meaningful late-season action with a Super Bowl run in mind. Dillon shared the seemingly fresh legs and power to slip through tackles that aided Starks in 2010 during his own emergence, and he can only hope to have the same impact that Starks had on winning a championship. Like Dillon, who was impacted by Covid-19, Starks was limited by injuries throughout his rookie campaign before debuting in Week 13 with a 18-carry, 73-yard day. While his carries were limited over the next few weeks, Starks went on to tote the ball more than 20 times in each of the first three games of the playoffs, including a 123-yard outing on a cold Philadelphia evening.

With a healthy Jones in the picture, Dillon may not have the same number of carries this postseason that Starks had when he was sharing carries with Brandon Jackson. But if one is looking for similarities to the Packers’ Super Bowl run, Dillon’s breakout was certainly one of them (the late-season addition of Damon Harrison compared to Howard Green could end up being another).

Regular season finales have had plenty of implications for the Packers and Bears in recent memory

Expanding on the few sentences above, how about another similarity to the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010? The roles are nearly exactly reversed in 2020, but Green Bay entered a Week 17 game against Chicago in the 2010 season with a spot in the playoffs on the line, while the Bears were positioned for a first-round bye. Of course, the end result was a Packers win in Week 17 and then ultimately a victory in the NFC Championship Game against that very same Chicago squad a few weeks later. Very similar to the Packers’ stretch run back then, the Bears have gained momentum in the final weeks on offense. It will be up to the Packers to learn from history and eliminate the Bears immediately on Sunday.

But beyond 2010, the 2013 matchup between the two teams in Week 17 also was played with the postseason on the line. A 7-7-1 Packers team faced the 8-7 Bears in Chicago that day with the winner earning an NFC North title and a final spot in the playoffs. After a season of tough luck with Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury, the Packers appeared to be about to suffer another heartbreak with less than a minute to play. But Green Bay’s fortunes reversed on one play as Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown on a critical 4th-and-8 play with 38 seconds remaining. The 33-28 win gave Green Bay another divisional championship and sent the Bears into winter hibernation.

Regardless of the outcome, Sunday afternoon’s game will be remembered by fans of both sides just like the two previous memories of the past decade.

What impact will a healthy Akiem Hicks have on the Packers’ rushing game in the second meeting of the season?

In Week 12, the Packers’ running game had an unusual amount of success against Chicago, rushing for 182 yards — the most the Bears have allowed in a single game all season. Without a doubt, the absence of Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks played a large role in that surge. Aaron Jones rushed for 90 yards and Jamaal Williams for 73 while running the grand majority of their 34 combined carries between the hashes. From Jones’s NFL Next Gen Stats graphs, it was especially interesting to see the percentage of his rushes go through the middle versus the outside of the field compared to other games this season. There appeared to be a focus on Green Bay’s part in attacking that area of vulnerability and the team’s 182 rushing yards stood out in being their most yards gained on the ground against Chicago since September 2015 (189 yards).

Outside of the Vikings game two weeks ago (158 yards), the Bears defense has tightened up against the run since Hicks’ return, however, allowing 60, 108, and 76 yards in the other three games. Hicks is still not at perfect health with a nagging ankle injury and an illness that kept him out of practice earlier this week, but he figures to suit up against Green Bay. Hicks remains a key cog in the middle of the defense and is instrumental in creating plays for inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who has seen quite a bit of improvement and play-making himself the past few weeks.

While the Packers’ passing game should be fruitful against an inconsistent Bears pass defense, the offense’s ability to move downfield via the air will only improve if Hicks is held in check.