Jeremy: Green Bay has reeled off four straight and are now in 1st place in the NFC North. What can you point to as the biggest factor for the recent hot stretch?
Bill: It's no longer the Aaron Rodgers Show. In 2011, when the Packers went 15-1, it was on the strength of Rodgers and the passing game because the defense was terrible. Last season, the defense was better but the team's success or failure again rested on the shoulders of the passing game.
This year, it's been more of a team effort. The Packers have been forced in that direction. Greg Jennings is in Minnesota, Randall Cobb is out with a broken fibula, James Jones is out with a relatively minor knee injury and Jermichael Finley is out indefinitely with a neck injury. So, the Packers are leaning on their offensive and defensive lines. A team that had its toughness questioned at the end of last season is about as tough as they come. So much of training camp was centered on improving the running game — and that focus has paid dividends for the defense, which has been stuffing opposing running backs all season.
Jeremy: The Packers haven't had much of a rushing attack for years but that has changed. How much has the addition of Eddie Lacy impacted the offense?
Bill: It's sort of the chicken-or-egg deal: Is the running game better because of Lacy or has Lacy been so good because the offensive line is so much better? Lacy is one tough customer. He's carried the ball at least 22 times in each of his last four games. He never got the ball more than 20 times at Alabama. What strikes me is that Lacy turns a run blocked for 2 yards into a gain of 4. That extra yard or two has kept the offense in good down-and-distance situations. At Minnesota last week, Green Bay went 13-for-19 on third down because it faced so many manageable third-down situations.
Lacy probably is getting the ball too many times. James Starks, who was out for a month with a knee injury, looked great in his return last week. I'm guessing the Packers will want to take a bit of the load off of Lacy, since the team is taking a long-term view to January.
Jeremy: Finley, Cobb and Jones are hurting. We know what Jordy Nelson can do but is Jarrett Boykin for real? Or is he more of a product of playing with Rodgers under McCarthy, like some now say about Greg Jennings?
I will say this about Boykin: He's a big man (6-foot-2) with excellent hands. Now, can he beat a good cornerback? We'll probably get that answer this week.
Jeremy: No one can run on the Packers. What has been the biggest key for Green Bay's 2nd-ranked run defense?
Bill: It's funny what happens when you work on something in training camp. Green Bay's rushing offense and rushing defense have been terrible the past couple of years. So, that was coach Mike McCarthy's focus in training camp. They did a bunch of half-line drills in training camp, and do them during their in-season padded practices. It's a full-go drill with a sole emphasis on the running game. The offense lines up with a tackle, guard, center and guard, with a fullback, tight end and running back, going up against a defense with three linemen, three linebackers and a safety.
One other thing is the return of defensive end Johnny Jolly. When Jolly last played in 2009, the Packers led the NFL in run defense. He sat out three seasons with a league suspension and spent time in prison due to his addiction to codeine. He's back and hardly looks like he was gone. Plus, the Packers have been hammered by injuries but the defensive line has stayed healthy. That's been key, because the Packers have been without both of their starting outside linebackers (Clay Matthews and Nick Perry) and one of their inside linebackers (Brad Jones).
Jeremy: Is there any way Chicago's defense, which has been decimated by injuries and just lost Lance Briggs, can stop Green Bay's offense or will the Packers have to beat themselves in order to lose this game?
Bill: I'd say it's the latter, but I wouldn't say that's out of the question, either. Remember, Green Bay's passing game has one big-time threat, Nelson. And while Lovie Smith is gone, the Bears' penchant for forcing turnovers remains. Plus, Green Bay gave up a long kickoff return against Cleveland two weeks ago and a touchdown on the opening kickoff last week. Advantage, Devin Hester.
The challenge for Chicago is Green Bay's running game. Do the Bears devote a safety to stopping Lacy, which opens up the downfield passing game? Or do the Bears play to stop Rodgers, which creates room for Lacy? It's basic football, but it's a premise the Packers' opponents haven't had to consider since Ryan Grant was at his peak in 2009.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.