But for Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to be productive on offense, James Starks is going to have to be productive running the ball.
And Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith knows it.
"It has everything to do with it," Smith said of the correlation between shutting down the run and slowing down Rodgers. "At least you go into every game trying to do that. Aaron Rodgers is a great player also, and they have a lot of weapons on the offensive side, but Starks has really given them a boost with their running game. It's tough on a defense when you're thinking about the run as much as you're thinking about the pass. Lately, they're harder to defend because of that, seems like the last couple playoff games they've really gotten that running game going, but for us, it would help us a lot if we can force them to go to one of those more so than having to defend both."
Starks, who was all but drafted by the Bears before they pulled a last-second switcheroo to take local quarterback Dan LeFeveour, burst onto the scene in record-setting fashion two weeks ago against Philadelphia. He gained 27 yards on his first carry en route to a 123-yard performance. He wasn't nearly as prolific against Atlanta but he was practically as important as the red-hot Rodgers as the offense was unstoppable.
At the end of the night, Starks' 25 carries, 66 yards and meager 2.6-yard average won't win him any awards. But after losing 3 yards on the Packers' first play of the game, Starks gained positive yardage on 13 of the next 14 carries as the Packers went on a stunning scoring binge. He broke off only one "explosive" run — a 13-yarder to lead off the third quarter, which he followed up with a 9-yard burst. But by consistently getting something and leaving the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations, coach Mike McCarthy had no reason to scrap the running game, as he's done at times this season.
"I think (McCarthy) did an excellent job of keeping it two-dimensional as far as the play calling goes, set up some play-action pass, which we've had a lot of success with," center Scott Wells said. "We didn't get the explosive yards that we had necessarily against Philadelphia but it made them respect the run enough. So, our receivers did an outstanding job of running their routes, Aaron played lights out (and) got the ball downfield and made them pay on the back end when they tried to come up and stop the run."
As Smith said, the running game will be a big factor on Sunday. The Bears boast the league's second-ranked run defense because of their sturdy front four and fast-flowing linebackers. The Packers were unable to run the ball in either game against Chicago, with their backs managing 82 yards on 26 attempts (3.2 average). Consequently, Rodgers and the Packers put only 27 points on the board in those games.
Starks, meanwhile, is averaging 24 carries alone in the playoffs, with McCarthy saying the magic number of team rushing attempts for this game is at least 30. With that kind of volume, linebacker Brian Urlacher won't be able to speed deep into his zone and take away the deep middle from Rodgers and the passing game.
"Hopefully, (Starks) gives us the ability to do everything else we're doing," guard Daryn Colledge said. "Our run game is so much a part of what else we do, our pass game, part of our fakes, so we've got to be able to run the ball a little bit. They're the No. 2 rushing defense, so you're not expected to go out and run for 200 yards against a defense like that. But you've got to find a way to eat clock and make your hay on the ground."
In the regular season, the Packers topped 30 rushing attempts just four times, winning three of those games. They have 32 and 31 carries in the postseason. Thanks in part to Starks keeping defenses honest, Rodgers has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions with a passer rating of a gaudy 134.5 in the playoffs.
"It's not always about the yards per carry, it's about the number of carries," Rodgers said, admittedly copying McCarthy's mantra. "It really is true, as much as I like to tease Mike at times. It's important for us to at least be patient with the running game. And James did a great job against Philadelphia making big-time runs. I think only 66 yards against Atlanta last week, but 25 carries. So, at least we're able to give the look as if we're trying to take the run game, which really helps out the play-action game. We had some success in the play action against Atlanta, had some success against Philadelphia, as well. (We're) playing Chicago. They're a tough defense. They play the run very well. They have to at least think we're going to run it for us to be successful in our play-action game."
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