A breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Packers on Sept. 25, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Packers defense
As I noted in a column on Tuesday, despite the woeful imbalance of play calls from offensive coordinator Mike Martz against the Saints, there’s no guarantee that the Bears will run a lot more against the Packers than the 11 times they did last Sunday. Green Bay’s defense has gotten off to a slow start this season and is currently ranked No. 30 in total defense and dead last against the pass. They’ve allowed an average of 400 yards passing through the first two games and have yielded 28.5 points per game, eighth-most in the league. The one aspect of their defense that has not suffered a setback is their pressure on the quarterback, and they now rank fourth in the NFL in sacks, an alarming statistic for Jay Cutler and the Bears, who have given up a league-high 11 sacks and look just as dysfunctional along the offensive line as they did last year. No one player for the Packers is filling out the stat sheet as linebacker Clay Matthews did last year. Eight different players have at least a half-sack, and only two sacks have come from the defensive line. For as much pressure as the Saints brought last week, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers figures to match that this week. One way to combat that is to run the ball more as well as mix in a variety of screens. And as tempting as it may be to keep more players in to help with protection, it’s a better idea to spread the defense out with more receivers. The only caveat to that strategy is that the routes will all have to be short and Cutler will have to get rid of the ball quickly. Once the Bears complete some short passes and move the chains, the defense will back off a little. But if the Bears only have two receivers running patterns, Cutler will never get the ball off because the Bears receivers just aren’t good enough to get open and make a play while covered. Roy Williams had full participation in practice this week which is a good sign for an offense that needs a little size and ability at the receiver position. His former Cowboys teammate Marion Barber also practice on a limited basis and would help the Bears create more balance in the game plan if and when he’s able to play. Both Williams and Barber are questionable on the official injury report on NFL.com, but ESPN’s John Clayton tweeted on Friday that both are probable. Matt Forte figures to be the focal point of the offense once again and will help move the chains both through the air and on the ground.
Bears defense vs. Packers offense
Despite the lopsided score of the Bears-Saints game last Sunday, the defense actually played well against a good New Orleans offense. The Bears held Drew Brees to just 270 passing yards, which is a low mark by his standards. The two plays that make the final score deceiving were the blown coverage by Major Wright that led to a 79-yard Devery Henderson touchdown reception and the Turk McBride sack of Cutler in the third quarter that caused Cutler to fumble the ball away at the Bears’ 29-yard line. Together, those plays led to 14 Saints points. The area in which the Bears did not perform well was pressuring the quarterback. Israel Idonije recorded the lone sack for the Bears on the play right before the Henderson touchdown reception. Brees had all day to throw without the slightest hint of pressure. After Henry Melton’s two-sack performance against the Falcons, he failed to appear on the stat sheet against the Saints. It’d be foolish to expect him to replicate the same success he had against Atlanta week in and week out, but he has to at least make his presence felt and disrupt the flow of the offense. The Packers offensive line has done a good job of protecting Aaron Rodgers so far this season by allowing just three sacks, fifth-fewest in the league. Rodgers’ exceptional ability to beat the blitz combined with his good footwork and ability to scramble is part of the reason he hasn’t been sacked often. That makes the Bears’ defensive game plan even more complicated because they’ll have to try to generate pressure with just their front four. If they have to bring pressure from a linebacker or defensive back, Rodgers has an array of weapons with which to pick apart the defense. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and Randall Cobb comprise one of, if not the best receiving corps in the NFL. Add to that group tight end Jermichael Finley, whose size and athleticism give Rodgers a great safety valve, and the Bears’ window of opportunity to sack Rodgers is minimal. To compound the Bears’ problems, running back James Starks is having a good year averaging 6.8 yards per carry. The Bears are banged up in the secondary as safety Major Wright is expected to miss the game and Chris Harris is a game-time decision. Brandon Meriweather and Craig Steltz are slated to replace them. I think the Bears defense can keep the game close but won’t be able to win this one by themselves. A few takeaways and a defensive score might be the only way to get the win.
Packers rookie Randall Cobb had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 1 against the Saints and is averaging 25 yards per return on his other three attempts this season. Devin Hester has yet to break off a big return but he’s flashed visions of his elusiveness on a number of attempts. Unfortunately, the combination of the new kickoff rule, which has allowed opposing kickers to kick out of the end zone, and kickers angling the ball toward the sideline has limited Hester’s chances at getting a big return. The Packers allowed Hester to return a punt for a touchdown in last year’s Week 3 matchup and they allowed Darren Sproles to a have a couple big returns in the season opener, so maybe Hester will get his chance to do something special this week. Both Robbie Gould and Mason Crosby have done a good job putting kickoffs through the end zone as they rank seventh and tenth, respectively, in touchbacks. After a sluggish preseason, Gould is tied with a handful of other kickers for the most field goals through two weeks with five and a has a long of 42 yards. Crosby has notched three with a long of 37 yards. New Bears punter Adam Podlesh has been a quiet weapon for the Bears this year as he currently ranks fourth in the league with a 45.6-yard net average. Packers punter Tim Masthay ranks 33rd — out of 32 NFL teams, mind you — with a 23.3-yard net average. The cause of that low total, of course, can be attributed to Sproles’ 72-yard punt return touchdown in Week 1. Still, Masthay’s gross average is only 40.9 yards per punt, which ranks him 25th in the NFL.
There are a handful of theories as to why the Bears typically play the Packers well, and they certainly played them better than any team in the league during the Packers’ Super Bowl run last year. One of the those theories may be that the emotion level is raised for rivalry week due to the great implications the game has on the divisional race. Lovie Smith places great emphasis on beating the Packers and has had good success over the years. The Bears defense is designed to keep these games close and they’ve done well at creating turnovers and turning them into points. Another reason for close games is that Packers coach Mike McCarthy has taken his foot off the gas pedal, so to speak, in the second half of a number of contests, which has allowed the Bears to climb back into games. This game has a different feel to it then most home games in the past. The Bears are coming off a disaster in New Orleans that one would typically feel would make the Bears play better the following week, but the Packers are coming off their own close call in Carolina. Green Bay also feels the need to win the division this year after they just narrowly slipped into the playoffs a year ago. They don’t want to leave anything to chance this year. With the recipe for attacking Cutler just one week old, Capers is going to assure that Martz will not be able to run the offense he wishes he could. This game comes down to line play. If the Bears offensive line can protect Cutler, we’ll see good things from this offense — as we’ve seen sporadically through two weeks. And if the defensive line can generate the type of pressure we saw against the Falcons this week against Rodgers, without having to send extra blitzers, we’ll see a close game and a lower score. But I think the defending champions will win the battle of line play and ultimately hold the edge on the scoreboard when time runs out.
Final Score: Green Bay 27, Chicago 24