A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Packers on Sept. 13, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Packers defense
Step 1 of being a big boy offense in the NFL is to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat and do so convincingly. Check. The Bears put up 41 points against the Colts. Step 2 is to do it against one of the top teams in the league and to keep up in a shootout, if necessary. The Bears will get that opportunity Thursday night against the Packers, who have had one of the best offenses in football for the past few years. This has the makings of a shootout because neither defense looks impressive this year and both offenses have the weapons to put points on the board. The Bears can’t, however, open the game in similar fashion to how they did against the Colts, with their backs pinned to their goal line. It’ll be more difficult to dig themselves out of a hole against the Packers on the road than against the Colts. But it’s no longer out of the question for them to sustain long drives, for they did so on an 80-yard touchdown drive on their third possession against Indianapolis. Later they drove 95 yards and 72 yards for touchdowns. It was clear from the outset that Jay Cutler was targeting his old buddy from Denver and wanted to get him involved all game. Brandon Marshall was targeted 15 times and caught 9 passes for 119 yards and a score. I wouldn’t look for anything different this week. The Packers had their trouble stopping the 49ers offense, particularly the run, so look for the Bears to get Matt Forte and Michael Bush involved at some point. In the past, the Packers cornerbacks have been able to be physical with the Bears’ diminutive receivers, but with a pair of 6-4 receivers in Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery, this is where the manhandling stops. Marshall even dared the Packers — practically — to use press coverage on him and to get physical, saying he welcomed it. One of the cornerbacks Marshall could face is Jarrett Bush, who made headlines this week for saying the 49ers didn’t really “beat” the Packers despite clear evidence of dominance to the contrary. Opposite Bush is Tramon Williams with veteran Charles Woodson moved to safety alongside Morgan Burnett. The secondary certainly has had its problems and the Bears can exploit them. The strength of the defense is up front with nose tackle B.J. Raji and ends Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson — who is questionable with a groin. Lining up at linebacker in the 3-4 defense is Clay Matthews, who could wreak havoc in the backfield if J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi aren’t up to the challenge, along with A.J. Hawk — 10 tackles last week — Nick Perry and D.J. Smith.
Bears defense vs. Packers offense
Brian Urlacher returned, as promised, for the season opener but he was near invisible as the knee seemed to inhibit his normal range and speed. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck did not challenge him across the middle of the field as much as many would have expected but Urlacher played barely more than a half of football in what amounted to an extra preseason game for him to help get back into football shape. Urlacher is listed as probable and will likely be a go, but the real challenge will be whether he can play a full game against an explosive offense like Green Bay’s and whether he can cover mammoth tight end Jermichael Finley over the middle with Aaron Rodgers throwing strikes. And speaking of coverage, with Charles Tillman missing most of the first game and listed as questionable for the Packers game, the Bears could be in a world of hurt trying to defend the Packers’ potent passing attack. Tillman did have limited participation in practice and it is a big divisional and rivalry game, so the questionable status may be a smokescreen, but we’ll have to wait and see. The one factor that might aid the Bears, if true, is that Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings is listed as doubtful for the game. If he can’t go, Jordy Nelson will get the bulk of the looks with James Jones and Randall Cobb contributing as well. To stop the potent air attack, the Bears will have to find ways to generate pressure on Rodgers and keep him contained in the pocket. The surest, best hope is Julius Peppers, but you can bet the Packers will scheme to take him out of the game. That means the combination of Israel Idonije, Corey Wootton, and — on nickel downs — rookie Shea McClellin will have to rise to the challenge in this prime time game. Defensive tackle Henry Melton had a strong start to the season with two sacks on Luck, but in order to avoid the inconsistency that plagued him last year, Melton needs to carry that momentum over into Thursday night’s game and be a disruptive force in the middle. With 37-year-old Jeff Saturday playing center, the Bears can use their quickness up front to gain penetration. In the defensive backfield, Tim Jennings had a solid game against the Colts with two interceptions and a deflected pass that led to a third pick by Chris Conte, but Jennings was also beaten on those picks. He’ll surely be tested by Rodgers. The Bears will see a familiar face in the Packers backfield in Cedric Benson, who did not get off to a good start last week with just 18 yards on 9 carries against the 49ers. Benson had a career game against the Bears in 2009 as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, but it’d be surprising if he had anywhere near the production Thursday night that he had back then.
Last week’s officiating in the 49ers-Packers game was abominable, including a missed block in the back that was blatantly obvious which resulted in a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Packers return man Randall Cobb. Let’s be honest, though: Cobb doesn’t need much help from the officiating to be a dynamic returner. Last year as a rookie, Cobb returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown. The Bears have their own dynamic duo with Devin Hester and Eric Weems, both of whom have been Pro Bowlers for their special teams prowess. The Bears tried something new by lining up both of them against the Colts to return kickoffs to prevent Indianapolis from kicking away from Hester. With two players with that kind of return ability back to field the kick, it gives the opposing coverage unit that much more to think about and to protect against. In terms of coverage, the Bears were solid in Week 1 by stifling the Colts’ return game and even recorded a turnover when reserve linebacker J.T. Thomas stripped LaVon Brazill and Kelvin Hayden pounced on the loose ball before rolling out of bounds. Blake Costanzo, brought in specifically for his special teams ability, has been as good as advertised. In his first game back after a preseason hip flexor injury, Adam Podlesh did not appear to have as good a game as he is capable of having. He averaged just 35.2 yards per punt, a good five yards below last season’s average. He’ll have to have good directional kicking Thursday night as special teams coordinator Dave Toub will surely want his punter kicking away from Cobb. Roubie Gould was a perfect 2-for-2 against the Colts with five extra points. Their counterparts, punter Tim Masthay and kicker Mason Crosby, are as good as most in the league. Crosby hit a pair of extra points in the season opener and Masthay averaged 41.5 yards per punt on six attempts, including a 60-yard bomb and a whopping four punts downed inside the 20. It’s a close matchup with only a slight edge to the Bears on paper, but it won’t be paper making the plays on Thursday.
So here we go. Bears-Packers, most storied rivalry in the NFL, Thursday night prime time game in front of a national audience. The Bears have the opportunity to take a commanding two-game lead in the division while setting the Packers back to 0-2, with two conference losses and a divisional one. That would be a hard hole to dig themselves out of. The last time the Bears were 2-0 and the Packers were 0-2 was back in 2006 when the Bears blanked the Packers, 26-0, at Lambeau Field in Week 1 en route to a Super Bowl appearance. I’m not sure if lightning could strike twice but it would definitely set the tone for a big season. It’s going to be a chess match between Mike McCarthy — the Packers’ head coach and offensive play caller — and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Yes, they’re not exactly playing on the same board — each team’s defensive coordinator is on the opposite side of the game board — but it’ll be McCarthy and Tice who are ultimately responsible for engineering their respective offenses in what looks like a shootout in the making. But perhaps the biggest wild card yet to be mentioned, and what could play the biggest role in determining the outcome of the game, is what lies between the ears of No. 6 on the Bears. With the ability to call audibles, so much more rests on the shoulders of Cutler and hinges on how he sees the field and reads the defense. Suddenly Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers can play head games with Cutler because the Bears quarterback has more leeway to run what he sees best. Then again, Cutler’s never had the kind of safety valve he now has in Marshall — at least not while with the Bears. In 2009’s season opener on national TV, Cutler’s debut with the Bears, the quarterback threw four interceptions — including a game-clinching one. He’s also had multiple dismal performances under the lights. But times they are a changin’. I can’t imagine this game being a blowout one way or the other, but I also can’t imagine the Packers losing two straight at home — three, if you include the playoff loss last year — and I have a hard time seeing the Bears defense stopping the Packers’ offense.
Final Score: Green Bay 30, Chicago 27