It’s rivalry week and the Bears and Packers will square off at Lambeau Field for a big divisional game Monday night. Normally a difficult place to play for the Bears, this particular game appears all the more daunting given how well the Packers offense has been playing and how poorly the Bears defense has looked.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is averaging 313 passing yards per game, has completed 67.1 percent of his passes, and has a 108 passer rating. What’s most impressive is he’s doing it with a subpar cast of receivers due to injuries. Aside from Jordy Nelson — who is a solid receiver — receivers Jarrett Boykin and Myles White, along with tight end Andrew Quarless, stepped up and had a nice collective performance last week against the Minnesota Vikings with James Jones, Randall Cobb, and Jermichael Finley all out. That’s a testament to how good Rodgers is, that the Packers can insert those backups into the lineup and continue where they left off. That’s what the phrase “next man up” really means.
The Bears have had their own injuries to deal with, most notably to the quarterback of the offense — Jay Cutler — and the “quarterback” of the defense — linebacker Lance Briggs. Both players were injured against the Redskins two weeks ago and face somewhat lengthy roads back to the field. However, both players sound optimistic about making earlier than expected returns.
Without them, the Bears will have to pull off somewhat of a perfect performance against the Packers on Monday. Josh McCown is the next man up at quarterback and he did extremely well filling in for Cutler for the second half of the Redskins game. McCown is exactly the kind of backup quarterback a team wants on its roster. From the very beginning of the Marc Trestman era, McCown was heavily involved in what was going on, learning and absorbing the offense and what the head coach wanted to do schematically. Throughout the season, whenever camera shots cut to the sideline, McCown was always standing around the head coach, shouting out instructions, involved in the game and paying attention to what was going on. He also would huddle up with Cutler and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh on the sideline to review pictures. In short, he has been doing exactly what you’d want out of your backup quarterback, and that’s being prepared to play in the event he’s needed.
He’s needed in a big way now. In order to have a shot at beating their division rival, the Bears will need the offense to keep up on the scoreboard. Fortunately, the Bears have the horses to keep up in that race. Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, paired with tight end Martellus Bennett, are still one of the top receiving trios in the league. Throw in running back Matt Forte’s versatility and pass-catching ability out of the backfield, plus the offensive line’s improved play this year, and McCown will be given the pieces he needs to succeed. It’s on him to go out and lead the offense and execute.
The situation on defense is a little more murky. The unit was already struggling this year with Briggs in the lineup. Without him, it’s hard to see how they stop anybody. The Bears have been starting a pair of rookies on the offensive line all season and now they could be starting a pair at linebacker. Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are likely going to be lining up side by side on the field with veteran strong-side linebacker James Anderson calling the plays. I have no doubts that both rookie linebackers can play; I just have fears that they’re being thrown into the fire in one of the worst possible situations — against a strong offense clicking on all cylinders.
If I had to bet, I’d say Charles Tillman — who has been hampered by injuries all season — will play against the Packers after having two weeks to rest up. If ever Tillman was needed to step up and use his famed “ball punch,” this is the time. I expect the Packers’ receivers to have the ball in their hands all game, so Peanut will get plenty of chances to pop it loose. But Tillman, along with fellow Pro Bowl corner Tim Jennings, will have to have their best individual games of the season. Same goes with safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright, who have struggled mightily this season. If nothing else, at the very least, the most simplistic task we ask of Conte and Wright is please don’t allow anybody to get past you. If they’re late getting over to help a corner, so be it. We’ve seen it before. But they can’t allow a receiver to haul in a pass over the top of them. I’d rather the Packers methodically move the ball down the field, completing passes to the soft spots in zone coverage, than for them to hit one or more “home run” balls.
Of course, the secondary can get a lot of help if the Bears’ pass rush — which has been stagnant up to this point — can generate some kind of pressure on Rodgers. The Packers’ quarterback is one of the best in the business at making blitzing teams pay, so the Bears will likely have to try to generate that pressure from their front four. I was encouraged by the way Corey Wootton penetrated the middle of the offensive line against the Redskins and he’ll have to be as good or better than that against the Packers’ line. Once you get pressure in the quarterback’s face, it’ll force him off his spot and make him move around in the pocket and mess up the timing of plays. That’s when Julius Peppers, Shea McClellin, and David Bass need to clean up the play and either bring down Rodgers or flush him out of the pocket altogether.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough trying to stop one of the game’s best quarterbacks, the Bears have to be mindful of running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who have helped the Packers regain some semblance of a run game they haven’t had in years. Last week, the duo combined for 151 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. Over the last four weeks, since the Packers’ bye, Lacy has rushed for 395 yards. Nicknamed “The Hammer,” Lacy runs with power and that brings back visions of another powerful running back — the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs — running over Bears defenders. That cannot happen this week if the Bears want a chance at the upset.
I don’t see many paths to success for the Bears in this one. Playing on the road is tough enough, but without two of your best players — your captains — and facing one of the top teams in the league, it’ll take an almost flawless performance to win this game. Winning the turnover battle, controlling time of possession with long drives from the offense, and ending drives with points rather than punts is the only chance at victory in this one.
Prediction: Green Bay 34, Chicago 23