Yes, it’s the first Bear Week for the 2011 season. The chance to once again rub salt in the wounds of Bears fans whilst polishing the Lombardi Trophy at the same time. Life could not be any better if you are a Cheesehead.
That said, let’s stop picking on the infidels and focus on the game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears this Sunday at poorly renovated Soldier Field.
The Packers enter this game 2-0 after surviving a much tougher than expected battle with the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. The win was costly however as Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was lost for the season (and perhaps longer) with a neck injury. Running back James Starks continued to make his case to be the Packers featured back and despite the loss of Collins, the defense once again held tough when it counted and cornerback Charles Woodson intercepted two of rookie quarterback Cam Newton’s passes.
The Bears face their archrivals with a record of 1-1 after being beaten down by the New Orleans Saints 30-13. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler once again was thrown around like a rag doll after being sacked five times behind a very leaky offensive line. The Bears are also suffering a bought of injuries with tackler Gabe Carimi and wide receiver Earl Bennett missing practice time while receiver Roy Williams and safety Chris Harris had limited participation this week.
Breaking down Da Bears
On offense, you have to start with their beleaguered field general.
Cutler has taken a merciless beating since January, both on and off the field. After exiting the NFC Championship with a knee injury, many current and former players brought Cutler’s toughness into question and those questions lingered all through the lockout and into the preseason. On the field, Cutler once again is falling prey to far too many sacks behind a wounded yet still poor offensive line. The loss of Olin Kreutz in free agency to the Saints apparently did more damage to the team than originally thought.
On the bright side, running back Matt Forte is one of the best backs in the NFC and will provide the Packers defense a huge challenge. Not only is he a strong runner, but Forte has proven to be lethal in the passing game particularly on screen routes. Stopping Forte will be crucial to the Packers keeping the Bears out of the end zone on Sunday.
Cutler’s wide receivers are decent. Offseason acquisition Roy Williams has good athletic ability but has struggled in the mental part of the game as evidenced by his infamous amount of drops. Devin Hester is deadly whenever he has the ball in his hands and Johnny Knox remains one of the most underrated receivers in the NFC. When Cutler has time to set up, this passing attack can hurt people.
On defense, the Bears remain strong as has been their trademark for decades. On the defensive line, Julius Peppers is the star of the show. His freakish athletic skills make him a danger to any quarterback and he will put the Packers offensive line to the test early and often.
Behind Peppers and the defensive line is linebacking group led by veteran Brian Urlacher. With the recent tragic news of the passing of his mother, Urlacher will be playing with a heavy heart for the remainder of the season and for a man already regarded as one of the best linebackers in NFL history, this is bad news for the rest of the league. Joining Urlacher is the oft-disgruntled Lance Briggs and Nick Roach.
With Harris potentially out for Sunday, a big burden will fall on Charles Tillman’s shoulders on Sunday. Given the amount of weapons the Packers offense possesses, a very thin Bears secondary does not have the talent to cover everyone and Tillman cannot be in multiple places on the field at the same time. If Harris can’t go, Craig Steltz will get the start at free safety. Major Wright is the other safety and Tim Jennings is the other cornerback opposite Tillman.
When the Packers have the ball….
It’s quickly becoming Mike McCarthy’s first head scratching move of the 2011 season.
In two games so far, Starks has outperformed Ryan Grant yet Starks is season the lesser amount of carries. I understand the idea behind a two-pronged rushing attack, but Starks has so many athletic gifts that it is unjustifiable for him to keep seeing a small workload. Grant can still have his role, but Starks has to be the featured back of this offense if McCarthy wants some pressure taken off Rodgers and the passing attack.
Speaking of Rodgers, he simply has to keep doing his thing. Spreading the ball around to his plethora of weapons will stretch the Bears thin and open things up for Jermichael Finley. The offensive line must continue to keep Rodgers upright against what will undoubtedly be a relentless Bears pass rush.
Bottom Line: Protect Rodgers and get Starks going early. Use Grant in different scenarios to vary the tempo of the attack.
When Da Bears have Da Ball…..
The offense needs balance. There is no other way around it. When mad scientist/offensive coordinator Mike Martz calls 52 pass plays to 11 rushing plays in a game, something needs to change. Cutler got pummeled last week and you have to believe Smith won’t allow Martz to expose his quarterback to that kind of beating for a second week in a row against another aggressive defense.
Instead, a return to “Lovie-ball” is in order. Ride Forte into the ground or until the Packers stop him. The Bears will need to utilize short passes to their tight ends (Cutler’s security blankets, dating back to his time in Denver) to help their quarterback and offensive line reestablish some kind of rhythm.
Cutler will face a defense looking to break him. He was beaten senseless the last two times the Packers and Bears played and there is no doubt that Dom Capers thinks he has Cutler’s number. Look for the Packers to continue to throw the sink at the Bears quarterback all game long.
Three Keys to Da Game:
1. Give Starks a spark: Mike, you have a gifted athlete in the backfield now. USE HIM!
2. Break Cutler’s spirit: It’s becoming increasingly obvious Cutler’s confidence that once bordered on arrogance is fading rapidly. Much like what they did to Brett Favre last year, the Packers have an opportunity to make another division quarterback a shell of his former self. You don’t get these chances too often.
3. Stay healthy: It bears repeating. It was in Week 3 last year at Soldier Field that the Packers started suffering their long string of injuries. With Collins already gone, the Packers can’t afford to get much thinner in the secondary.
Packers 17, Bears 13
These games have become low scoring nail biters in recent memory and this game will be no exception. Rodgers will put up solid numbers, but points will be hard to come by as Cutler’s struggles continue as do the Packers in the red zone.
It will also be interesting to watch the special teams matchup. Despite kickoffs now being made from the 35, there have still been a fair amount of returns the past two weeks. Now that the Packers have their answer to Hester in Randall Cobb, special teams could play a big role in this game.
All in all, it says here that the defense makes another late game stand as the Packers move to 3-0 on the year to return home next week to face the Denver Broncos.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke