When: 3:15 CDT, Sunday, September 25, 2011
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
TV: FOX, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman with the call, Pam Oliver on the sidelines
Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee); Packers Radio Network
Series: Bears lead, 92-84-6. Packers won last regular season game, 10-3, in January 2010 at Lambeau Field. Bears hold 20-19 record at Solider Field.
Five things to watch
1. Containing Forte
In six career games against the Packers, Bears running back Matt Forte has only averaged a little over 20 touches per game. The Bears will need to go over that number on Sunday to win. Forte is the focal point of the Bears offense, but too many times the Bears have went away from him. Mike Martz isn’t making that same mistake to start this season. After asking for a new contract before the season, Forte has looked like one of the more complete backs in the game through two weeks. He’s averaging 4.5 yards on 26 attempts, but Forte is doing his real damage as a receiver, where he’s caught a team-high 15 passes for 204 yards. If the first two weeks are any indication, the Packers might have trouble containing him in that role. Of the 851 yards the Packers have allowed to opposing quarterbacks, running backs are responsible for 235 of those. With the kind of film the Packers’ defense have put out early this season, you’d have to think Martz spent this week looking for ways to get Forte the ball in space.
2. Missing a playmaker
For all the nicks and bruises Packers safety Nick Collins has endured over the years, he’s played in 95 of the 98 regular season games the team has played since 2005. After suffering a neck injury in the second half against the Panthers, Collins will now miss the Packers final 14 games. I think most are underestimating how big of injury this could potentially be. Yes, Charlie Peprah played over 900 snaps for the Packers last season. Yes, Morgan Burnett looks like he could be a playmaker. But you simply can’t replace a two-time All-Pro who has 18 picks over the past three seasons with a journey man backup or a guy who really is in his first year at the professional level after an ACL injury. Making matters worse is the fact that the Packers now have undrafted free agent M.D. Jennings, who was expected to be nothing more than a practice squad guy, as the primary backup to both Peprah and Burnett. What was a position of strength for the Packers now appears to be a place opposing offenses could go to attack.
3. Getting to Cutler
After giving up six more sacks against the Saints last Sunday, the Bears offensive line is on pace to get quarterback Jay Cutler sacked 88 times this season. That obviously won’t hold up over a 16-game season, but it is indicative of how poorly that unit has looked again to start this season. Remember, Mike Tice’s unit gave up an NFL-leading 52 sacks last season, and while they drafted Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi in the first round in April to help reduce that number, he’ll be out Sunday with a knee injury. Expect the Packers defense to be in attack mode from beginning to end even with Collins out at the back end of the secondary. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers got to Cutler 11 times in three games last season, including six in the season finale, and they’re tied for fourth in the NFL with seven sacks in 2011. You’d think Martz would counter that obvious mismatch with quick drops and a steady dose of the running game, but he’s always had a love affair with the deep drop and down field passing game, which often puts Cutler in pressure scenarios.
4. Points at a premium
The NFL has transitioned into a high-scoring, passing-oreinated league, but the Packers-Bears rivalry hasn’t exactly followed suit. The last six games between these two have been slug-it-out, defensive affairs, which is exactly what you’d expect from two teams who know just about everything there is to know about one another. No team has scored more than 21 points in this rivalry since the Packers beat the Bears 37-3 in Nov. of 2008. They’ve been close matchups, too. All six of the following games have been decided by one score or less. Why the recent trend of close, low-scoring games? It’s likely the fact that the style of each defense corresponds well against the opposing offense. The Bears Cover-2, keep everything in front defense hasn’t allowed the Packers offense to hit on many big plays down the field. Scoring on Chicago requires long, methodical drives, and the Packers’ offense hasn’t always had the kind of discipline necessary to put up big points. And on the other side, the Packers attacking, pressure-oreintated style has been perfect against a shaky offensive line and a quarterback like Cutler who struggles against the blitz. Nothing has changed about those respective matchups, so you shouldn’t expect a change in result.
5. Finally, a match
Ever since the Bears drafted Devin Hester in the second round of the 2006 draft, Chicago has had the upper hand in special teams, and by a decisive margin. As I’m sure you’ll remember, Hester returned a punt for a touchdown in his NFL debut against the Packers as the Bears rolled to a 26-0 win at Lambeau Field to kick off the ’06 season. However, the Packers now have a special teams weapon that they think can finally rival Hester. His name is Randall Cobb, and he also found paydirt in his NFL debut two weeks ago against the Saints. Even Hester had to be impressed with Cobb’s 108-yard kick return for a score, which saw the rookie spin off a couple of tackles and then outrun the Saints coverage. But more importantly, the Packers can now say they have a player who can shift the field position battle like Hester has so many times in his career. Hester helped the Bears beat the Packers in Week 3 last season, as he took a Tim Masthay punt 62 yards for a touchdown. That gave Chicago a 14-10 lead after Green Bay had jumped out to a 10-0 advantage in the first half and the Bears were able to hang on. While Cobb had a fumble against the Panthers last Sunday, he’s still a weapon that can turn a game just like Hester did a year ago.
Prediction: Bears 21, Packers 17
This is a hard game for me to pick. While the Packers are the better team, with the better quarterback, offensive line, secondary and pass rush, the Bears have found ways to keep things close and steal away wins that shouldn’t be theirs. Last year’s Week 3 win is the perfect example. The Packers looked like they were going to blow away their rivals in the first half, but the Bears eventually found their footing and then watched Green Bay essentially self-destruct with penalties and turnovers.
On offense, I don’t think the Packers will have trouble moving the football—they had nearly 400 total yards in Chicago last season—but the Bears shouldn’t have trouble either. The biggest reason why will be Forte, who Packers fans aren’t giving enough credit to. Sure, the Packers have contained him over the long haul in recent meetings, but he’s been a different player this season. I think he’s going to find success running the football, but I don’t see an answer for him as a receiver out of the backfield. He could (and should) have 30 to 35 touches on Sunday. He’s the difference for the Bears at home in another close game between the NFL’s oldest rivals.