Packers tight end Jermichael Finley is perhaps the most scrutinized player on the Packers’ roster.
As a former Division I basketball recruit, Finley possesses as much athletic ability as any tight end in the league, but dropped passes and mental lapses seem to overshadow his on-field production. However, the 6’5″ 247-pound freak always seems to be at his best against the Packers’ top rival, the Chicago Bears.
Finley’s best regular season game as a professional came last season at Chicago, catching a season-high seven passes for 85 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. Of Finley’s eight total touchdowns last season, four came against the Bears. Oh, and of Finley’s fourteen drops last season, zero came against Chicago.
In the Packers’ Super Bowl season in 2010, Finley torched Chicago on Monday night for nine catches and 115 yards without dropping a pass. Finley missed the Bears game at Lambeau Field after suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Washington Redskins, but going back to the final Packers-Bears game a season earlier, Finley again brought his best, catching five balls for 70 yards.
There’s been an obvious theme for Finley against the Bears lately–consistent production, and more importantly, no dropped passes.
In his last four appearances against the Chicago Bears, Finley has posted 24 catches for 290 yards and four touchdowns, all without a single drop. Over a 16-game season, those numbers would equate to 96 catches for 1,160 yards and 16 touchdowns. Now, that’s the level of play Packers fans have been hoping to see from No. 88.
Despite dropping a pair of passes, Finley enters “Bear Week” fresh off a solid showing against the San Francisco 49ers, in which he caught seven passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers were able to limit Finley, and the rest of the Packers for that matter, from producing “big plays,” but it’s pretty clear that the Bears struggled to find a favorable matchup against Finley last season.
Let’s put each of Finley’s four touchdowns against the Bears under the microscope for a closer look.
In an effort to isolate Finley one-on-one, the Packers split Finley wide to the left of their formation. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers sees newly signed safety Brandon Meriweather lined up across from No. 88, it’s game over. Finley simply beats Meriweather to the middle of the field, crosses his face and catches the touchdown.
Finley’s second first-half touchdown is an interesting situation. The Packers line up with two receivers, Greg Jennings to the left and Donald Driver to the right, and two tight ends, Tom Crabtree lined up tight to the right, with Finley in in the slot. Finley’s route is halted by Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs, but Finley fights fire with fire and breaks free for an open touchdown.
Seeing as how well the Packers and Bears know each other’s personnel, plays are bound to break down, forcing both teams to rely on “broken plays.” Finley’s route may not have been as smooth as it was drawn up, but he finds the soft spot in the coverage and he’s right where Rodgers wanted him to be.
Finley’s third touchdown demonstrates the Bears obvious problems matching up with Finley–three touchdowns against three different defenders. On this play, cornerback Tim Jennings lines up across from Finley. The Bears are in a Cover-2, but Finley gets a relatively clean release off the line before safety help arrives via Craig Steltz. The 5’8″ Jennings couldn’t afford to play face-to-face against the 6’5″ Finley, which caused Finley to reach the endzone a couple steps before Steltz arrived.
Finley, doing his best Bill Goldberg impression, asks Lovie Smith, “Who’s next?!” In this case, outside linebacker Nick Roach gets a crack at covering Finley. The result is more of the same. With Finley lined up split to the left of the formation, Roach is clearly expecting a fade route, but instead, Finley beats him with a stutter step into a quick slant. Finley needed just five steps to score another six points for the Pack.
Finley scored a touchdown against four different Bears defenders. Brandon Meriweather? Check. Lance Briggs? No problem. Combination of Tim Jennings and Craig Steltz? No match for Finley. Nick Roach? Uh, yeah.
Both Roach and Briggs remain starters in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme, but it remains to be seen as to who will be Chicago’s main counter attack against Finley this Thursday. One likely possibility to see significant time defending Finley is starting free safety Chris Conte. The 6’2″ 203-pound defensive back was inserted into the starting lineup in week six last season, but was inactive for the Christmas night showdown in week 16 last year.
Conte picked off No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck last week, and the second-year safety has started in each of his last ten game appearances.
Regardless of who the Bears choose to assign to defending Finley, his production is only one piece to an extremely complex Packers-Bears puzzle. However, the Packers have undoubtedly been at their best against the Bears when Finley’s been on the field. Without Finley in 2010, the Packers scored just ten points in their must-win regular season finale, and mustered up just 14 in the NFC Championship Game.
And now with the uncertainty surrounding Greg Jennings and his availability for Thursday’s game, Finley will need to continue his dominance of the Bears if the Packers are going to be able to match Chicago’s new explosive offense. Stopping Finley will surely be a focus for the Bears this week, but they showed no signs of solving the problem last season.
On the other hand, the Packers face serious matchup problems as well, as they try to stop 6’4″ wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Gulp.