This week’s matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears already had many eyes on it. Last game of the 2013 regular season and with the winner to take the North division title thrown into the NFL’s longest-standing rivalry was already a draw. NBC was also vying for the game to be flexed to the Sunday night slot, according to some.
On Thursday, it was announced that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was cleared and would start against the Bears. Now there will be exponentially more eyes on this game and it is fair to say that this is the biggest meeting between these teams since the 2010 NFC Championship game. The setting will be Soldier Field, once again and both teams will have their primary starting quarterbacks under center.
In addition to finally getting Rodgers back after a seven week layoff, the Packers may also see the return of receiver Randall Cobb, who has been out since mid-October. Running back Eddie Lacy has not practiced for the Packers, but head coach Mike McCarthy seemed optimistic about Lacy’s chances of playing when asked after Thursday’s practice.
Both of these teams lost their games last week and the Bears, a chance to lock up the division title. While Chicago looked awful against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, I have warned against anyone thinking that same Bears team shows up at Soldier Field on Sunday. I expect more of the version of the Bears who soundly beat the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks back.
Now that we know the answer to the burning question, let’s dive into this week’s keys to the game. Hopefully, this won’t be the last “Keys” post of the season.
Avoid Too Much Rodgers
Yes, we’ve waited a long time to have Rodgers back and all that he can add to the Packers offense. Rodgers is one of the few quarterbacks in the league who can return to form in the blink of an eye. He’s an extremely intelligent player who prepares as well as any other in the game. Still, the Packers need to avoid leaning too heavily on the portion of the game plan that calls for Rodgers to get fancy, at least early on.
Rodgers was asked if he would worry about rust in his eventual return to the team. He said he was more concerned about conditioning than he is rust, but after missing eight games, there is going to be some reintegration that will be needed. That may be as little as one series or it may take a full half. We won’t know until Sunday, but hopefully Green Bay plans to mix in what brought them success during 12’s absence.
That would be a steady diet of the run game and short passes. I’m not suggesting they reel Rodgers in and not let him turn it loose, but asking him to do too much too soon can lead to a speed bump for the Packers offense. The Bears are giving up nearly 200 rushing yards per game since they last faced the Packers. Between Lacy and James Starks, I would hope that the run game could at least muster tripe digits. With as well as the Packers have run and as poorly as Chicago’s run defense has been, they have to get the ball into a running back’s hands at least 20 times this week.
Another thing that the Packers executed well on a few occasions against the Dallas Cowboys was the screen. Starks took one to the house from just over 10 yards out in that game. The offensive line has the athletic ability to pull it off and as many yards as the Bears are giving up on the ground, it’s also a viable option.
Chicago says they have been preparing for Rodgers all week long. Over the course of his career as a starter, that hasn’t always meant good things for the opposing defense. It could actually benefit the Packers that Rodgers may come out a bit different than he would be in mid-season form. The looks Green Bay may give could vary from those scouted by the Bears.
In a game where an early lead and every advantage is needed, McCarthy needs to be sure to keep Chicago on their toes and guessing as to what they are doing. If Lacy can’t play, Starks will get the majority of the carries. This would likely allow the Bears to devote more to pass coverage as Starks provides a different type of challenge than does Lacy. If Lacy can go and is able to carry 10-15 times, that could be the x-factor that opens things up in the passing game and keeps some of the pressure off of Rodgers to need a Superman-like performance on Sunday.
Packers Pass Protection
Short and sweet: the Packers offensive line needs to have the game of their lives. That may not seem like a daunting task against one of the league’s weakest defenses, but in the first meeting, the Bears were able to get pressure up front all night. Yes, Rodgers was out but the starting offensive line were all in and they had issues in pass protection. A big part of the reason was the Bears sending additional pressure when the threat of Rodgers beating the blitz was removed.
Pass protection has to be a key this week. In the history of this rivalry, there have been so many instances of the sack-fumble and a very physical game up front that it should be first and foremost on the “to do” list for Green Bay. If Cobb is able to return and is effective, that would allow the Packers to keep tight end Andrew Quarless in to block more often. Quarless has emerged as a decent pass-catching threat in the absence of Jermichael Finley and that production would be missed, but so would another loss of Rodgers due to injury.
Green Bay’s running backs have matured into good pass blockers and given the right protection, Rodgers should be able to stay upright and find a play to make. I would put the Packers four receivers against Chicago’s base or nickel coverage most any time. The key is giving Rodgers time and he will almost certainly find an opening, however slight, to get the ball into.
I mentioned the screen above and that could be a nice byproduct of solid back protection. Chip the rusher, slip out into the flat or behind the line and the dump off is there. Not huge yardage, but this offense showed how much clock it could drain with Rodgers running it prior to his injury. That ability would be a huge asset this week in keeping the Bears offense on the sideline.
No Huddle Offense
While I said that too much Rodgers could be counterproductive, one thing that I do expect to see in this game is Green Bay’s no-huddle offense. Chicago’s defense is struggling and with an accurate quarterback running the show, the Packers can score early and take the crowd out of the mix. It will be extremely loud and the Packers will need to work from a silent count. In this scheme, penalties are a huge no-no.
With the no huddle comes a lot of play calls that rely on timing. That is one thing that I would expect to dip a bit in production which is timing and being on the same page with the receivers. If Cobb gets back, both he and Rodgers will be playing for the first time in over two months. All of that talent at quarterback and receiver can be rendered useless if the mechanics are off.
If the offense can’t get anything going, they are going to put their defense on the field too often and rely too heavily on them, which has not boded well for the Packers much this year. One big gain for the Packers with Rodgers back is his ability to change the play at the line when he sees an opportunity. The wrong one-on-one matchup is something that Rodgers can make the Bears pay for whereas Flynn might not have been able to.
To wear down the Chicago defense and see the offense on the sideline would be the most ideal of situations for the Packers. This is a good possibility for the first time in a long time. About seven weeks, I’d say.
Jay Being Jay
Much like many of you, I have seen Cutler’s 1-8 record against the Packers and his horrible stats. Jay has had his issues against the Packers but that was then and this is now. Eventually Cutler is going to put together a good game against Green Bay and they will have to play just as well to beat him.
The Bears offense this year has greatly benefited from the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett and the emergence of receiver Alshon Jeffery. With bigger and more physical receivers, Bears quarterbacks don’t have to be pinpoint accurate. On several occasions, as long as the ball has been in the area, it has been caught.
Green Bay’s secondary has had its issues in pass coverage this season and did in the first matchup. Bears receivers found space in the infamous “soft underbelly” of the defense and Jeffery had a jump-ball touchdown catch over Davon House. If the Packers defense wants Jay to be Jay, they’ll have to earn it. Corner Micah Hyde is a question mark for this game as of Thursday. Much of the coverage will fall on corners Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush along with safeties Morgan Burnett, Sean Richardson and M.D. Jennings. The safety group has one regular season game left to rack up an interception and keep from being the first Packers team without a safety interception since way, way back.
Shutting down both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is a tall task (no pun intended) for any secondary. But if Shields can blanket one of them and largely remove them as an option, it will allow the defense to spread its resources out. And speaking of spreading out, the one thing that I see killing the Packers all year long is the short pass or bubble screen to the outside where there don’t seem to be any defenders. This is where Matt Forte can become a killer for Green Bay.
The key to helping the defensive secondary is creating pressure on the pocket. The Packers will be without linebacker Clay Matthews, who always seems to have a magnetic attachment to Cutler. That will leave the pass rush up to, basically, everyone else. Matthews did have one sack in each of the last two games, but has not made a big impact since returning from a broken thumb.
Linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal would seemingly be the two starters with Matthews out, but both were limited in practice this week. I would expect both in uniform on Sunday, but until its official, Green Bay could rely on rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer. If Hyde is unable to go, the Packers lose one of their best defensive back blitzers. Regardless, if there is no pressure on Cutler, Jay will be a much different Jay than we are used to seeing.
Let’s face it, the coverage teams are not very good and they aren’t going to suddenly get better. They gave up over 100 return yards last week to the Steelers and they’ll face one of the best the game has ever seen in Devin Hester. Hester has not been what he used to be, but the Packers can’t allow themselves to be fooled into thinking that he can’t still be as dangerous as before.
After the Packers gave up a 109-yard kick return to Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings in week seven, Mason Crosby reassumed the kickoff duties from punter Tim Masthay. Masthay and Crosby have 30 total touchbacks this season and rank 29th in the league with just a 34% touchback rating. Part of the reason for that is the challenge of kicking out of the end zone in Green Bay in November and December.
With that in mind, we know that Hester is going to get a chance to return a few. The Packers coverage this season has looked extremely elementary and undisciplined. They aren’t getting off blocks or maintaining their lane integrity. That will absolutely kill them this week and you heard it here.
Masthay has become one of the best directional punters in the league and quite a find for the Packers. In Masthay, we trust and he should be able to kick away from Hester unless there is a crazy wind issue on Sunday. In 65 punts this year, Masthay and the punt coverage have forced 20 fair catches. That is just under one-third.
Last week, the Steelers blocked a Crosby field goal attempt. Crosby was blocked by the Bears during a late-season game back in 2008 and it can easily be done again. The Bears always seem to come up with a special defensive or special teams play against the Packers, don’t they? Let’s hope it’s not a blocked kick this week. Those are the types of plays that can kill momentum and swing it back in Chicago’s favor.
In a close game, a single special teams play or gaffe can be the difference between hosting a playoff game or going home. The way that things have gone for the Packers this season, I have to hope that they are spending an ample amount of time in this phase of the game during this week of practice. Better yet and if they are, I hope it makes a difference.
You Play To Win The Game
This isn’t a key, it’s simply a wrap up. Now that Rodgers has been cleared to play and that Cobb may also return, we can end any talk that the Packers are not trying to win this game, the division and host a playoff game. It’s a tough road game and they have to head to Chicago with the same moxie that they had three seasons ago during the conference championship game. That is not, however, to say that this team is anything like that 2010 team.
Still, the Packers can’t let the setting, the stakes and the atmosphere get to them. There are enough veterans on this team to help keep this team grounded, in concert with the coaching staff, who has mostly been there before. Green Bay went from being a five-point underdog to a three-point favorite with the announcement that Rodgers was starting. It remains to be seen how much of that confidence will translate to the field on Sunday.
It all starts with one win this week and then on to bigger and better things.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: