It’s Bears week in Green Bay! The Packers bring a six-game winning streak against the Chicago Bears to Lambeau Field for their only appearance on Monday Night Football this season. The Bears are coming off of their bye week and are trying to tread water through the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs.
While both teams have been hit hard by injuries this season, the Bears have seemingly had a more difficult time keeping up in the absence of their steadies.
Josh McCown took over at quarterback for Cutler in their loss at Washington a few weeks back and did a decent job. McCown has over 10 years of total NFL experience and while he doesn’t possess the same arm strength as Cutler, he can efficiently manage the Bears offense. Under head coach and quarterback guru Marc Trestman, expect McCown to be ready to face the Packers.
Briggs’ absence has been more glaring, as Chicago has turned to many of their rookies to fill in for their defensive captain and signal-caller. Neither Cutler nor Briggs are likely to play in this contest.
The Bears hold a modest four-game lead in the all time series, at 92-88-6. Despite how good or bad either of these teams have been over the years, this matchup is usually entertaining. Divisional games often are. Let’s break down the keys that will likely showcase this week.
Limit Brandon Marshall & Martellus Bennett
Marshall scoffed at Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel when Silverstein asked him about the relative success that the Packers have had in containing him. According to Marshall, he has only been limited because of double teams and Green Bay’s schemes against him. I guess that means Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done his job during Bears week then.
While Marshall has broken free on a few occasions and finds ways to make plays against double teams, it’s hard to argue that it has hurt Green Bay. The Packers have only lost once to a team that Marshall was on and that was fluke loss against the Miami Dolphins in 2010. I remind you all that the Packers still went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
That’s not to say that Marshall can be taken lightly, but the Packers have to enter this game with the intention to take him away as an option in the Bears passing game. In last season’s first meeting, Marshall had just two catches and didn’t touch the ball until the fourth quarter. Many factors contribute to stopping a Pro Bowl receiver so I don’t expect him to be shut out on Monday night, but keeping him out of the end zone and limiting his yards after the catch will be important. Marshall is a big and strong receiver who gets up and “high points” the football. Jump balls are at least a 50/50 proposition and Green Bay’s defensive backs need to be draped all over Marshall on every snap.
Bennett has been a sound addition to the Chicago offense this season. Tight ends that can get downfield have been an issue for the Packers over the past few seasons. Without usual starting linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers may have their hands full with Bennett.
Covering him with a defensive back is inviting a game of cat and mouse in the second level. That could play right into Chicago’s hands and flip the time of possession battle. The Packers need to get off the field on defense and corralling Bennett will be a key piece to that strategy. A quarterback’s favorite target is often his tight end when under pressure or when struggling. McCown is savvy and already knows that his chances in getting the ball to Bennett can pay off big. Green Bay’s defense needs a sound game plan for #83 this week.
Packers Pass Rush
The easiest way to keep the ball out of Marshall’s and Bennett’s hands is to generate a solid pass rush. The Bears offensive line has benefited from the additions of tackle Jermon Bushrod and rookie Kyle Long. The task of getting to McCown won’t necessarily be an easy one, but the Packers have shown an ability to get creative and bring pressure from many different avenues.
It’s simple. Pressure McCown and deflate the Bears offense and it’s a long night for the visitors. Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels has been a man possessed in terms of creating pressure up front. Linebacker A.J. Hawk has surged and is becoming more disruptive in the backfield as well. Throw in an occasional corner blitz from Micah Hyde and the Packers could have the Bears offensive on their heels.
Capers will need to pick his spots and ensure that he’s not leaving a linebacker one-on-one with Bennett or, even worse, Marshall but Green Bay has to create pressure and keep Chicago off rhythm.
Devin Hester remains a dangerous return man. The Packers gave up an NFL-record 109 yard return to open up their game against the Minnesota Vikings last week. I alluded to it in our predictions post last week and yet, it still happened. With as many young replacement guys as the Packers are using with many of their regulars out injured, it can be easy to allow a return lane that should otherwise be closed.
Packers placekicker Mason Crosby replaced punter Tim Masthay on kickoffs after giving up the touchdown last week. Crosby was able to kick several out of the end zone and he will want to employ a similar strategy this week. Keep the ball away from Hester at all costs. I’m not condoning kicking the ball out of bounds and letting Chicago start at the 40 yard line on every possession, but the Packers need to play the odds. I don’t like any odds that have Hester with the ball in his hands and a 10-yard head start on a potentially undisciplined Packers coverage unit.
Chicago’s defense is struggling with key injuries to Briggs, defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Charles Tillman. Tillman is nursing a knee injury and was listed as questionable for Monday night’s game as of Friday. He had yet to practice as of early Friday.
With these key pieces potentially out, the ideal scenario for the Packers would be to keep Chicago’s defense on the field. Last week, the Packers held the ball for 40 minutes against the Vikings. Were it not for the special teams touchdown that they surrendered, the score would have been even more lopsided. Any time a team controls two-thirds of the allotted time, their chances of winning are pretty good.
Green Bay’s resurgent run game will have another opportunity for a big day on Monday. Chicago’s run defense currently ranks 25th and they’re giving up 117 yards/game. With the Packers offensive line clicking and with Chicago’s pass rush sporadic, at best, I foresee Green Bay faring very well in the trench battle up front. Packers running back Eddie Lacy was named offensive rookie of the month and is already being mentioned in the conversation for NFL Rookie of the Year. Lacy has added a dimension to the Green Bay offense that could catapult them back into the conversation about top teams in the NFC. It is very feasible that Lacy could rack up another 100-yard day this week.
If Tillman is not able to play, Chicago’s secondary goes from average to below-average. With a good possibility that Packers receiver James Jones returns this week, I would expect Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to have too many options not to convert first downs all the way down field. Green Bay’s biggest obstacle on offense could be themselves in this one.
Stop the Run
Bears running back Matt Forte had three touchdown runs against the Redskins. He comes in with a ton of confidence. Forte has caught as many as 10 passes in a game this season and is equally as threatening as a pass catcher as he is a runner. Forte does run effectively between the tackles and will test Green Bay’s stout run defense.
In the past, the Packers have struggled against versatile backs like Forte. Earlier this season, Green Bay bottled up Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, who is equally as dangerous. That was with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson on the sidelines, however. How will the Packers fare with all of Chicago’s weapons ready to go?
I don’t expect a huge night out of Forte, although the Bears could use one. Trestman surely has some wrinkles ready for this divisional road matchup and has had an extra week to prepare. With Forte being one of the most consistent offensive weapons for the Bears, I expect to see his number called quite a bit this week.
Prevent the Prevent
This one is more of a hunch. Last week and after the Packers had built a comfortable 41-17 lead halfway through the fourth quarter, Dom Capers put his defense into their famous soft zone, so as to prevent anything deep down field and near the sideline. The Vikings racked up two long touchdown runs before all was said and done to make the score look much closer than was the actual game.
Against a divisional opponent who is desperate for a big win on the road, the Packers need to keep their foot on the gas all night long. Obviously if Chicago comes out flat and can’t get anything going, that is another story. But with the weapons that the Bears have and with my other hunch that McCown comes out and doesn’t stink up the joint, the Packers can’t afford to lull themselves to sleep.
Marshall will be coming into this game with some added motivation to prove that the Packers “still” can’t stop him and second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery has taken a big step forward this season. Jeffery was flagged twice for offensive pass interference in last year’s game in Chicago and will surely be looking to have a turnaround performance.
Protect the Football
Chicago’s defense has always had a knack for taking the ball away, even when they field a less-than-stellar team. Whether Tillman is in or out, the Bears get after the ball and Green Bay’s ball carriers have to be cognizant of it. Plain and simple.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: