The Green Bay Packers face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday and for the first time since week 17 of the 2013 regular season, when the Packers sent the Bears and their fans home for some winter hibernation after a late game-winning drive to steal the NFC North.
Quickly and after just three games, we know that is already ancient history. The Packers are 1-2 and coming off of a disappointing loss to the Detroit Lions on the road. The Bears are on a two-game winning streak after beating the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. It was Chicago’s second-straight road win and elevated their record to 2-1.
The Bears seem to be doing their best impersonation of Packers teams from the past few years, as they have several key players dinged up and questionable to play this week. Center Roberto Garza, guard Matt Slauson, nose tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, cornerback Sherrick McManis and defensive end Shea McClellin have already been ruled out. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Jared Allen and safety Chris Conte didn’t practice all week and are listed as questionable. Allen sat out with an illness and I expect all three of the questionables to suit up come Sunday.
The Packers, on the other hand, had all 52 players participating in Thursday’s practice. That is an extreme rarity over the past few years. Only receiver Jarrett Boykin and linebacker Brad Jones are listed as questionable. Boykin reportedly has a knee issue but was able to practice all week. Jones missed last week’s game with a quadricep injury that has been lingering.
With so many Packers fans starting to hover near the panic button after just three games, this match up against the Bears looms large for them. For the Packers, it’s just another tough divisional game. Difficult, but not impossible. After the many interviews by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy, we still don’t know if it was a lack of execution or the scheme that caused such a lackluster performance against the Lions. Was the issue receivers who couldn’t get open? If you ask McCarthy, the answer is relative. Open against press coverage? Open as in separated by more than two steps? Good ol’ Mike was his usual self at the podium this week. He also said that Eddie Lacy needs to play better, but then reminded us that he doesn’t critique players in the media. Rodgers let five simple letters do the talking: R-E-L-A-X.
It’s not a must-win by any means, but let’s be honest, a loss here would officially put the Packers in an early-season hole. A second divisional loss and a 1-3 start team up to become a pretty potent buzz kill. Yes, the Packers tend to play their best football late in the season. Yes, Rodgers is Rodgers and with him the Packers always stand a chance. This game, however, could become an early turning point for Green Bay. A big win on the road to remind the rest of the NFL they are still a force to be reckoned with or another big game squandered and more questions than answers about what is wrong with this Packers team.
The Bears lost cornerback Charles Tillman earlier this season to a triceps injury and rookie corner Kyle Fuller has stepped in beautifully. Fuller has three interceptions in his last two games and has forced two fumbles. Needless to say, the Bears have not only replaced Tillman, they have done so with a younger version of himself. Rodgers and the Packers may want to exercise some extra caution on Fuller’s side this week, but don’t mistake that as me saying they shouldn’t throw at him. Rodgers’ typical pinpoint accuracy hasn’t always been there for these first three games and Fuller has preyed on passes that are off target. If Boykin is out this week, Davante Adams still see quite a few snaps and can’t afford the communication issues at the line of scrimmage that showed up in Detroit last week.
Much has been said about the Packers’ run game and McCarthy’s play calling. Some say Lacy will be fine and others think it’s time to roll with James Starks, who is averaging near five yards per carry. If you have a healthy Eddie Lacy, you feed him early and often against this Bears front. The Packers faced three very good run defenses in games one through three. The Bears are giving up 144 yards per game on the ground so there would appear to be more opportunities this week to establish the run. The Bears are beat up on defense but so was the Lions’ secondary that held the Green Bay passing game in check. Run blocking has been average to below average so far. Is this the week the offensive line gains some momentum? All five starting linemen will be active against the Bears so there aren’t many reasons why they can’t. Active isn’t necessarily healthy in the case of right tackle Bryan Bulaga but give me Bulaga on a leg and a half over Derek Sherrod at this point.
The Packers defense has held steady over the last two games. They gave up just 10 points to the Lions, with a late touchdown coming after the entire unit was gassed from spending so much time on the field. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has just one victory over the Packers in his career so something has to give. Either the Packers continue to frustrate Jay and coax “bad Jay” out to play on Sunday or he finally solves the riddle of the Green Bay defense and the Bears continue to roll on offense. Watch running back Matt Forte. He has been effective but hasn’t broken out yet. He has yet to find the end zone either on the ground or through the air. I think that drought ends this week. It’s just what the Packers do: let guys get going and get healthy against them when they haven’t previously been able to.
Bears receivers Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are a handful and against the Packers smaller corners, limiting them will be a tough task. As with most past match ups between these teams, pressure on Cutler is going to be important in limiting opportunities for Chicago and setting up a turnover or two. Despite a groin injury, linebacker Clay Matthews is probable and has been a major thorn in Cutler’s side since storming into the league in 2009. Julius Peppers makes his return to Chicago and if you aren’t sure that he’s carrying any extra motivation in facing his former team, consider a few things he said to the media this week. Peppers said Chicago was never home for him and that his getting released by the Bears led him to a much better situation in Green Bay. Both of those comments sound like the company line and very similar to what many players say about their old teams who let them go but Peppers has made some nifty plays over the past two games. He’ll be ready to send a personal message to his former compadres this week.
I hope McCarthy has a plan this week. Not just something written on that laminated card he holds all day long. I mean a real plan that’s well-thought and that has some contingencies within it. A buzz word after the Lions game was “adjustments”. Will any, heck, even one be made this week, if needed? Another ho-hum performance by the offense and a loss won’t do much to squash the criticism pointed in McCarthy’s direction.
Divisional games can go any direction so preparation and composure is key. The Packers are not playing loose so far this season. They’re as rigid as a statue and need to get some of their mojo back. Earlier I talked about this game being a turning point. The guys in green and gold have less than 24 hours to prepare for that moment.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: