In case you forgot, the Green Bay Packers are playing the Chicago Bears this week.
That had kind of slipped my mind because… what’s that old song? Oh yeah, it’s this one.
The Bears (5-7) are bad this season for a lot of reasons. Most noted is the fact quarterback Jay Culter leads the league in interceptions with 20, but there are a lot of reasons for Culter sucking this season.
Pretty much everyone in Chicago has turned on Cutler after anointing him the franchise’s savior in the offseason and there are signs the Bears are already looking for coach Lovie “First African-American Coach to Lose a Super Bowl” Smith’s replacement.
What does this mean for the Packers?
If this wasn’t one of the NFL’s biggest and longest-running rivalries, I’d suggest it would mean a field day for the Packers, but that isn’t the case and the Packers will indeed have to play hard to beat the Bears.
If anything can be learned from the Cleveland Browns’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, it’s that the better team needs to do more than just show up in the NFL.
Saying that, there’s no reason to think the Packers won’t show up.
The key matchups
The aforementioned Cutler and his league-leading interception total will be facing a Packers team that ranks second in the league in intercepting opposing quarterbacks, with 21 picks.
The Bears employed a heavy dose of the run game last week in their victory over the St. Louis Rams to combat the mistake-prone Cutler. Matt Forte carried the ball 24 times for 91 yards – that’s a pretty average 3.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Cutler threw only 17 times for 143 yards.
On the season, though, this is an anomaly.
Part of the reason for Cutler and the Bears’ struggles has been their inability to establish the run. The team ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing offense, with 88 yards per game. Their average of 3.9 yards per carry ranks 24th.
Even if Chicago wanted to establish the run against the Packers, the likelihood of that plan succeeding is next to zero, considering the Packers have the fourth-ranked run defense in the NFL.
Cutler will have to throw more than 17 times on Sunday, so there should be plenty of opportunity for the team’s secondary to make plays.
The one area the Bears will have the advantage over the Packers is on special teams.
Remember when the offensive line was the Packers’ Achilles’ heal? Now, it’s the special teams, which have been terrible across the board – from missing field goals and covering kicks to returning kicks and situational punting.
The Bears feature two top-notch returners in Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning. Knox leads the league in kickoff returns, with a 29.4 yard average and a touchdown. Manning – last year’s leader in kickoff returns – is averaging 24.7 yards.
The Packers are 25th in the league in kickoff coverage, giving up 24.5 yards per return. The team ranks 30th in opponent’s starting field position after kickoffs, with opponent’s average starting spot the 29.9-yard line.
These statistics speak to two things, 1. the Packers’ propensity for giving up big returns, and 2. the number of penalties the Packers commit on their coverage unit.
The Bears are unlikely to win the game with their return units alone, but as we’ve seen time and a again, a big return can help keep a Packers’ opponent in the game.
There has been much blather about injuries to the Packers’ defensive line this week. All three starters, as well as key backup B.J. Raji, missed practice time this week. Most of the blather was for nothing.
Both Cullen Jenkins and Raji are listed as probable on the final injury report, meaning they will play. Johnny Jolly is listed as questionable, but is talking like he will play.
Starting nose tackle Ryan Pickett is the furthest from playing and is listed as doubtful, but Pickett has only missed two games in his entire career. Even though the Packers have been conservative in dealing with injuries this season, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pickett finds his way on the field.
Without Pickett, the Packers will start Jenkins, Raji and Jolly and be just fine. If Jolly can’t go, the team will turn to Mike Montgomery or rookie Jarius Wynn. Neither are the playmaker Jolly is, but the primary responsibility of a defensive end in the Packers’ defense is to hold the point of attack in order to let the linebackers make plays. Wynn and Montgomery are surely capable of that.
The Bears, meanwhile, will likely be without one of their primary offensive weapons (if there is such a thing on that team). Devin Hester, the team’s leading receiver with a whopping 682 yards, is questionable with a calf injury. The Chicago Tribune’s Vaughn McClure, who has long ago signed out on this season, says Hester’s absence could actually be good for the Bears – not for their chances, but for their future.
His anticipated absence would mean more opportunities for inexperienced wide receivers Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, and Devin Aromashodu.
Giving the trio extended work could be a positive step toward preparing for the future.
I wonder how Lovie feels about the Bears’ future.
Some good old-fashioned fuel to the fire
It’s not exactly Charles Martin body slamming Jim McMahon to the turf in 1986, but hey, at least it’s something.
Raji, although it seemed unintentional, got into a war of words with Bears’ center Olin Kreutz this week, after the rookie nose tackle offered this assessment of the veteran center.
“It’s nothing physical, it’s all technical,” Raji said. “I’m stronger than the guy. I mean, that’s not really talking [smack]; he’s just fast. That’s not his game, really, strength. He’s more trying to out-leverage you, get around you. Once I get the feel of that then the game will come a lot easier.”
Kreutz wasn’t too keen on Raji’s analysis of his style.
“[T]hat’s the way young players are nowadays, they are all pretty much clowns,” Kreutz said. “After 10 games, he probably thinks he’s the strongest guy in the NFL.”
Not to doubt Raji’s ability or assessment of the tape, but Kreutz is in his 12th season in the league and has been a pretty solid performer. He’ll surely be looking to dominate the rookie on Sunday.
The Charles Woodson factor
We’ve made much ado about the greatness of Charles Woodson this season, but we’re not alone.
Bears’ offensive coordinator Ron Turner shares the sentiment.
“He’s unbelievable,” Turner said. “I don’t remember the last time if ever that I’ve seen someone have the year that he’s having. He’s unbelievable. He’s all over the field. He’s playing corner, he’s playing nickel, he’s playing strong safety. He’s going head-to-head on tight ends. He’s making tackles, he’s causing fumbles, he’s intercepting balls. He is all over the place and it’s unbelievable to watch.”
Pro Football Talk has even named Woodson to their MVP watch list. That’s not the NFL Defensive Player of the Year list, it’s the NFL MVP list.
Because he doesn’t play quarterback, Woodson isn’t going to win the NFL MVP, but being on the list is a testament to his level of play this season, and if Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers lets Woodson loose on Sunday it will be a long afternoon for the Bears’ offense.