Packers-Bears: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (9-4) vs. the Chicago Bears (8-5).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Soldier Field, Chicago.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 78-40 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The Bears’ Lovie Smith is 82-65 (including 3-3 in the postseason) in his ninth year as the Bears’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Bears lead the all-time regular-season series, 91-87-6, although the Packers have won seven of the last eight meetings (including playoff games). The Packers swept the season series last year, winning 35-21 at Lambeau Field on Dec. 25 and winning at Chicago 27-17 on Sept. 25, 2011, and also won the first meeting this season, 23-10 at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13.
The rankings: The Packers’ 17th-ranked offense is No. 18 in rushing and No. 12 in passing. Their 17th-ranked defense is No. 15 against the run and No. 17 against the pass. The Bears’ 28th-ranked offense is No. 10 in rushing and No. 17 in passing. Their fifth-ranked defense is No. 12 against the run and No. 6 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 2.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring), S Charles Woodson (collarbone), RB James Starks (knee), DE C.J. Wilson (knee).
Questionable – WR Donald Driver (thumb), ILB Terrell Manning (shoulder), RG Josh Sitton (hip).
Probable – G/T T.J. Lang (ankle), OLB Clay Matthews (hamstring), DE Mike Neal (shoulder), S Jerron McMillian (back), CB Davon House (illness), LT Marshall Newhouse (wrist).
Out – WR Earl Bennett (concussion), CB Tim Jennings (shoulder), LB Brian Urlacher (hamstring).
Doubtful – DE Shea McClellin (knee), DT Henry Melton (chest),
Questionable – LB Geno Hayes (knee), RB Michael Bush (ribs), DT Matt Toeaina (knee).
Probable – LB Lance Briggs (knee/hip), QB Jay Cutler (neck/knee), TE Kellen Davis (knee), T Jonathan Scott (shoulder), DT Stephen Paea (foot), CB Charles Tillman (shoulder), G Chris Spencer (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Talking takeaways: While bolting to a 7-1 start, the Bears forced a whopping 28 turnovers in the first eight games, and returned eight of those turnovers for touchdowns. Since then, the Bears have managed only seven takeaways in their last five games, and not coincidentally, Chicago is 1-4 in those games. While the Bears still lead the NFL in takeaways (35), it’s become obvious that their defense has to take the ball away to be successful.
That’s been the case in Chicago’s matchups with the Packers, too. The Packers’ only loss to Bears in the teams’ last six meetings – in Week 3 of the 2010 season at Chicago — was when they lost the turnover battle. They were minus-1 in turnover differential in that game, then were even in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field and plus-1 in the NFC Championship Game in Chicago. Last season, the turnovers were even in the first meeting and the Packers were plus-2 in the second. And in the Sept. 13 meeting this season, Cutler threw four interceptions and the Packers were plus-2 on the night.
Meanwhile, the Packers defense has forced 13 turnovers in the last five games between the teams (including playoffs), with nine interceptions in four games against Cutler. By comparison, Aaron Rodgers has thrown only five interceptions in those games. The Packers also have 19 takeaways this season in their nine victories but a grand total of one in their four losses.
That said, the reason the Packers offense can’t afford to turn the ball over is the way it translates to points – not only for the Bears, who obviously are terrific in that department with all their touchdown returns, but the way the Green Bay defense has responded to turnovers by the offense. The Packers rank dead last in the 32- team league in points allowed off giveaways.
“You go back a couple years ago, we were in the top two or three in the league. We haven’t been as good in that area this year. Hopefully, from this point on, we’re good in this league,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
“Chicago’s obviously, their defense does a great job of taking the ball away and you don’t have to look at them very long to see that when they take away the ball they win games. When they haven’t, then they’ve had a hard time winning games. That’s the case with most people and that’s the case with us, and that’s why we place such an emphasis on it. Our offense does a great job of protecting the ball and over the years we’ve been a defense that’s done a good job of taking the ball away.”
Jay being Jay: As much time was spent this week on the war of words between the teams, it’s instructive to remember where it all started: With Cutler wishing the Packers’ secondary “good luck” before facing the Bears’ physical receivers in the teams’ first meeting. After the Packers picked him off four times in that game, Woodson had his verbal revenge.
“Heard some talk out of the Bears (about), ‘Packers secondary not working coverage, bigger receivers … we heard about it,” Woodson told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols after the game. “We understand that Jay is excited about his new weapons, but it’s the same-old Jay. We don’t need luck; Jay will throw us the ball.”
If that’s what prompted Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshal to go on the offensive to open the week, fine. But the reality for the Bears is that Cutler simply has been bad against the Packers. His regular-season passer rating against Green Bay is a lowly 60.5, and including the 2010 NFC Championship Game, Cutler has thrown 17 interceptions against the Packers but only eight touchdown passes.
“I think they’ve had good schemes against us,” Cutler said in a conference call this week. “I haven’t played my best ball against them. It’s a lot of different scenarios. A lot of different variables go into the quarterback position. At the end of the day, I’ve just got to play better.”
Capers didn’t do any crowing about having Cutler’s number this week. But he knows his defense must continue its controlling of Cutler.
“We’re very familiar with the schemes. They know us and we know them,” Capers said. “The way we’re built on defense, our defense is built to try to stop the run and be disruptive on the quarterback, if you put it in a couple terms. When we’re playing efficiently, we’ve been able to do that. Over the years, our opponent quarterback rating has been one of the top two or three in the league. The way the game is built so much around the quarterback, and you know you have to stop the run because there are certain times in every game that if you can’t stop the run, you’re going to be in for a long day. We try to get the game a little more one-dimensional, and when we do that, then we’ll try to do things to try to be disruptive to the quarterback.”
Claymaker returns: Talk about a sight for sore eyes: While it’s unclear just how much Matthews will play against the Bears, he will be back in action for the first time since hurting his hamstring Nov. 4 against Arizona. And while the Packers went 3-1 in the four games Matthews missed and had a whopping five sacks in his first game on the sideline (Nov. 18 at Detroit), the pass rush has evaporated since.
In the last three games, the Packers have only two sacks: A sack of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning by Dezman Moses on Nov. 25 at New York, and a team sack that was credited to them when the Lions’ Matthew Stafford lost the handle on what wound up being Mike Daniels’ fumble return for a touchdown.
The Packers’ pass rush has definitely been a reason for their recent success against the Bears as well. In their last four games against Cutler, they sacked him an astronomical 18 times, including seven when they played him on Sept. 13. And at the center of that sack attack: Matthews, who had 3.5.
“Yeah, he was a dominant player that night,” Capers said. “He kind of got on a roll, got the momentum going and had a lot of fun.”
The only question with Matthews at this point is how many snaps he’ll play. McCarthy suggested Friday he may not go the entire game.
“We’ll kind of see how it goes. Generally speaking, I think you try to ease a guy back in,” Capers said. “Clay’s a guy that normally doesn’t come off the field. So I don’t know that’ll be that kind of game, but we’ll see how he feels once he’s out there.”
Line dancing: As if the Packers’ offensive line wasn’t having enough issues already, Sitton had a hip injury flare up on him at the end of practice Thursday and had to be added to the injury report. While Newhouse’s wrist injury hasn’t been serious enough to affect his practice reps significantly, and center Jeff Saturday’s appearance on the injury report last week with a foot injury was apparently just a one-week thing, the fact that starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga is on season-ending injured reserve and Lang had to dress for an emergency backup role last week when he had no business playing on his sprained ankle underscores just how perilous the situation is.
Sitton downplayed the injury in the locker room on Friday, saying, “(It’s) nothing too much. Just kind of hurt it a little bit (Thursday). It shouldn’t be a big deal. We’ll see. I don’t know (how it happened). It just kind of happened. It’s one of those things.”
That’s how the line has looked at its issues all year. Lang, who was playing with an elbow injury before hurting his ankle, figures to be back at his customary left guard spot, meaning the Packers should line up with Newhouse, Lang, Saturday, Sitton and rookie Don Barclay from left to right. Even with Melton and McClellin unlikely to play, the unit will still be challenged by Julius Peppers, who still packs a wallop as a pass rusher (although he’s not as dominant as he was), Corey Wootton, Israel Idonije and Stephen Paea.
Improved – but not by leaps and bounds: Frustrated Packers fans probably remember the statistic as vividly as Aaron Rodgers’ 45 touchdowns/six interceptions: The sieve-like passing defense last season gave up a stunning 71 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, second-most in the NFL behind New England (79). The Packers also surrendered more passing yards than any team in NFL history.
This season, the Packers have given up 44 completions of 20 or more yards, ranking them 20th in the league and on pace for 54. That would be a drop of roughly 25 percent. For the season, opponents are averaging 6.7 yards per pass attempt, down from 7.8 yards per attempt a year ago.
While the Bears’ 28th-ranked offense may not be the most explosive around, the Cutler-Marshall duo is certainly capable of the big play, and against an offense with limitations elsewhere, avoiding a big play defensively is vital.
What’s remarkable about the improvement in this area is that it’s happened with Woodson sidelined for much of the season, Shields out from Oct. 14 until last week and a rotation at both safety (McMillian and M.D. Jennings) and cornerback (Shields, House and Casey Hayward) for portions of the year.
“I think communication has been good and I think the guys are getting comfortable with one another. With that being said, the more experience guys get (and) the more comfortable they get in the system, the better you expect the communication to be,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “I think Morgan and M.D. have done a good job. (McMillian) and Wood — even though he’s been out, he’s there on the practice field and doing the mental reps and I think all of those thing help.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said the conversations aren’t just happening on the field pre-snap but during the course of the week – and that communication might be the most valuable of all.
“They’ve done a very good job in the meeting rooms of discussing, ‘Coach said this is how we’re going to do it but let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.’ We hear them discussing it more in the meeting rooms than ever before,” Whitt said. “(It’s) not just, ‘Joe and D.P. said this is how we’re doing it, but let’s talk about it ourselves.’ Most of it is pre-snap communication has really increased. If everybody’s on the same page before the ball is snapped, now we can be on the same page when the play is going.”
Even if the Packers don’t win Sunday and clinch their second straight division title, they’ll still be in good shape to win the division if they can win their last two games – against Tennessee on Dec. 23 at Lambeau Field and at Minnesota on Dec. 30. They’d rather take care of business in this game, of course, get their 10th victory and then set their sights on a first-round bye – something else that isn’t out of the question. But to have a chance at that accomplishment, they’ll have to take care of business with the Bears. The guess here is that Chicago’s injuries, coupled with the return of Matthews, will lead to victory for the visitors, as long as they don’t turn the ball over against the Bears, who lead the NFL in takeaways. Packers 28, Bears 20. (Season record: 7-6)
– Jason Wilde