Packers-Bears: 5 things to watch

Packers-Bears: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-3) vs. the Chicago Bears (3-5).

The time: 7:30 p.m. CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage:  NBC – WTMJ (Channel 4) in Milwaukee, WMTV (Channel 15) in Madison and WGBA (Channel 26) in Green Bay.

The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth the booth with Michele Tafoya reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 93-53-1 (including 6-5 in the postseason) in his ninth season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The Bears’ Marc Trestman is 11-13 in his second year as the Bears coach and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Bears lead the all-time regular-season series, 92-89-6, although the Packers have won 10 of the last 12 (including playoffs). The Packers won the teams’ first meeting, 38-17 at Soldier Field on Sept. 28. The Packers and Bears split last year’s home-and-home series, with the Bears winning at Lambeau Field on Nov. 4 following Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury and the Packers winning 33-28 in Chicago on Dec. 29 on Rodgers’ last-minute touchdown pass to Randall Cobb.

The rankings:  The Packers’ 17th-ranked offense is No. 24 in rushing and No. 13 in passing. Their 25th-ranked defense is No. 32 against the run and No. 9 against the pass. The Bears’ 13th-ranked offense is No. 18 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their 21st-ranked defense is No. 13 against the run and No. 23 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 1.5 points.

The injury report: Packers: Out —  WR Kevin Dorsey (foot). Questionable –  S Morgan Burnett (calf), LG Josh Sitton (toe), RG T.J. Lang (ankle). Probable –  QB Aaron Rodgers (hamstring), CB Sam Shields (knee), DE Datone Jones (ankle).

Bears: Out –  G/T Eben Britton (illness), LB Darryl Sharpton (hamstring). Questionable – TE Martellus Bennett (ribs). Probable –  LB Jonathan Bostic (back), LB Lance Briggs (ribs), CB Kyle Fuller (hip/hand), S Danny McCray (knee), T Jordan Mills (foot).

 

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

On guard:  At midweek, it looked as though the Packers might be without both Lang and Sitton, who didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday. But by Friday, both players had gone through their workouts for the medical staff and were sounding encouraged by their progress. And while they were each listed as questionable on the official injury report, they might have only been listed that way because they hadn’t practiced, based on the way they were talking.

“[I] didn’t feel 100 percent, but I felt pretty decent,” Sitton said of his workout and conversation with team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie. “I just wanted to talk to him about the risk of hurting it worse and things like that. There’s always the risk of that. [But] I think I felt pretty confident with where I’m at from that conversation.”

Sitton, who hasn’t missed a game due to injury since missing two games with a sprained knee in 2011, tore a ligament in his left big toe against New Orleans on Oct. 26. He said McKenzie told him that there is a risk of making the injury worse by playing, although Sitton didn’t seem overly worried about that possibility.

“I think that risk is going to be there the rest of the season no matter what. It’s not something that’s going to be a huge threat. That doesn’t worry me as much,” Sitton said. “[Surgery] “[Surgery] is possible, but where it’s at right now, it will heal on its own. But I’m assuming if I go out and play with it, it’s not going to get any better the next eight weeks. We’ll see how that goes. Hopefully I don’t need surgery.”

Aggravating his ankle, which he damaged on the extra point after the team’s first touchdown against the Saints, is Lang’s biggest concern as well.

“Setbacks, that’s probably the biggest thing. Obviously, when you have some ligament tears and muscle tears, it takes time to heal,” Lang said. “If I were to do the same thing over again, it would set me back another week or two. That’s obviously something you have to think about is weigh the options and not getting better for the rest of the season and be kind of that 60-70 percent, whatever it is, or just waiting a couple of weeks and being 80-90 percent. That’s something that we’re taking into consideration. That’d be my biggest fear is having a setback and missing a couple more weeks.”

The next men up at guard are Lane Taylor, who took over for Lang and struggled against the Saints, or JC Tretter, who missed the first eight games with an impaction fracture in his knee suffered in the third preseason game. McCarthy said he intended to give Tretter and Taylor the work in practice Saturday regardless of Sitton and Lang’s readiness so the young replacements would have maximized their preparation. McCarthy said there’s a big difference for a young player getting a week’s worth of practice as compared to being thrown into a game. McCarthy also got backup center Garth Gerhart extra work in case starter Corey Linsley goes down.

“You can just see it, just the way young guys that are taking the reps, how they’re performing,” McCarthy said. “I think Garth Gerhart’s had an excellent week of practice, I think Lane Taylor’s had an excellent week of practice, JC’s getting more comfortable, he’s being asked to do a lot of things. So it clearly gives them a better opportunity to get ready than getting thrown into the game because obviously they didn’t have the amount of reps in that type of situation.”

There is no guarantee that if Sitton and Lang play they’ll be able to get through the whole game. Burnett appeared well on his way to playing and then was downgraded from probable to questionable on Saturday. Burnett missed the Saints game with a strained calf but practiced without incident on Wednesday and Thursday. He apparently had a setback on Saturday.

“You take the quarterback away, it affects communication, confidence level, a lot of those things,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Thursday. “He’s had a couple days of practice. Hopefully we’re moving in the right direction of getting him back out there.”

Same ol’ Jay:  Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is 1-10 all-time against the Packers, including 1-9 as the Bears’ quarterback. In those 10 games with Chicago, he’s thrown 20 interceptions against just 12 touchdowns for an anemic passer rating of 61.97.

“I don’t know,” cornerback Tramon Williams, who deflected a pass that was intercepted by Clay Matthews in the Sept. 28 game in Chicago, replied when asked why the Packers seem to have Cutler’s number. “We just stick to what we do. It’s been working. You’re not going to change if it’s working, so hopefully it continues.”

In the teams’ first meeting this season, Cutler completed 22 of 34 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown, but his two interceptions were back-breakers. But McCarthy cautioned that his guys cannot assume that their success against Cutler will continue.

“I think that’s a bad trap, mental mindset to fall into. Every one of these games is different,” McCarthy said. “This game Sunday night is going to be different. There’s been times where the ball clearly couldn’t bounce your way down there at Soldier Field. Then you start getting some bounces. Then look at what happened last year [with Aaron Rodgers suffering a fractured collarbone].

“This is a team game, and I think a lot of times those kind of statistics get placed on one player and that’s not fair. We have a lot of respect for Jay. He’s very talented, can make all of the throws. He’s clearly comfortable in this system. I think this system has been very good for him. You can see the impact it made to their football team last year. This is a very dangerous offense.”

Like McCarthy, Cutler took the every-game-is-different route when asked about the Packers’ success against him.

“Different coordinators, different teams,” Cutler told reporters in Chicago. “It’s different circumstances every time.

“If we didn’t believe [this game could be different], we might as well go home. That’s the only thing we can do is stay positive, keep working. I thought the guys have done a fabulous job of coming back and staying positive, and keep working and improving on things. You look at the film, and we’re definitely doing things to hurt ourselves. There’s no doubt about that.”

Tight end troubles:  The Packers may catch a break with Bennett listed as questionable after suffering a rib injury in practice during the week. It certainly wasn’t a good sign for his availability that the Bears promoted practice-squad tight end Blake Annen to the 53-man roster and put guard Matt Slauson (chest) on injured reserve Saturday. Bennett is the Bears’ second-leading receiver with 47 receptions for 517 yards and five touchdowns on the season – and the tight is a vital part of Trestman’s offensive philosophy.

“I think they’re an asset. We’re fortunate to have a tight end of Martellus’ size and ability and we try to utilize that,” Trestman said. “There’s a lot of tight ends in this league playing very well right now and certainly Martellus has been one of those guys.”

Alas, none of them are on the Packers’ roster at this point. The team still is seeking more production from that group, where Andrew Quarless has been their most productive pass-catcher with 15 receptions for 135 yards. Rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers has seven receptions for 111 yards, including a 43-yard catch against the Bears on Sept. 28 and a career-best four receptions for 58 yards against the Saints. Although he’s played in all eight of the Packers’ games, Rodgers has caught a pass in only three of those games.

“I think the biggest challenge for guys coming into this system to deal with is you’ve got to be able to perform any duty that’s asked of you,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “You’ve got to perform as a blocker in-line, a blocker from the backfield and pass protector and, obviously, a route-runner. The thing that challenges these guys more than anything is having to make split-second decisions at the line of scrimmage and being exposed to as many adverse situations as possible. The last thing you want to do is be second-guessing yourself out there. Whatever you do, be decisive and play fast.”

Despite Rodgers’ lack of productivity as compared to other rookies – Linsley, wide receiver Davante Adams, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — who have played key roles this season, McCarthy sung the praises of his rookie tight end and said picking him out of the University of California this spring was very smart.

“I think with Richard’s case, you have to look at the prospect, he has the ability to play space but also you look at his physical qualities. To me, he was a no-brainer [to pick],” McCarthy said. “That was an excellent pick, and I think he’ll just continue to get better.”

Not their Forte:  Facing the NFL’s worst run defense, fantasy football owners presumably would be smart to start Bears running back Matt Forte, who ran 23 times for 122 yards in the teams’ first meeting and also caught five passes for 49 yards. But the Packers are hardly the only defense to have trouble with Forte, who comes in having carried the ball 130 times for 562 yards (4.3-yard average) and three touchdowns – and is also the Bears’ leading receiver with 58 receptions for 490 yards and three more TDs.

“The running back’s a real security blanket for Cutler because if you show coverage on those guys down the field, that ball’s going to Forte and he’s good at running with the ball after the catch,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s always been a great screen runner. You see him make big plays on screens. The first time we played them, they came out the first play of the second half and threw a screen to him for 25 yards.”

Added Packers linebacker Clay Matthews: “He’s been a special athlete the entirety of his career there. Obviously the ability to not only run the ball but to catch it out of the backfield [creates problems]. That’s a good safety blanket right there. You dump it off and he can make linebackers and DBs miss out in the open field. That’s what really presents a challenge.

“He’s one of those guys who you really have to key into, and we didn’t do a good enough job last time. Whether it’s the pass game or the run game, we expect to hopefully keep him corralled.”

That’s easier said than done, and Capers acknowledged this week that he expects teams to essentially run the ball against his guys until they show they can stop it. With Forte, though, even if they do, he can create other issues.

“I don’t really look at what somebody’s ranked in the league because this is the NFL. There are still good guys on that team,” Forte said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters at midweek. “Just because they may be ranked that low, it doesn’t mean that their defense can’t stop the run or they’re not that good. This is the NFL. Guys get paid to play football, play defense, and they’re still good. It’s always a question from the outside. ‘Oh, they’re ranked last in the league in this so you guys should do this on them.’ You still have to go out there and execute plays and make sure that we practice hard at what we’re going to do out there on the field and make sure that we can make those plays happen.”

We want the ball … and we’re going to score:  In four of their last five games, the Packers have scored a touchdown on their opening possession – a streak that started with an opening-possession touchdown at Chicago. They also scored on their first drive against Miami, Carolina and New Orleans.

In that Bears game, the Packers won the opening coin toss and deferred. (They settled for a field goal on their first series of the second half.) The Dolphins won the toss and elected to defer, giving the Packers the ball first. The Panthers also won the opening coin flip and deferred. And then the Packers won the toss and took the ball in New Orleans.

“We want to set the tempo,” McCarthy said of taking the ball when winning the toss. “We just felt we wanted to max out the opportunity for as many opportunities at the plate. I preferred to defer in the past for other reasons.”

His quarterback would generally prefer to get the ball to start the second half, when the Packers have also been good this season – in the three games before the loss at New Orleans, Rodgers led his team to a touchdown on its opening possession of the third quarter. And the Packers should have had a touchdown on their drive to start the second half against the Saints but a would-be TD pass caromed off Quarless’ hands for an interception.

“Mike’s been taking the ball, which is different. I like to differ, personally,” Rodgers said. “But, hey, Mike has gotten us in a rhythm early. [Scoring on] four out of five on first drives, that does a lot for your defense when you’re giving them the lead when they take the field. So if we keep doing that, I think Mike’s going to expect us to score every time. But it’s definitely a big confidence boost when you take the kickoff and go down and put points on the board.”

McCarthy said the key to those opening drives has been making at least one big play. A 43-yard Richard Rodgers catch jumpstarted the Packers’ first drive in Chicago (after the Bears scored first); Adams (18 yards) and Randall Cobb (28 yards) had big catches on the opening drive at Miami; Rodgers threw a 59-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson against the Panthers; and Cobb caught a 70-yard touchdown from Rodgers on the fifth play of the game against the Saints.

“Anytime you have a big play on the drive it equates to points,” McCarthy said. “Generating big plays, playing with tempo and execution are probably the three most important things.”

McCarthy said that he does not script his first 15 plays the way Bill Walsh disciple Mike Sherman and other West Coast offense descendants have in the past, but that he does go in with a handful of play-calling ideas for his first series.

“I was never truly comfortable going down the first 15 list. I’ve been part of that operation, that mindset, since 1989,” McCarthy said. “I’ve always scripted the first normal down and distance calls based on personnel and with us being in no-huddle, we still do that. But we have our first two calls in every situation that goes along with the normal [down and distance].”

THE PREDICTION

When the teams met in Chicago in late September, the Packers had stumbled out of the gate with a 1-2 record and Rodgers had told everyone to R-E-L-A-X. Now, it’s the Bears in desperation mode, having lost four of five since their 2-1 start. Both teams are coming off a bye week, and while McCarthy is 7-1 the last eight years after byes, the Bears – under Lovie Smith and Trestman – are 7-1, too. The guess here is that Green Bay gets back on track after its setback in New Orleans, and as long as the quarterback stays healthy – something that didn’t obviously happen last year, starting with a home loss against Chicago – a successful second-half run starts now. Packers 30, Bears 23. (Season record: 5-3.)

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