John Crist: Aaron Rodgers carved up the Giants last week to the tune of 404 yards passing and four touchdowns. He was only sacked twice, which pales in comparison to Jay Cutler when he faced the G-Men, as he went down nine times in the first half alone. What was the secret up front?
Bill Huber: There was definitely no secret to it. Venerable left tackle Chad Clifton had arguably his best game of a fine season by practically shutting out Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora entered the game with 10 sacks and a league-high eight forced fumbles but was held to one assisted tackle.
I'm not Rod Marinelli, but I do play him in Behind Enemy Lines. I'd be absolutely floored if Julius Peppers doesn't spend the vast majority of snaps going up against first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, who has replaced the injured Mark Tauscher at right tackle. Bulaga has had his occasional struggles, both mentally and physically. Justin Tuck had the only sack for the Giants – I'm not counting the other one, since the ball slipped out of Rodgers' hand for a fumble – but he beat Bulaga repeatedly. But with the rest of the line doing its job, Rodgers had plenty of room in the pocket to skate around and move out of harm's way.
JC: All of a sudden, the Packers have some semblance of a running game by splitting carries among Brandon Jackson, Dimitri Nance and John Kuhn. But does coach Mike McCarthy tip his hand at all with regard to play-calling based on which of his ball carriers is in the backfield?
BH: In normal down-and-distance situations, the play-calling has been unpredictable. Jackson is the starter and plays frequently on third downs. Kuhn is a situational guy: short yardage and also on third downs. Jackson and Kuhn are superb in pass protection, so there's no drop-off, though Jackson is the bigger threat in the passing game as a receiver. Nance spells them both because McCarthy wants to make sure Jackson and Kuhn are fresh in passing situations.
Short yardage and goal line, however, are different animals. Kuhn has scored four touchdowns in his last two games, and McCarthy loves to give him the ball, whether he's lined up at fullback or halfback. He's a 250-pound thumper who, as offensive coordinator Joe Philbin likes to joke, is just slow enough to see cutback lanes develop. But if you watched the Sunday night game against New England, he's remarkably nimble in the open field. He's not Matt Forte, to be sure, but when defenders are hunkering down for an expected helmet in the chest, he's had some success juking for extra yards.
JC: Bears fans believe Peppers is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, just like Packers fans think Clay Matthews is worthy of consideration. While Peppers has had a greater impact on his teammates, Matthews is doing the damage himself. All bias aside, who wins?
BH: No bias here. Matthews' production has waned after an explosive start, in which he had six sacks in the first two games and 10.5 in the first nine. He's been slowed by an injured shin that has prevented him from practicing full-go for several weeks. Between that and a steady diet of double-team and chip blocks, Matthews has two sacks in his last six games — and one of those came when Brett Favre was chased out of the pocket by defensive end Cullen Jenkins and slid near Matthews.
Working in Matthews' favor is that the Packers rank second in the NFL in points allowed, and he's the only pass-rushing threat on the injury-ravaged linebacking corps. Peppers has been the more productive player down the stretch and has made more impact plays with three forced fumbles (to Matthews' two) and two interceptions (to Matthews' one).
JC: Unlike the Bears, who have been remarkably healthy all season long, the Packers were hit with the injury bug on both sides of the ball early and often. Which of the regulars is missed the most, and which fill-in has been the biggest surprise in terms of stepping in and performing well?
BH: With 14 guys on injured reserve, including seven Week-1 starters, that the Packers are even in position to qualify for the playoffs this week is pretty amazing. I don't think most Packers fans appreciate that enough. Even more than two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant, who went down in the second quarter of the opener, the Packers have dearly missed Jermichael Finley. The Packers shaped their offense around Finley's tremendous skill set, and he was arguably the NFC's best tight end through the first four games, but he injured his knee on the first series of the Week-5 game at Washington. The Packers lost that game and the following week against Miami. While the offense has been mostly productive since the midpoint of the season, they're 6-5 without Finley — every loss by three or four points. Considering the unfathomable drop-off in talent between Finley and guys like Donald Lee, Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree, I wonder how many of those games the Packers would have won with Finley there to move the chains or make the big play.
For the surprise, it has to be undrafted rookie Frank Zombo, who replaced Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga at the outside linebacker slot opposite Matthews. Of course, he's hurt, too, with a knee sprain. Green Bay might have to mix and match street free agent Erik Walden and Robert Francois, the guy the Vikings released to sign Favre in 2009.
JC: Green Bay has not been sound on special teams for most of the McCarthy era. Not only have the Bears been tremendous in the third phase of the game throughout Lovie Smith's tenure, but 2010 may be their most dominant effort yet. How vulnerable are the Packers on kicks and punts?
BH: In a word (or two): extremely vulnerable. Let's see: Devin Hester's punt return was a key play against the Packers in Week 3. Eric Weems' kickoff return set up Atlanta's winning score in Week 12. And, embarrassingly, Patriots lineman Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return a couple weeks ago.
On kickoffs, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has been mixing up short kicks, squib kicks and deep kicks in hopes of keeping the opponents' return unit off balance. It's worked pretty well, Connolly's return notwithstanding. On punts, the Packers are better. In Week 3, first-year punter Tim Masthay was raw and learning on the job. Since then, he's been pretty good. He ranks 17th in net punting, with his 37.8-yard net average well ahead of Brad Maynard's 29th-ranked 35.1. Common sense says Masthay needs to kick it out of bounds, but that's not as easy as it sounds. If he's aiming right and the Bears get penetration, he'll be kicking right into a block.
To read Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions from Bill, Click Here.
John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Bill Huber is the publisher of PackerReport.com.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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