For three weeks, Chicago Bears defensive coaches have gone away from their patented Cover 2 zone defense and used more man-to-man, Cover 1 sets. In this way, the Bears have been able to bring an extra man into the box, typically S Craig Steltz, to counter the power rushing attacks of their last three opponents.
Yet this leaves the cornerbacks one-on-one with the wideouts. Chicago's corners aren't the best cover players and perform much better in zone schemes. The cornerbacks have fared well overall, yet they won't have as much luck against Green Bay's top-tier group of receivers. As the Bears secondary is all too aware, putting defenders on an island against the Packers' pass catchers is a recipe for disaster.
As such, expect the Bears to rely more on their Cover 2 zone sets on Sunday against Aaron Rodgers and company.
"We've got to get the extra guy out of the box," said Brian Urlacher. "It puts our corners on islands. It's tough for them. They've done a good job challenging the receivers but we've got to make some plays in Cover 2 as well versus the running game."
If the Bears are to employ more zone coverage, that will mean the front four will have to be stout against the run. The Packers will be getting James Starks, the team's leading rusher, back from injury this week, yet will likely be without their top three offensive tackles. Being able to keep Green Bay's rushing attack in check with just seven in the box will be crucial in forcing the offense to become one-dimensional.
"Every game you start on stopping the run. You've got to. And if you get out of whack with that run game, then you really get into trouble," said coordinator Rod Marinelli. "They've done a good job against us running the ball sometimes. So we've got to make sure we come in and slam the run."
Yet it's not the run game that has the Packers at 13-1 this season. It's the passing attack that strikes fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators. Rodgers has played at a level nearly unmatched in the history of the game this season. He's thrown 40 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions. He leads the league in passer rating (120.1) and needs only 724 more passing yards to break Dan Marino all-time single-season mark of 5,084.
Yet Rodgers has struggled against Chicago's Cover 2 in the past. In Green Bay's two victories over Chicago last season, he combined for just 1 TD and 3 INTs, including a 55.4 QB rating in the NFC Championship game. He did carve up the Bears' defense in Week 3 this year with 297 yards and 3 TDs, yet he's not immune to breaking down in the face of Chicago's Cover 2.
"It's a system that's been around for quite some time and [the Bears] run it as good or probably better than anybody in the league," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "I think the Bears do an excellent job with their scheme. They're doing an even better job adjusting to how you're attacking their scheme."
The Packers rely on big plays in the passing game. Rodgers' accuracy downfield is borderline ridiculous and every receiver on the team has the speed to beat the defense deep. As such, Green Bay has been able to regularly eat up big chunks of yards through the air this season.
When executed properly, the Cover 2 takes away the deep pass and forces the opposing offense to move the ball down the field systematically. The Bears then utilize their team speed and tackling ability to keep those check downs from turning into big plays.
Yet none of that will mean anything unless the Bears can get pressure on Rodgers. If he's allowed time to get comfortable in the pocket, he will absolutely carve up any NFL defense, no matter the coverage.
"Pressure, that's always the number one thing [to containing Rodgers]," Urlacher said. "But he moves so well, he slides in the pocket, he gets outside of the pocket. If we can get him going to our right, we may have a better chance of maybe making some plays on him."
QB Aaron Rodgers
That pressure will have to come from the front four, as blitzing Rodgers has proved a futile endeavor this year. Rodgers ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the blitz with a 131.6 passer rating (79-of-118, 1,407 yards, 11 TDs, two INTs). His field vision and quick release thwart the extra rusher the vast majority of the time. In essence, sending a fifth or sixth rusher will do nothing more than cripple the secondary and force them into man coverage. Meaning Chicago's defensive tackles and ends must be the ones to supply the pass rush.
The Bears will get a boost up front with the return of Henry Melton, who sat out last week with a shin injury. Melton has excelled this season as a pass rusher. His 7.0 sacks are third-best in the league for defensive tackles.
"Hopefully we get pressure with [the front] four like we've pretty much done all season long," said Urlacher. "If they can do that, we'll have a chance to play some Cover 2 on the back end and maybe get off the field."
Green Bay's receivers are as good of a group as there is in the NFL, yet they'll be without their top pass catcher, Greg Jennings, this week. He'll sit for the second-straight game with a sprained knee. That's music to Chicago's ears, as Jennings has averaged six catches and 102 yards per game against the Bears the last three seasons.
"You eliminate a great player from their package, that's tough," Marinelli said. "But I'm telling you they've got great depth."
That depth includes receivers Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, as well as tight end Jermichael Finley – who is basically a receiver in a tight end's body. In their first meeting this year, Finley caught seven passes for 85 yards and three touchdowns. Keeping him in check will be crucial.
"We've got to be obviously very aware of where he's at," said Marinelli. "His abilities are special."
Unfortunately for Chicago, they'll be without starting free safety Chris Conte, who was placed in injured reserve this week. That means Brandon Meriweather will get the start. The veteran has struggled this year keeping the offense in front of him and has allowed a number of deep passes. He'll need to have a very good performance if the Bears stand any chance at picking up a road win against the most-dangerous offense in the league.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.