The Chicago Bears (2-1) will square off against the Green Bay Packers (1-2) for the 189th time on Sunday at noon. The Bears-Packers rivalry is the oldest in the NFL, with Chicago holding a 93-89-6 edge in the series.
The teams split their meetings last year, with each club winning on the road. That includes the season finale in which Green Bay knocked the Bears out of the playoffs on a last-second touchdown. The Packers have won six of the nine meetings this decade, which includes the 2010 NFC Championship game.
Despite this being just the fourth game of the season, the Bears have the opportunity to dig the Packers a deep hole. A win on Sunday would not only put Chicago two games up on their division rival, but it would force Green Bay to go 9-3 or 10-2 the rest of the season to earn a shot at the playoffs. That’s tough sledding for any NFL team, no matter the quarterback, so the Bears should be plenty motivated this weekend.
The following Chicago players have been ruled out:
C Brian de la Puente and G Michael Ola will make their third straight start in place of Garza and Slauson. CB Isaiah Frey will serve as the club’s nickelback, DT Will Sutton will replace Ratliff at the 3-technique position and Jon Bostic will start at SAM linebacker in place of McClellin.
The following Bears are listed as questionable:
vAllen stayed home this week due to a flu-like bug. If he does play, his snaps will likely be limited.
The same goes for Marshall, who did not practice this week. He’ll be far from 100 percent if he takes the field and may act primarily as a decoy in the passing game.
“It’s a continued challenge,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week. “We’re going above and beyond to make sure [Marshall] knows what he needs to do. There’s plenty of extra meetings that he’s able to watch and see. That’s all we can hope for. If a guy is hurt, he’s hurt. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
If Conte plays, he’ll most likely rotate with Danny McCray in an effort to avoid re-injuring his shoulder.
The Packers are relatively healthy, with only two players listed as questionable:
Both are game-time decisions.
THE CUTLER REPORT
Jay Cutler has struggled against the Packers for most of his career. In nine starts, he’s thrown just 11 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions, good for a 65.1 QB rating. In those contests, Green Bay defensive coordinator has had Cutler’s number, consistently finding ways to pressure the pocket and create turnovers on the back end.
“He's the defensive coordinator every year,” Cutler said. “They do a good job of mixing up fronts and behind that mixing up coverages, run with a [cover] 2 when they blitz or giving you a quarters look, or dropping eight. It's always a mixture. You don't really know what's going to happen.”
Capers’ defense will be the third straight 3-4 unit Cutler has faced, following the 49ers and Jets the past two weeks, which could help in his blitz recognition.
“Defenses are just getting harder and harder. It's getting more complex,” Cutler said. “I think each and every year, defenses' own awareness of what they do defensively is extremely high. They're not going to play four games and keep doing the same thing over and over again. They're going to keep mixing it up. It gets to be difficult. It's hard for a play caller and it's hard on the quarterbacks.”
The pressure on Cutler to perform at a high level this week will be exacerbated if the run game, which ranks 32nd in the NFL, continues to struggle.
That said, Kromer said he’s not concerned about Matt Forte’s career-low 3.2 yards per carry, as riding Forte wasn’t in the game plan the past two weeks.
“Game-plan-wise, in the last two games, we’ve chosen and gone into them thinking ‘we’re not going to hand the ball to the halfback in the backfield very often,’” Kromers said. “We didn’t feel it was advantageous towards winning the game. So you can see we limited the opportunities that Matt had and we thought we had to throw the football to win but run enough to keep them honest. I feel we did a nice job in the last drive when we were trying to kill some time to secure the lead of running the football.”
Despite the game plan, it would definitely be advantageous for the Bears to run Forte early and often against Green Bay’s 30th-ranked rush defense.
“Whenever you can't run the ball and you can't score points, that's whenever you start having some problems,” said Cutler. “As long as we're running the ball efficiently and giving Matt a fair amount of chances to do it, and we're scoring points, I think we'll be OK.
“We know at the end of the day, going forward this season, we're going to have to ride Matt Forte and he's going to have to do the bulk of this offense for us.”
Cutler’s career stats vs. Green Bay:
|BEARS (NFL Rank)||PACKERS (NFL Rank)|
|25.0 (T-9th)||Points Scored||18.0 (27th)|
|300.0 (27th)||Total Offense||289.3 (28th)|
|64.0 (32nd)||Rushing Offense||78.7 (27th)|
|236.0 (14th)||Passing Offense||210.7 (21st)|
|20.7 (11th)||Points Allowed||26.3 (28th)|
|377.7 (23rd)||Total Defense||354.3 (20th)|
|144.7 (26th)||Rushing Defense||156.0 (30th)|
|233.0 (16th)||Passing Defense||198.3 (6th)|
|+4 (T-3rd)||Turnover Ratio||+2 (T-8th)|
BEARS ON OFFENSE
Matchups to Watch
Historically, Capers has used CB Tramon Williams on Brandon Marshall. That leaves Shields to cover Jeffery. With Marshall hobbled, expect Jeffery to get plenty of work in this game.
“Alshon hasn't gotten maybe as many touches but whenever he has made his catches he's made some big plays for us,” Cutler said.
Jeffery is fully recovered from a hamstring injury that’s plagued him the past two weeks and will need to exploit the 1-on-1 matchups he’ll get with Shields, a savvy veteran corner. If Jeffery gets loose down the field and reels off one or two big catches, it could be the difference in this matchup.
It’s safe to say that, dating back to his time in Pee Wee football, the Bears were the first team to ever cut or waive Julius Peppers. He said publicly this week he harbors no hard feelings but one has to believe that, deep down, he wants to show his former team the mistake they made in releasing him this offseason. And when Peppers is motivated, he can be a game changer.
He has just one sack so far this season but he’s been very disruptive as a pass rusher, leading Green Bay in QB pressures (6) and QB hits (4), per Pro Football Focus. Bushrod is a steady veteran who, due to their time together last year, knows Peppers about as well as anyone. If he can consistently win on an island, he’ll keep Cutler’s blindside clean and will allow the Bears to chip Clay Matthews on the other side of the field.
Keys to the Game
-Matt Forte was a machine against the Packers last year, racking up 336 total yards and four touchdowns in the two games combined. Green Bay has struggled to stop the run this year, so expect Forte to get 20-30 touches in this contest. If he can breakout in this game, it will help the Bears move the ball, keep the defense honest and control the clock. The less Aaron Rodgers is on the field the better, so Forte’s performance on Sunday will be crucial.
-It can be argued that no pass catcher in the league has been as dangerous as TE Martellus Bennett, who has 20 catches, 161 yards and 4 TDs through the first three games. Bennett has been particularly effective in the red zone, where he’s been borderline unstoppable.
“Marty is stepping up his game,” Cutler said. “He is becoming a go-to guy in 1-on-1 matchups.”
The Packers will likely rotate safeties on Bennett, mixing it up with Micah Hyde, Morgan Burnett and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. They could also bracket Bennett with linebackers underneath, something we’ll likely see near the goal line. Expect the Packers to use a lot of Cover 1 as well, leaving a deep safety to help limit Bennett’s effectiveness down the seams.
With Marshall and Jeffery hobbled throughout most of the year, Bennett has picked up the slack. The Packers know this and won’t forget about him on passing downs. If they pay too much attention to Bennett in the middle of the field, deep sideline areas could open up for Chicago’s big wide receivers.
-RT Jordan Mills allowed two sacks last week and now faces Clay Matthews for the first time in his career – Matthews missed both contests last year. Mills has shown improvement during his second season but he’s still very inconsistent. Matthews has historically feasted on Cutler, so Mills must have one of the best games of his young career.
If he struggles and Matthews is able to collapse the pocket early, expect Eben Britton to see a lot of snaps complementing Mills on the right edge.
-The Bears waived Tony Fiammetta with an injury settlement this week, leaving them without a pure fullback on the roster. In his place, expect Dante Rosario to be used as a part-time fullback/H-back. Rosario has shown well as a blocker this year and if he can clear Packers defenders at the point of attack, Forte should be able to find a rhythm.
BEARS ON DEFENSE
Matchups to Watch
With Rodgers and Nelson, the key is stopping the back-shoulder throw, something the duo has perfected. Fuller’s biggest key will be keeping his eyes on the ball, as turning his back to Rodgers will leave him susceptible to the back-shoulder. If Fuller can consistently locate the ball and use his athleticism to out-muscle Nelson down the field, he’ll limit the biggest weapon the Packers possess.
Linsley, a rookie out of Ohio State, has struggled as a starter through three games, allowing a team-high 4 QB hurries and getting little push in the run game. Next to him, RG T.J. Lang has been one of the worst run blockers on the team. Paea, who has bounced back from a 2013 season in which he was hampered by turf toe, has been stout against the run and is second on the team with 2.0 sacks. If he can feast on the interior of Green Bay’s underperforming offensive line, he’ll help stifle the run game and collapse the pocket in the face of Rodgers.
Keys to the Game
-The Packers have allowed the second-most sacks in the league (11) and have not fared well in blitz pickup or in 1-on-1 matchups. The Bears are still waiting for their two big free-agent acquisitions, defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, to notch a sack. With Allen sick this week, he won’t likely have the energy to put forth a 60-minute game.
Yet Houston is healthy and needs to have an impact. The best way to beat Aaron Rodgers is to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing him to get rid of the ball early. Houston has had success in pass rush but it hasn’t resulted in any sacks. If he can turn that around and get to Rodgers, it will help keep the All-Pro quarterback out of rhythm.
-DE Willie Young leads the league in sacks (4.0) and will once again need to be a force off the edge. With Allen sick, Young will likely see increased reps. That could be a great thing for the Bears if Young continues to dominate off the edge.
-The Packers adopted a hurry-up offense this year, saying during the preseason they’d like to run 75 offensive snaps per game. Despite the less-than-ideal returns early this season, head coach Mike McCarthy has no intentions of slowing down the pace on offense.
As a result, conditioning will be important for Chicago’s defense, particularly in the second half. If they start to wear down late in the game, Rodgers will make them pay.
-The Bills in Week 1 called the Bears defense “predictable.” Since then, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has done a great job of mixing up his looks, both pre- and post-snap. Through three games, Chicago has yet to give up a touchdown in the second half.
Yet Rodgers is on a different level than most quarterbacks. If he’s able to read Tucker’s defensive sets before or just after the snap, he’ll carve up the secondary. Tucker must be creative in moving players around and disguising his looks.
-Tackling will be crucial for the Bears. The Packers have 267 yards after the catch, ninth most in the NFL. Nelson has 140 YAC, fifth most in the league. If the Bears aren’t sound bringing down Packers ball carriers, short gains will turn into game-changing plays.
Packers 31, Bears 27
This is essentially an elimination game for the Packers. A Bears victory would force Green Bay to go 9-3 or 10-2 the rest of the way, a deep hole out of which few teams are able to climb.
The last three times the Bears had the chance to knock Green Bay out of the playoffs – the regular-season finale in 2010, the 2010 NFC Championship game and last year’s season finale – all resulted in Packers victories.
Until the Bears prove they can finish off the Packers, we’ll assume that Rodgers and company will again come out on top.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.