Gameday Notebook: Hester, Peppers are Key

It's the biggest and most in-depth game preview anywhere, available to our subscribers and via a FREE one-week trial. For the 13th time, it's Jarrett Bush against Devin Hester. It's also Marshall Newhouse against Julius Peppers, a critical night for the run defense and 18 other nuggets in our weekly 21-point preview.

"Best" is one of the most overused words in the sporting lexicon.

In the case of Devin Hester, however, it fits.

"He's the best returner in NFL history," Green Bay Packers special teams ace Jarrett Bush, who's faced Hester 12 times, said on Wednesday, a day before facing Hester and the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.

That Hester has a league-record 17 touchdowns on kickoff returns and punt returns is impressive enough. This is what's truly amazing: Hester's touchdown total has come in 93 games and 355 total returns. Brian Mitchell, the old record-holder, had 13 return touchdowns in 223 games and 1,070 returns. Dante Hall had 12 return touchdowns in 112 games and 642 returns. Eric Metcalf had 12 touchdowns in 179 games and 631 returns. Josh Cribbs has 11 touchdowns in 108 games and 501 returns.

Including a return of a missed field goal for a 108-yard touchdown, Hester has 18 career touchdown returns. Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback and returner, scored 19 touchdowns in 188 games.

Two of those touchdowns have come at the expense of Green Bay, including a 62-yard score on a punt return to start the fourth quarter of the Bears' 20-17 win at Soldier Field on Sept. 27, 2010.

Since then, the Packers have performed about as well as humanly possible against Hester. In the last four games (including the 2010 NFC Championship), Hester has returned eight punts for 76 yards. Maybe more importantly, he's returned just eight of Tim Masthay's 26 punts.

"It's a collective group effort," Bush said. "We have Brett Goode, Tim Masthay and myself the past few years. Pat Lee helped me, also. We've got a new group of guys with M.D. Jennings and Sam Shields and Casey Hayward. We look forward to shutting him down again. We've got to go out and execute. You can't take it for granted because he's very explosive and at any moment he can bust one open."

Since 2006, Hester has 50 punt returns of at least 20 yards. That's as many as the next two players, Roscoe Parrish and Jacoby Jones, combined.

"You can't play scared," Bush said of a message he's passed along to the others on the coverage units. "When you play scared, you're going to hesitate and things are going to go even worse. The thing is, go out there and play full speed. If something wrong happens, go back to the sideline and see what happened and figure it out. Shoot first, ask questions later. Usually when that happens, things go well because you're playing fast. That's how you play football: play fast and don't worry about making mistakes."

Packers vs. Bears' backs

Cedric Benson's debut was a dud, with nine carries for 18 yards, including a long run of just 4 yards, against San Francisco.

The Bears, on the other hand, have one of the league's top running games. Matt Forte (6-2, 218) is one of the best and most-versatile backs in the NFL. He rushed 16 times for 80 yards and one touchdown and caught three passes for 40 more yards against the Colts. In his Chicago debut, Michael Bush (6-1, 245) rumbled 12 times for 42 yards and two touchdowns.

"Since I've been here, I've had a lot of respect for Forte," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I've always felt he's been the real threat of their offense – not only as a runner but as a receiver. I've seen him catch screens and go the distance with screens. He's good in pass protection. He's a good all-around back. Now, Bush gives them a big back to put in there. They had those two guys in the game together a little bit against the Colts"

The results have been mixed for Green Bay. In Week 3 last season, the Packers held Forte to 2 yards on nine attempts, with quarterback Jay Cutler's three scrambles boosting the team's total to 12 rushes for 13 yards. With Cutler and Forte out in Week 15, Kahlil Bell rushed for 121 yards and the Bears ran wild for 199.

Stopping the run will be critical. The Packers couldn't stop it against San Francisco and, therefore, couldn't stop the pass, either.

"Running the ball sets up an awful lot of things," Capers said. "For us, X-and-O-wise, if we can stop the run, then we can do an awful lot more things we like to do. The down and distance goes to your favor more. It's a lot easier if you can keep a team in third-and-7 or more. Your percentages go up on third down tremendously."

Packers vs. Peppers

Julius Peppers ranks sixth among current players with 100 career sacks. He's listed as the starting right defensive end, meaning he'll line up across from Green Bay's Marshall Newhouse. Newhouse was a rare bright spot offensively last week against San Francisco with an outstanding performance in pass protection against Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.

"He played very well," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "We said that going into the game that he became a starter midway last year and he's improved since then and he's continued to improve. We had confidence that he could do the job, and I'm sure he did, too. Playing well against good people, that just increases that confidence."

Peppers won't simply be stationed across from Newhouse. He'll play some left end, as well, and he'll go inside so first-round pick Shea McClellin can play end on passing downs.

"He's one of the top athletes in the game, at any position," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Peppers. "A lot of length and a lot of athletic ability. He's a guy you've got to account for all the time. They're doing some different things, moving him inside a little bit, letting him rush from the three-technique and from a shade, which is something we haven't seen from them. Giants have done that with all of their guys – (Jason Pierre-Paul) and (Justin) Tuck and Osi (Umenyiora) and (Dave) Tollefson when he was there, kind of moving those guys around. It looks like Chicago wants to do that to get McClellin in and give Julius some different rush angles."

Don't forget Melton

Peppers isn't the Bears' only defensive lineman. Henry Melton spent his first two seasons at Texas playing running back, scoring 16 touchdowns, before being shifted to defense. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Melton started 15 games last season and recorded seven sacks. That's more than the entire Packers defensive line. He's off to a great start with two sacks against the Colts.

Melton is joined at defensive tackle by a combination of Stephen Paea (who set a Scouting Combine record in the bench press in 2011) and Matt Toeaina, while Israel Idonije joins Peppers at end.

"We count on the defensive line quite a bit," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "You mention Julius Peppers, he's just been outstanding for us. We can do so many things with him. You'll see him line up of course all over the football field. We wanted him to drop into coverage. I think he can be an All-Pro at doing that, too. Henry Melton, no one is like Julius Peppers or has his talent, but Henry has an ability to make a lot of different plays. We do a lot of things with him, also. He had a good start last week, he's capable of making those type of plays throughout. We got good pressure this past week, but we still feel like we'll have to get even more pressure this week."

Flag daze

One of the defining games in Packers coach Mike McCarthy's tenure was the loss at Chicago in 2010. Green Bay rang up a franchise-worst 18 penalties that night. Since then, the Packers have been among the cleanest teams in the league. Last season, the Packers were on the other side of the penalty-flag coin, with team-best marks of 76 infractions for 591 yards. The penalty total tied for tops in the league and the yardage mark ranked second.

Against San Francisco, Capers lamented the three first downs given away by his defense. The first, a third-and-3 pass interference call on Bush, extended a drive. Moments later, Clay Matthews was flagged for roughing the passer. Given 20 yards and two first downs, the 49ers scored a touchdown to lead 10-0. Late in the first half, Charles Woodson was penalized for defensive holding on third-and-5, handing the Niners a first down to keep alive a drive that resulted in a field goal.

"Those two drives, they scored 10 points," Capers said. "I hope to see us go out and eliminate those things that we gave them. When you're playing against a good football team, you've got to make them earn everything. And we didn't make them earn everything."

Division dominance

Under McCarthy, the Packers are 27-9 in division games and 15-3 in division home games. Only New England (28-8) has a better record against division foes, and Green Bay, New England and Indianapolis are tied for the top home record against division rivals. McCarthy has posted a winning record against NFC North teams in each of his first six seasons.

Rodgers has been key. His 111.3 career passer rating within the division is an NFL record by a large margin. Since the NFL went a division format in 1967, the second-best mark is Steve Young's 98.2. Tom Brady is third at 95.9. In 23 starts against division teams, Rodgers is 17-6 with 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

With Rodgers, the Packers have won seven in a row against NFC North teams. Since 1967, the Packers twice have had eight-game winning streaks within the division: 1996-97 and 2001-02.

Rodgers vs. Cutler, by the numbers

Green Bay has enjoyed the quarterbacking greatness of Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Rodgers. Chicago, on the other hand, has been saddled with decades of quarterbacking mediocrity until Cutler's arrival. Acknowledging vast differences in schemes and personnel, here's a by-the-numbers look at the quarterback.

— 7: Cutler has seven 300-yard games for Chicago, including on Sunday against the Colts. Rodgers had eight last year alone.

— 50: Cutler has thrown 50 interceptions in 1,336 attempts with Chicago, a rate of of 3.74 percent. Rodgers has thrown 39 interceptions in 2,152 attempts, a league-record rate of 1.81 percent.

— 59.9: In three-plus seasons with Chicago, Cutler's completion percentage of 59.9 is second-best in team history behind Shane Matthews' 61.1. Rodgers' career completion percentage is 65.4, and he topped Cutler's 59.9 in 14 of 16 games last year and 48 of 63 career starts.

— 82.5: Cutler's passer rating is the best in Bears history, ahead of the legendary Erik Kramer's 80.7 and Jim McMahon's 80.4. Rodgers' passer rating of 103.9 is the highest in NFL history.

On the other hand ...

Cutler's enjoying a personal six-game winning streak, which is impressive when you consider the first five came last season.

Cutler never has had much of a supporting cast with the Bears. The addition of Brandon Marshall changes everything — especially if the officials allow him to get physical with opposing defensive backs. Alshon Jeffrey provides another big weapon at receiver to join holdovers Fred Bennett and Hester. Plus, Bush joins Forte in the backfield.

It's a formidable group, and it's a reason why the Bears think they can get past Green Bay in the NFC North and contend for a championship.

"He's a great quarterback," Smith said. "Everyone doesn't have a guy like we have at the quarterback position, it's kind of as simple as that. He can make all the throws you want a great quarterback to make, he's mobile in the pocket, just really knows the game. He doesn't get enough credit for the mental part of the game that he knows."

In six career starts against Green Bay, Cutler is 1-5. He's never reached 20 points in regulation — his lone win was 20-17 in overtime on Sept. 27, 2010. Cutler has a 67.5 passer rating with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions against the Packers. He's topped 60 percent accuracy in just two games.

On the other hand, Cutler has thrown nine touchdowns and four interceptions during the six-game run and led the Bears to an average of 33.7 points per game.

History lessons

— This isn't your father's rivalry. Nor is the Forrest Gregg-Mike Ditka rivalry.

"I don't think you're going to be seeing a fight occur at the coin toss or anything like that if you're talking about any added incentive," McCarthy said. "The focus definitely goes up. It's a division game. This is probably even more important for our fans. ... I do appreciate the professionalism, and I think both organizations as a whole appreciate it because they're definitely a first-class organization and we conduct ourselves appropriately there. It's a hard-fought game on the field, you don't see too many disrespectful exchanges, and I think that speaks volumes about both the teams from the organization all the way down and the way they're coached."

— The Bears lead the series 92-86-6. Green Bay has won four in a row to tighten things in a series they haven't led since 1932. "We haven't had a lot of success lately. The Packers have won six out of the last seven. For it to be a rivalry, that can't happen," Smith said.

— When he took over in Chicago, Smith said his No. 1 goal was to beat the Packers. With the four-game losing streak, he's now 8-9 against Green Bay.

— The Packers might be on a hot streak against Chicago but that doesn't mean the games have been walks in the park. Until last year's sweep by the Packers (27-17 and 35-21), the previous six games had been decided by seven points or less.

Two big numbers

— Turnovers were a major story line entering last week's game and they're a big story entering Thursday's game. The Bears lead the NFL with 271 takeaways since Smith took over as coach in 2004. Since Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009, the Packers lead the league with 110 takeaways. Green Bay didn't record a takeaway last week, falling to 0-10 under McCarthy in those situations.

— Third down, as always, will be key. The Bears emerged from Week 1 with the NFL's third-ranked third-down defense, allowing a conversion rate of 20.0 percent. The Packers' defense, for all of its struggles last week, is seventh at 22.2 percent. Capers pointed to a third-and-1 stop of Frank Gore late in the first half and Sam Shields' big stop of Gore on a third-and-2 pass in the fourth quarter.

The other sideline

— For all of the talk about an improved Chicago offense, there's this: The Bears forced five turnovers against the Colts but got just one field goal for their efforts.

— The Bears put up 41 points and 428 yards anyway, marking just the second time in Smith's nine-year tenure that his team had at least 40 points and 400 yards. The previous time was 2006 against San Francisco. Before that? A 1992 game against Atlanta.

— Against Green Bay in the regular season: Forte averages 3.3 yards per carry in seven games; Marshall has 13 catches for 201 yards and no touchdowns in two games; Peppers has four sacks in nine games; Brian Urlacher has five interceptions in 22 games; Hester averages 14.5 yards (with two touchdowns) on punt returns and 21.1 yards on kickoffs in 11 games.

The last word

Or, the best quote that we couldn't work into a story ...

"Until we beat them or until somebody else wins the division, I would have to say so. They won it last year so until somebody else wins it, they are the team to beat." — Peppers, on whether Green Bay remains the team to beat in the NFC North.


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


Packer Report Top Stories