Without Aaron Rodgers and with opposing defenses devoting extra resources to stopping the Packers' running attack, Green Bay was stuffed by Philadelphia (30 carries, 99 yards), New York (20 carries, 55 yards, one touchdown) and Detroit (15 carries, 24 yards) in a span of four games in November.
In the first three games of December, though, the Packers have run the ball effectively against Atlanta (33 carries, 112 yards, one touchdown), Dallas (27 carries, 150 yards, one touchdown) and Pittsburgh (30 carries, 151 yards, three touchdowns).
With Rodgers returning and the Bears presumably unable to use a steady diet of eight-in-the-box defenses to stop Eddie Lacy and James Starks, the running game has the potential to be even better than it has the last three weeks.
"I definitely think it'll be easier," Lacy said. "They pretty much have to pick their poison, and with 12 (Rodgers) back there, I think they'll chose to back up a little bit, which will in turn make it easier for me and Starks to get rushing yards."
Said guard Josh Sitton: "I certainly hope so. You'd like to think that. Obviously, with having (Rodgers) back, teams for that stretch there last year, the year before, playing us two-high all the time, you'd like to think that that's how defenses are going to react when (Rodgers is) back. But we don't know. We've still got to go execute. Hopefully, that helps make us that much better."
When the teams met on Nov. 4 at Lambeau Field, Green Bay ran the ball 29 times for 199 yards. With Rodgers on the field for the first drive, it ran the ball four times for 29 yards. Without Rodgers, the Packers ran the ball 25 times for 170 yards. That's a gaudy average of 6.8 yards per carry without Rodgers, though a look inside that number tells a different story. Ten of Green Bay's 25 runs were held to 2 yards or less. Lacy's runs of 56 and 18 yards and Starks' 32-yard touchdown accounted for 106 yards. That means the Packers gained 64 yards on their other 22 carries.
"I thought we were certainly sufficient," Bears coach Marc Trestman, speaking during a conference call on Thursday, said of his run defense that night. "The Packers have two very, very good running backs, no doubt about it, and they've been extremely productive. We had a rough go at it last week (at Philadelphia). We felt we were ascending the previous two weeks. We hope we can get that corrected and be better."
They're going to have to be better because Chicago's run defense has been bad.
How bad? The Bears are allowing 161.5 rushing yards per game. Not only is that the worst in the league, but the second-to-last team, Atlanta, is allowing 135.9 rushing yards per game. That's a difference of a whopping 25.6 per game. The Bears also are allowing a league-worst 5.40 yards per carry. Atlanta also is next-to-last in that category with 4.79 yards allowed per carry. That's more than a half-yard difference. Chicago's mark is the NFL's worst since the 1961 Vikings.
"We haven't been effective," standout linebacker Lance Briggs said during his conference call. "We haven't produced when we've had to produce. When we get guys where they're supposed to be, guys haven't made the most of those opportunities. We've had a lot of missed tackles. We haven't been gap sound, which is something that we typically have prided ourselves on. We'll have a great week of practice, where we all fit up, but come game time …
"You must remember, too, we've got a lot of new faces starting and rotating this year than we've had in years previous. For a lot of guys, there's a lot of on-the-field training, on-the-go training, a lot of men that are learning. Young group or not, guys are learning and they're getting better and that's the step that we have to continue to take."
Can the Bears turn it around with Lacy coming to town and the division title on the line?
"You've got no choice. We have no choice," Briggs said. "We have to go out, we have to execute."
2. THE RODGERS FACTOR
The return of Rodgers really does change everything.
Including for Dom Capers' defense.
Rodgers, with an NFL-record 28.15 points per start, automatically puts the onus on the opposition to score points. That means putting the ball up in the air, and that gets Capers one step closer to his goal of making the opposing offense one-dimensional.
"You'd probably have to be sitting in their game-management meeting," Capers said of knowing what Trestman and the Bears' coaching staff might be thinking offensively. "With a guy like Aaron and our offense, they've got the ability to put points on the board. Kind of depends, I think, from team to team for what their approach is. This team here has the ability to do both (run and pass). It wouldn't surprise me either way."
The numbers don't tell the full story, because the scoreboard played a role in play-calling decisions. Nonetheless, these stats do tell some of the story. With Rodgers starting and finishing the first seven games, opponents rushed the ball 158 times. That's 22.6 per game and a run-play percentage of 37.2. In the last eight games, teams rushed the ball 250 times. That's 31.3 rushes per game and a run-play percentage of 46.2.
Through 15 games, teams have run the ball 408 times against Green Bay's defense. Over the previous four seasons, opponents averaged 391.8 carries for 16 games.
In Round 1 between these teams, the Bears ran the ball 33 times and threw it (or were sacked) 42 times. That's 44.0 percent running plays. For the season, Chicago runs the ball 39.4 percent of the time. That's 23rd in the league.
"It's the most difficult thing," Capers said of trying to stop a diverse offense. "Obviously, everyone wants to have balance, and the more balance you have, the tougher it makes it for you defensively because you can't focus in on one area, you can't overload one area. Teams that can run the ball and have a physical presence and they can still hurt you throwing the ball outside, they normally get more one-on-one situations outside as opposed to always being able to double-up on their receivers and say, ‘We'll play the run with six or seven' in the box."
3. JEFFERY'S BREAKOUT SEASON
Don Hutson and … Alshon Jeffery?
Jeffery set a Bears record with 218 receiving yards against the Saints in Week 5, then broke it in Week 13 with 249 yards against the Vikings. Jeffery is one of eight players in NFL history to have two 200-yard games in a season. Among the others is Hutson, who did it twice in 1942.
Jeffery ranks eighth in the league with 86 receptions, sixth with 1,341 yards, 22nd with seven touchdowns and 13th with a 15.6-yard average. It's an incredible breakout after a disappointing rookie season of 24 catches for 367 yards (15.3 average) and three touchdowns.
Jeffery scores over House on Nov. 4. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
"His catch radius has really improved," Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "He goes and gets the difficult catch. He's running routes with more confidence. He's playing with more confidence, playing fast. He's improved. He took a big step the first year to the second year."
In two games against Green Bay last year, Jeffery — a second-round pick in 2012 — caught just one pass (six targets) for 7 yards. In the first matchup this season, he caught five passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.
"I think he's playing faster," Whitt said. "He has more confidence so his play is faster. He understands this offense. I think the offensive coordinator, whoever's calling the plays, is doing a very good job of using his skill-set better than what they'd done before. Same thing with Brandon (Marshall). It's more difficult to get your hands on them at times. They switch them, they put them in different locations. It was easier to find them last year than it is this year. You've got to give a lot of credit to their coaches for putting him in different places, then helping him with his confidence."
Trestman pointed to Marshall as a big reason for Jeffery's emergence. Jeffery needs 59 yards to become the second 1,400-yard receiver in franchise history and is 167 yards shy of Marshall's team record of 1,508 yards, which he set last year.
"The gains came in the offseason," Trestman said. "He spent time with Brandon down in Florida. Brandon taught him how to eat properly. He changed his body completely. He showed him how to train at a very high and elite level. He came to the first OTA and has been as good a practice player and as hard a worker as we've had on our team. He's been very consistent. We were just hoping what we had seen in shorts during the OTAs and in training camp would transition to the season, and it has. He's gotten what he's deserved. He's worked very hard to get it done and he's had a lot of support from his teammates, as well."
Jeffery's size fits the Bears' blueprint. He's 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. Paired with Marshall (6-4, 230) and tight end Martellus Bennett (6-6, 265), the Bears have the biggest starting trio in the league.
That size caused the Packers all sorts of problems in November. Can the Packers find an answer for Sunday?
"It depends on what they're allowed to do," Whitt said. "I'm not going to ever shy away from the fact that they push and pull. They pulled as bad as they ever have that last game and they were allowed to do it. If they're allowed to pull off the line of scrimmage, if they're allowed to pull our facemask like they did Tramon's and run 5 yards with it and not get called, we're going to have a difficult time. If they just play football and don't push and pull, I feel very confident in our ability to cover them. If they're allowed to push and pull, it becomes a lot more difficult."
That doesn't mean the secondary has to shy away from contact. It's being smart with contact.
"These are guys that try to seek collision," Capers said. "A lot of receivers are going to try to avoid collision; they're going to try to seek collision because of their size. They know that they've got a heck of a size advantage over most of the defensive backs that they play against. So, if they can get their body between you and the ball, they're so doggone big it's like a basketball game. You've got to mix it up. When they're trying to see collision, you've got to avoid it. When they don't want it, you've got to go get it."
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— 4. It didn't take long for Trestman to put his imprint on the Bears.
Chicago is on the verge of setting all sorts of offensive records this season. While the Bears might fall short of their scoring record — they need 40 points to eclipse the 456 scored by the 1985 Super Bowl champions — they need just 74 total yards, 50 net passing yards and 17 first downs to set new benchmarks. Their 30 passing touchdowns already is a record.
The Bears' 27.8-point average ranks third in the NFL behind Denver (38.1) and Philadelphia (27.9). Based solely on points manufactured by the offense, Chicago ranks sixth in scoring with 24.6 points per game. Green Bay is eighth with 24.2 per game.
"This is certainly not a one-dimensional offense," Capers said. "They can do both. Their stats bare that out. They've got talented people at the skill positions, their offensive line I think is the best it's been in a while. They've done a nice job of protecting the passer. They can attack you in many different ways."
As is the case with Green Bay with Lacy and Rodgers, the Bears have the ability to exploit defenses because of their versatility.
"If you bring in extra people to stop the run, then they throw those quick screens outside, and their receivers are big, they're physical blockers, and they're good with the ball in their hands after the catch," Capers said. "Jeffery has really developed. I think he's made tremendous strides this year. Brandon Marshall has always been a guy, when he gets the ball in his hands, because he's so big and physical, you have to wrap him up and tackle him."
— 5. Including the start of his career in Denver, Jay Cutler owns a 1-8 record against the Packers. He's thrown nine touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and owns a 59.9 passer rating.
Nobody from the Packers' perspective expects the "same old Cutler" on Sunday. For most of those matchups, Green Bay had Clay Matthews rushing against inferior left tackles. With Jermon Bushrod, the Bears have a legit left tackle, and the Packers won't have Matthews (thumb). Trestman is an outstanding offensive mind, which is evident from the offensive productivity.
Cutler did not play against the Packers when they met on Nov. 4, with Josh McCown leading the 27-20 win.
"It's a totally different team now than what we've played in the past," Capers said when asked about his mastery of Cutler. "It's a new offensive philosophy. They've really improved their offensive line tremendously, so they pass protect better now than they have in the past. They've got really good balance in their run game and pass game. They've got more weapons than they've had. A couple years ago, their receiving corps looked a lot different than it does now. You've got their tight end (Bennett), who's a big target and a really good athlete and receiver. I don't know if anybody else has two more physical receivers than what they have. The running back (Matt Forte) is a great threat coming out of the backfield catching the ball and has run for 1,230 yards. There's a lot of different weapons there."
In 10 games this season, Cutler has a passer rating of at least 90 in six of them. In the other four games, he's been at 75 or below, with Chicago losing all four games.
"He's a very talented quarterback," Whitt said. "He has great arm talent so he can put the ball in places that some other quarterbacks can't. You have to understand that he's a guy that can scramble and move. Jay can run better than people give him credit for. You have to understand that when you rush him. We've played him a bunch of times and we understand the talent that he is."
— 6. Forte has four 100-yard games this season. His first was a 125-yard performance against Green Bay on Nov. 4, and he had a streak of three in a row snapped last week. Forte has 19 games of at least 100 rushing yards for his career. With one more, he'd tie Hall of Famer Gale Sayers for second in franchise history behind Walter Payton (77). The Bears are 17-2 when Forte gets to 100.
Forte, who in Week 12 became the Bears' second all-time rusher, ranks third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage since entering the league in 2008. Adrian Peterson has 10,203 yards in 89 games, Chris Johnson has 9,827 yards in 94 games and Forte has 9,428 yards in 90 games.
For this season, Forte ranks fourth with 1,229 rushing yards, fourth among backs with 547 receiving yards, second among backs with 70 receptions, third with 1,776 yards from scrimmage, third with 87 first downs and seventh with 4.7 yards per carry.
"I think that's the thing he gives them: versatility," Capers said. "Forte's always been a guy that we know that you can't let him get going. He's a really good receiver. He's one of the best multipurpose guys, I think, in the league."
— 7. The Bears have yielded 445 points through 15 games. That's already 24 more points than any team in franchise history. When the Bears were at the height of their "Monsters of the Midway" powers in the mid-1980s, the Bears allowed a total of 385 points in 1985 and 1986.
Chicago's defense ranks 29th in yards per game, 31st in yards per play, 32nd in rushing yards per game and per play, 26th in passing yards per play, 25th in sack percentage, 28th in first downs, 23rd on third down, 20th in the red zone and 28th in goal-to-go situations.
In other words, the Bears' defense is not good.
"Historically? Yeah, I don't know if I would use that word," Rodgers said when asked about the Bears' "historically bad" defense. "I think it's good for them that they got Lance (Briggs) back. He's a future Hall of Famer and big-time player for them. They've had some difficulties at times against the run, but it's a team with a lot of pride, they're very well coached and, in that temperature on that field, I expect it's going to be hard-fought, normal Packers-Bears game."
— 8. In the seven games in which Rodgers started and finished, the Packers averaged 30.3 points, 23.0 first downs and 438.9 yards, with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions. In the last eight games, the Packers averaged 21.6 points, 20.6 first downs and 357.4 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Rodgers fires a pass vs. Minnesota. Bruce Kluckhorn/USA Today Sports
The Packers hit the Rodgers-led scoring average in two of the past eight games. On game-opening drives, the Packers scored 26 points with Rodgers and 10 without him. And, finally, the ultimate stat: The Packers never led for more than 25:45 (against Minnesota) without Rodgers. They led for more than that in six of seven games with Rodgers, including for at least 52:10 in four games.
— 9. How's this for unexpected: In the 11 games in which Matthews started and finished, the Packers allowed 28.4 points, 395.5 yards and 21.1 first downs per game, with averages of 2.91 sacks, 6.45 quarterback hits and 1.64 takeaways per game. In the four games Matthews missed, the Packers allowed 22.0 points, 315.3 yards and 18.0 first downs per game, with averages of 2.75 sacks, 6.45 quarterback hits and 0.5 takeaways per game.
— 10. The Packers have 15 players on injured reserve (not including Randall Cobb, who was activated from the temporary IR list on Saturday) compared to just five for Chicago. In terms of impact players, however, the margin isn't quite as lopsided. Starters and key backups on injured reserve for Green Bay include DuJuan Harris, Casey Hayward, Bryan Bulaga, Jermichael Finley and Johnny Jolly. For Chicago, Charles Tillman (designated for return) is its top cornerback, D.J. Williams was the starting middle linebacker, Henry Melton was its best defensive lineman, Kelvin Hayden was a rotational cornerback and Nate Collins was in the defensive line rotation.
— 11. Given Chicago's quarterback history, perhaps this is akin to being the tallest jockey at the racetrack. Still, Cutler's 66.5 percent accuracy this season is tops in franchise history. No. 2 on the list? That would be Cutler's backup, McCown, who is at 63.1 percent. Jim Harbaugh's 61.5 percent in 1993 had been the franchise record.
— 12. The Bears' offense revolves around a Big Three that quietly is one of the most prolific of all-time. With Forte (1,229 rushing yards), Jeffery (1,341 receiving yards) and Marshall (1,221 receiving yards), the Bears are just the seventh team in league history to have a 1,200-yard rusher and two 1,200-yard receivers. The last time was Buffalo in 2002.
For further perspective into what that trio means to the Bears' offense: Other than Chicago, no team has more than one player ranked in the top 10 in first downs. The Bears, amazingly, have three. Forte ranks third with 87, and Jeffery and Marshall are tied for 10th with 67. Meanwhile, Forte is third with 1,776 yards from scrimmage and Jeffery is ninth with 1,446. Detroit (Calvin Johnson, sixth, 1,492, and Reggie Bush, eighth, 1,447) is the only other team with two players ranked in the top 15. Lacy ranks 15th with 1,354 yards from scrimmage.
— 13. Since the NFL went to an eight-division format in 2002, the NFC North champion never has won less than 10 games. That streak will end this season. With a win, Chicago would be 9-7. If Green Bay wins, it would finish 8-7-1. That would be the worst record for a Packers playoff qualifier.
— 14. One more note on Chicago's offense: Its 27.8 points per game ranks ninth in team history. The top five scoring seasons came in the 1940s. The 1985 team, which averaged 28.5 per game, is the only team on the list from the Super Bowl era.
— 15. This, unofficially, is the third playoff game in the series. The Packers won the 2010 NFC Championship Game at Chicago 21-14. In 1941 at Chicago, the Bears won a Western Division playoff game 33-14.
"You know, we talk about it," Briggs said of the 2010 season, in which Green Bay beat the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 17 to get into the playoffs. "A lot of the young guys here, we talk about those games. We went up to play Green Bay in Green Bay and it was basically if we win, Green Bay doesn't get in the playoffs. They ended up beating us 10-3. And then to come back in the championship and Green Bay beats us again and goes to the Super Bowl and wins the Super Bowl, that's one of those stories that we tell some of the young guys about: how tough it is to get into the playoffs. Don't miss your opportunity. You don't know when it's going to come again."
— 16. What a difference a backup quarterback can make.
McCown went 3-2 as the starter — including the 27-20 victory over Green Bay — and has played in eight games. He's thrown 13 touchdown passes against just one interception. His passer rating of 109.0 is downright Rodgers-like.
"Sometimes, the most important guy on the football team can be the backup quarterback, especially when the starter goes out," Trestman said. "I think that both teams have seen that they're resilient enough to find ways to win and to get to this point, which is an awesome opportunity for both teams."
For Green Bay, Matt Flynn went 2-2-1. The two wins and the tie marked the only time in the McCarthy era in which the Packers didn't lose when trailing by more than a score in the second half.
"Matt, he's had some highs and he's had some lows the last couple years, and he's stayed steady throughout everything," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. "To be able to come in here after what he's gone through and be able to step up and fight and give us a chance to win games and keep us in games, I think it says a lot about him. Hats off to Matt."
— 17. Sometimes, the best offense is a big-play defense. For all of Chicago's defensive problems this season, the Bears have taken the ball away. The Bears rank 12th in the league with 26 takeaways and are sixth with 97 points off of those turnovers. Chicago's defense has scored six touchdowns, and its five pick-sixes are tied with Kansas City for the league lead.
Since 2002, the Bears are 26-2 when scoring a defensive touchdown. That includes 5-0 this season and a 12-game winning streak.
"It was preached like religion to us every day," Briggs said about the Bears' penchant for forcing turnovers that started under former coach Lovie Smith. "It was one of those things that you hear so often that you get annoyed by it. You get annoyed because you hear it so much. It's just ingrained in you."
Since Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009, the Bears are second with 164 takeaways and the Packers are fourth with 153. This season, however, only seven teams have fewer takeaways than Green Bay's 20. At least the tide is turning: The Packers are tied for fourth with 10 takeaways in the last four games.
Still, Green Bay is in search of its first pick-six of the season. Green Bay had 18 of them from 2008 through 2012 compared to two for its opponents. The Packers haven't gone without an interception return for a touchdown since 1995.
— 18. This will be a matchup of two of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Green Bay's wide receivers are contributing 203.6 yards per game. Only Denver (234.3) is averaging more. Chicago ranks third with 187.7 receiving yards per game. Jeffery and Marshall have combined for 2,562 yards this season. Only Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (2,578) have more.
— 19. Plenty of words have been used in this piece on Chicago's receivers. The Packers' Jordy Nelson, however, needs 47 yards to reach 1,200 for the season, and he is tied with DeSean Jackson with a league-high 16 receptions of 25-plus yards.
Nelson's production is noteworthy considering the injuries. Rodgers essentially missed the last eight games. Cobb missed the last 10 games. Jermichael Finley has missed nine games. James Jones doesn't look fully healthy from a knee injury sustained in October. So, a lot of the passing-game weight has rested on Nelson's shoulders.
"When you talk about difference-maker, when you talk about Pro Bowl player, he's been all of that and more," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "You talk about a leader, goes about his business leading by example. When something needs to be said, he says it. Jordy's a rare player. He's a throwback and it's great being around guys like that. It matters to him, it's important to him. One of the true greats."
Rodgers' return should help Nelson. In the seven full games with Rodgers, Nelson had three games of at least 113 yards, only one game of less than 66 yards and seven touchdowns. In the last eight games, Nelson's had one 100-yard game (117 vs. the Giants), two games of more than 66 and one touchdown.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.
— 20. Jones, on Rodgers' return: "We all know it doesn't matter if we had Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and all them people on the team, we've got to go there and play. We've got to win a game. Do you want your best players out there? No question, but we've got to go out there and win a game. Aaron even let us know that. Just cause he's back, it don't guarantee nothing. We've got to go out there and play. He's got to play at a high level, we've got to play at a high level and we've got to win a game."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.