World’s Best Preview: Rebounding Rodgers

Leading off our signature story of the week: Aaron Rodgers has put up monster numbers after his rare poor performances. Also, the YAC attack has gone MIA, which is one reason for the offense's early funk. Plus much, much more in our 20-point, 4,300-word game preview that is overflowing with information you won't find anywhere else. Guaranteed. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Aaron Rodgers has been held to less than 200 passing yards 15 times during his 90 career starts.

Judging by the past 14 bounce-back games, the Chicago Bears are in big trouble for Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers.

After a sub-200-yard performance, Rodgers has come back to throw for 4,228 yards — 302.0 yards per game — with a stunning 34 touchdowns against five interceptions. The Packers are 9-5 in those games.

“He’s very prideful in his play and his direction of the offense,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said on Thursday. “A game like that can kind of stir the hornet’s nest in him a little bit and he usually responds well.”

Responded well, indeed. In the last five games following a sub-200-yard outing, the Packers are 5-0 and Rodgers has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only one interception. Following a subpar game at Seattle in Week 1, Rodgers threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets.

With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers haven’t lost back-to-back games since overtime setbacks against the Redskins and Dolphins in October 2010. The Packers promptly won four in a row to kick-start a run to the Super Bowl.

No wonder Rodgers told fans to “relax” this week.

“That’s kind of the feeling of the room,” Van Pelt said. “We’re three games in. We haven’t set the world on fire yet. Offensively, we’re used to doing that. We know it’s in there, it’s in our blood. It’s just a matter of having that breakout game. I think we’ll feel better if we put a good performance out on Sunday, I think things will turn for us a little. But nobody’s down, nobody’s disappointed. We’re frustrated that we didn’t have the success that we thought we would have up in Detroit, but that’s football. It’s a long season. We’ve been in this spot now all three years that I’ve been here. I’ve seen what can happen when this thing gets going, and that’s fully what we expect.”

While Rodgers has looked like a mere mortal this season, Bears coach Marc Trestman has little doubt he’ll get Rodgers’ best on Sunday. In the aforementioned 14 games, Rodgers has thrown for at least 289 yards in 10 of them and has thrown at least three touchdown passes eight times.

“I know that we’re playing, in my opinion, just an incredible quarterback,” Trestman said during his conference call with Packers beat reporters. “He’s one of the quarterbacks in this league I can’t watch enough of because he’s such a tremendous player — the way he carries himself, the way he delivers the ball, the way he moves. Nobody does it better than him finding the open guy, delivering the ball and making plays and extending plays. He does it all.”

YAC Attacked

YAC — yards after catch — has been a hallmark of Green Bay’s offensive philosophy for a quarter-century. The YAC attack, however, has vanished in these early stages of the season, and that’s an understated reason for Green Bay’s early-season offensive funk.

After five consecutive seasons in which the Packers finished in the top six in yards after the catch — including fourth last year, despite the parade of quarterbacks — Green Bay enters Sunday’s game ranked just 20th. According to STATS, from 2009 through 2013, Green Bay averaged 140.7 yards after the catch per game. This season, they’re averaging just 111.0.

In 2012, when Randall Cobb had a breakout season of 80 receptions for 954 yards, he averaged 5.69 YAC per reception, according to the league’s statistical database. That ranked 40th out of the top 134 players in receptions. This year, he’s averaging only 2.64. Cobb’s YAC average ranks 133rd of the top 160 in receptions.

In 2013, James Jones — a superb open-field runner despite his below-average speed — averaged 6.19 YAC per reception. Davante Adams, who was drafted to take Jones’ place, averages 3.57 YAC.

Only Nelson, who is averaging 5.57 YAC after 4.80 last year, is better compared to 2013 among Green Bay’s top offensive players.

“Our goal is to improve each and every week,” receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “From a YAC standpoint, that’s an area that we talk about all the time out of all of our guys. That’s something we certainly understand is a big part of what we do on offense. We want to improve in that area and we will continue to do certain drills to help us with that, to get the type of improve that we know we need.”

In 2013, Jermichael Finley averaged a whopping 9.50 YAC on his 25 receptions before suffering a career-threatening neck injury. This year, Andrew Quarless, who has all eight receptions from the tight ends, is averaging 4.12 YAC per reception. While Finley forced 10 missed tackles in his abbreviated season, Quarless hasn’t forced any.

“He’s had some good numbers and he’s getting open and he’s getting opportunities,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “The thing that I always talk about with him is yards after contact. That’s one area that we can get a lot better, in my opinion, because I think we’re very capable. He’s done a nice job of getting open and making the catches that are coming to him.”

ProFootballFocus.com counts missed tackles forced by receivers and tight ends. The numbers are staggering. Last season, Nelson (12), Jarrett Boykin (12), Jones (10), Finley (10), Cobb (six), Quarless (three), Brandon Bostick (two) Myles White (two) and Jeremy Ross (one) combined to force 58 misses. This year, they’ve forced six (Nelson, 3; Boykin, 2; Adams, 1; Cobb, 0; Quarless, 0), putting the team on a season-long pace of 32.

The lack of YAC is a big reason why the Packers couldn’t sustain drives against Seattle or Detroit. A few yards of YAC can be the difference between a first down and a punt, or a short gain and a long one. In fact, Green Bay has only two passing plays of 25-plus yards. Only one team (Miami) has fewer.

“Those usually don't come from some grand scheme or something like that,” Rodgers said. “A lot of times, it's just simple plays with perfect execution. You know, you hit a guy in the proper number, he breaks a tackle, he gets a little extra effort, and extra effort from a blocker — a receiver making a block downfield — or breaking a tackle and that's how those plays usually happen. Every now and then, there's plays like we did against the Jets — the 80-yard touchdown to Jordy where you kind of get the coverage you want, you put the ball where you want and Jordy makes a guy miss. But more often than not, it's a good route with a good ball and on the proper number, and the guy making a little extra effort there.”

Big, bad Bears

Good thing this won’t be a basketball game.

Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has the second-tallest trio of starting pass catchers in the game with 6-foot-4 receiver Brandon Marshall, 6-foot-3 receiver Alshon Jeffery and 6-foot-6 tight end Martellus Bennett. That’s a combined 19 feet, 1 inch.

“Big boys,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Experienced. Good with the ball in their hands. Definitely a challenge. It’s a challenge we’re up for.”

Only Tampa Bay, with 6-foot-5 receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans and 6-foot-4 tight end Brandon Myers, are taller at a combined 19 feet, 2 inches. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson (6-3), Randall Cobb (5-10) and Richard Rodgers (6-4) are 18 feet, 5 inches tall.

The Packers’ defensive backs aren’t exactly Smurfs but starters Williams and Sam Shields are 5-foot-11. Coming off the bench, Davon House is 6-foot and Casey Hayward is 5-foot-11.

“The corners are good, though,” Cutler said during a conference call on Wednesday. “They’ll come up, they can jam you, they got really good ball skills and they can run. Small guys can get in and out of cuts a little bit better. They can win one-on-ones. Our guys aren’t those type of guys, though.”

Unlike Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, who has blazing speed to go with his towering frame, Marshall and Jeffery are about using their size to their advantage. They caught 189 passes for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns last season by using their strength to create separation, using their length to create a greater strike zone for Cutler and then using their strength to get extra yardage. It’s that first factor that concerns Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. In calling the Bears’ passing a game a “grab-and-pull type operation,” Whitt sounded like an NBA coach lobbying the officials for calls between games of a playoff series.

“If they don’t grab and pull, Sam and Tramon can be as effective,” Whitt said. “I’m excited about the emphasis of the OPI (offensive pass interference), especially with this game. We’ll see how that’s taken into account because ... if they don’t (allow them to) do that, I’m very confident in what we do.”

That’s because Williams and Shields have the leaping ability to negate some of the Bears’ size. House, who gave up only one catch when lined up on Johnson last week, might be the wild card, and not just because he’s an inch taller than the others.

“He’s strong, and that’s beneficial because they’re a pull-and-push-off unit,” Whitt said. “The height thing, that doesn’t really bother me. He’s so strong that when they do push and pull, he should be able to regain his balance and withstand some of that, where some of the lighter guys might not be able to.”

History lessons

— Rodgers is on his way to joining some elite company.

With 106 passing yards against Chicago, Rodgers will become the 65th quarterback in NFL history to reach 25,000 career passing yards.

Rodgers will have gotten there faster than almost all of them. It took Dan Marino 92 games to hit 25,000, followed by Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner in 97 games apiece. This will be Rodgers’ 98th career game.

Rodgers has thrown for 24,894 yards in his career. Tommy Kramer ranks 66th in NFL history with 24,777, followed by Packers legend Bart Starr with 24,718. Cutler figures to pass Starr and has an outside chance of reaching 25,000 on Sunday; he’s thrown for 24,687 yards in his career.

QuarterbackTeam(s)Games to 25KCareer Yards
Dan MarinoMIA9261,361
Peyton ManningIND, DEN9765,778
Kurt WarnerSTL, NYG, ARI 9732,344
Aaron RodgersGB--24,894

— Chicago leads the all-time series 93-89-6, including a split of the two playoff games. That the series is this close is remarkable, with Green Bay’s last lead coming in 1932, when it held an 11-10-5 advantage. In the 1940s and 1950s, Chicago went 30-9-2 against Green Bay. Brett Favre helped turn the tide, with a 22-10 record against the Bears, and Rodgers is 10-3. Rodgers has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,075 yards with 21 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 97.4 against Chicago.

“There's been some great games in the rivalry,” Rodgers said. “A lot of bad blood over the years (but) maybe not as much the last few years. They've been a little bit more cordial games. But it'll be a good test for us. A tough environment to play in, but we've had some success down there the last couple times.”

— If the Packers can knock off the Bears, it will be the 700th win in team history. Not surprisingly considering they are two of the NFL’s flagship franchises, Chicago (732-535-42) and Green Bay (699-539-37) are the winningest teams in league history. The Giants (662), Steelers (571) and Redskins (566) round out the top five.

— At 1-2, the Packers are down but they’re not out. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the past two season after starting 1-2. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, 65 teams have had a losing record through three weeks but rebounded to qualify for the preseason. Five teams did it last season, with Carolina, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco joining Green Bay in bouncing back.

“To me, I don’t like to look back at other years and say, ‘Well, we did this this year or that year.’ I don’t like to look and do that,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “I like to look at the present. We have different guys this year. The group we have, I think everybody in this locker room likes the group we have. We know what we can do, especially on offense. We know what our ability is and what we can play up to.”

The other sideline

— Last season, Chicago allowed 478 points. That was 57 more points than any team in franchise history. So, it was out with the old and in with the new — especially on the defensive line. The Bears jettisoned just about everyone, including Julius Peppers, and retooled by signing defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Trevor Scott, and drafting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson (second round) and Will Sutton (third). That’s six new faces.

“They’ve got a lot of new guys,” guard Josh Sitton said. “Talking with T.J. (Lang) about it the other day, there’s only one guy on that defensive line that’s been there more than a few years (starting tackle Stephen Paea). They brought in a lot of new faces. That Houston kid, he’s a hell of a player. They have a rookie Sutton, he seems to be doing a good job for them. Good, young front. They like to rally to the ball so they’ll be a good challenge.”

Allen, an 11th-year pro, leads all active players with 128.5 career sacks. He has 16 sacks in 13 games against Green Bay. The unheralded Young leads the NFL with four sacks. That’s already eclipsed his career-high totals of three with Detroit in 2011 and 2013.

“He was a good player in Detroit,” Bulaga said. “I remember going up against him there. He’s quick, he’s a long-armed guy, very lengthy. He’s got good speed. He’s a good football player. When he was at Detroit, he had power and did a lot of good things.”

— Running back Matt Forte is one of the NFL’s most underappreciated stars. That statement is driven home by this stat: He’s one of three running backs in NFL history with at least 1,400 scrimmage yards in each of his first six seasons in the NFL. With 9,866 career yards from scrimmage, there’s a decent chance the seventh-year pro eclipses 10,000 yards against the Packers. Since entering the league in 2008, only Adrian Peterson (10,296) and Chris Johnson (10,114) have more scrimmage yards than Forte.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Forte,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s a multitalented guy. He’s a very good runner, can take the ball to the edge, can run with power when he wants to. They utilize the screen game and he’s always been a great screen receiver. If you get too tied into their big receivers, which you’re always concerned about, this is a guy that hurts you coming out of the backfield because he’s a great checkdown guy for them and he’s a great screen runner for them. He’s a very good all-around running back.”

In 11 career games against the Packers, he’s rushed for 700 yards (3.8 average) and four touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 453 yards (9.6 average) and one touchdown. In the two games last season, he had 235 rushing yards, 101 receiving yards and four total touchdowns.

When he tops 100 rushing yards, the Bears are 17-3.

“With Matt, it’s about not letting him get going,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think we’ve done a good job of keeping him in the pocket because, when he’s out in space, that’s when he does his most damage. He’s going to make his plays. He’s also very good at catching the ball out of the backfield, which is very important. We’ve got to limit his touches, try to put him in some bad opportunities for their offense (and) good opportunities for our defense and stop him before he gets going. He had some times last year, especially in Week 17, after watching it on film, where he made us pay.”

— Nobody was safe from Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman. Since entering the NFL in 2003, he was fifth in the league with 36 interceptions, second with 42 forced fumbles and second with eight pick-sixes. Tillman is on injured reserve for the second consecutive season, but that doesn’t mean Rodgers, Nelson or Eddie Lacy can rest easy.

Kyle Fuller, Chicago’s first-round cornerback, is off to an incredible start. He leads the NFL with three interceptions and entered the week tied for the lead with two forced fumbles.

“He's made a lot of plays on the ball, interceptions and forced fumbles,” Rodgers said. “He looks like Peanut (Tillman) out there the way he's punching at the ball and getting the ball out, last week especially. He's a talented guy. He doesn't play like a rookie.”

Added Nelson: “Great player, a guy who's already come in and made plays, whether it's interceptions or causing fumbles. I think he's already learned the Peanut Punch, so that's not fun for us. But the guy is able to play the pass and the run game, very physical making tackles, a guy you can see why they picked him early and is going to be a guy that we need to account for.”

— The Bears will be without two of their starting offensive linemen, center Roberto Garza and left guard Matt Slauson. They’ll be OK at center, though, with Brian De La Puente. He started 44 games for the Saints over the past three seasons. Taking over at left guard is Michael Ola, who was a two-year starter for Montreal of the CFL.

The rest of the line is excellent. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was signed away from New Orleans following the 2012 season to give Cutler some badly needed blind-side protection. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler. Right guard Kyle Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, was Chicago’s first-round pick last year and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Right tackle Jordan Mills, a fifth-round pick in 2013, started all 16 games as a rookie. He is cousins with Tramon Williams and figures to see plenty of Peppers.

“I think last year and this year both, our offensive line has been the steadiest group that we’ve had on this offense,” Cutler said. “In years past, we’ve had some ups and downs but, last year and this year, that is our bread and butter. Those guys upfront have done a great job with pass protecting. Last two weeks, run-wise, we’ve been a little bit off but we’ve been going against some defenses that are really good against the run. We couldn’t be happier with the offensive line.”

Noteworthy numbers

— Third-down performance is one of the most scrutinized facets of the game, and for good reason. However, that focus overlooks one important factor: How a unit plays on first down has a lot to do with how it fares on third down.

From that perspective, the play of Green Bay’s defense has been bewildering. In the first three games, the Packers rank third in the league in first-down defense, with opponents averaging 4.11 yards.

“It has more affect than what people realize,” Capers said. “Everybody talks about third down – and third down’s important, because you get off the field – but it’s understated in terms of how important first down is. If people are making a lot of yards on first down, it just affects what your second-down call is. You become limited because now they’ve got the ability if they want to run it in there or they want to run play-action pass or whatever. The more you can control first down, the more you can dictate the tempo of the game. I think for the first three games, that’s been one of our strengths is we’ve done a pretty good job on first down.”

Unfortunately, that hasn’t helped the third-down defense. The Packers rank 29th in the league, with opponents moving the chains 50.0 percent of the time.

— Matthews has 51 career sacks, three behind Aaron Kampman for fourth in franchise history and four behind Tim Harris for third place. He’s done some of his best work against the Bears. Even while missing both games against Chicago last season, he has 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception against the Bears. That’s more sacks than against any opponent, and it’s translated into the Packers going 7-1 in those games.

“He’s a heck of a player, causes a lot of disruption, super-athletic,” Cutler said. “They’re able to put him at the line of scrimmage, put him in the three-technique, put him at linebacker, put him in the nickel look. He is all over the place. Just have to be mindful of where he is at, at all times.”

— Chicago and New England entered the week tied for the NFL lead with eight takeaways. Green Bay has only three giveaways this season — tied for eighth-fewest in the league — though the botched snap against the Jets and Lacy’s fumble against the Lions were critical. The Bears are second with 35 points off of turnovers while the Packers are tied for sixth with 21 points.

— Remember when the “Monsters of the Midway” were known for their defense? According to STATS, the Bears’ 27-19 victory over the Jets last week marked the first time they had held an opponent to less than 20 points since Week 16 of the 2012 season — a span of 19 games.

Four-point stance

— Two of the great pass rushers in NFL history changed teams but not divisions this offseason. Green Bay signed Peppers, who was released by the Bears; Chicago signed Allen away from the Vikings.

Among active players, the Cardinals’ John Abraham leads the way with 133.5 sacks, followed by Allen (128.5) and Peppers (119.5). They’ve made a killing against divisional foes: Since 2010, Allen has registered an astounding 25 sacks while Peppers has 17.5 against the NFC North.

Peppers is taking it all in stride, though Matthews figured there’s a fire burning deep within his perpetually quiet new teammate.

“I’m sure it will be business as usual and I’m sure he would love to make a play or two,” Matthews said with a smile.

Peppers has been energized by the schematic changes. From 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end to interior rusher, from rushing the passer to playing coverage, he’s provided an immediate impact for a defense that needed another impact performer. He has one sack — the strip and recovery last week at Detroit — and a team-high six quarterback hits, by the team’s count. One of those hits jarred the ball loose from the Jets’ Geno Smith, though a replay review deemed it an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. Peppers ranks fifth in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing productivity metric, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap.

“I think he’s made progress every game,” Capers said. “You guys have heard me say a lot that you want your difference-makers to make two or three plays a game that influence a game. Well, you’ve seen him make two or three plays the last two games that certainly had a big impact on the game. You get a sack/fumble down inside the 10-yard line, that’s points off the board for them and a tremendous boost for your defense. He’s very capable and I like the way he’s rushing now and he’s becoming more familiar with what we’re doing. I hope he can stay trending on the course that he’s on.”

That’s Peppers’ intention. Even at age 33, he sees value in the every-day routine.

“It’s really like a trick you play on yourself,” Peppers said. “Can you get better than you were yesterday? That’s really it. To go out and try to get better every day. It’s simple as that.”

Allen, a four-time All-Pro and two-time sacks champion, is one of three players in NFL history with 10-plus sacks in seven consecutive seasons. He doesn’t have a sack this season but he’s got a combined 10 hits/hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He’s smart, he sets up things really well,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari, who will face Allen for much of the game. “You can’t get sacks if you’re not a good player. He’s been a good player, strictly based off his numbers, but he’s also very crafty. He’s got a lot of moves. He’ll throw the book at you. He has a motor to him. He’ll chase down plays, a very active, keep-going kind of guy.”

— With Williams and Chicago’s Tim Jennings, two of the league’s top ballhawks will be on the field.

Including playoffs, Williams and Seattle’s Richard Sherman lead the NFL with 20 interceptions since the start of the 2010 season. Williams has three career interceptions against the Bears, including two against Chicago in Week 2 of the 2012 season. This season, according to Pro Football Focus, teams have a passer rating of just 37.6 when targeting Williams.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Jennings is second with 13 interceptions (Sherman has 16) and tied for third with three pick-sixes. He has two career interceptions against Green Bay, including one in Week 17 of last season.

— These teams feature two elite kickers. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has made 18 consecutive field-goal attempts, the second-longest streak in team history behind his run of 23 in a row in 2010 and 2011. Chicago’s Robbie Gould is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. Considering the challenges of kicking at Soldier Field, he’s hit a remarkable 86.2 percent of his attempts. Mike Vanderjagt, who spent most of his career kicking in Indianapolis’ dome, is the best of all-time at 86.5 percent. Against Green Bay, Gould is 27-of-30 (90.0 percent).

— According to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers, rookie safety HaHa Clinton-Dix is the first Packers rookie defensive back to record an interception, a sack and a forced fumble in the first three games of his career since at least 1982. Clinton-Dix, Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson and Minnesota’s Harrison Smith are the only defensive backs in the league this season with at least one sack and one interception.

Quoteworthy

“No.” — Cutler, on whether he has a chip on his shoulder, considering he is 1-8 against the Packers with 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 65.1.

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.


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