While tight ends are playing an increasingly important role around the league, the position has all but evaporated in terms of importance to the passing game in Green Bay. Entering this week’s games, Packers tight ends have caught 23 passes. That’s the fifth-fewest in the league. Twenty individuals have more than Green Bay’s total. Andrew Quarless’ 15 receptions rank 33rd in the league at the position.
The Packers’ tight ends are on pace to catch 46 passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns this season. Under coach Mike McCarthy— who played tight end during his college days and has featured that position prominently during his tenure— the Packers entered this season averaging 71 receptions for 831 yards and seven touchdowns from their tight ends. Jermichael Finley, of course, had a big role in that, but it wasn’t exclusive. In 2007, with Donald Lee, Bubba Franks and David Martin in a timeshare, the Packers got 84 receptions for 960 yards and 13 scores from their tight ends. With Finley missing half of last season, Green Bay’s tight ends chipped in 70 receptions for 970 yards and six touchdowns.
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Rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers hasn’t done much, with seven catches for 111 yards in the first eight games of his career. His meager contributions shouldn’t be a surprise, though. In the 10 drafts from 2004 through 2013, there were only 28 tight ends who caught more than 20 passes in their rookie seasons. This season, the Jets’ Jace Amaro leads the rookie tight ends with 32 catches. No other rookie, however, has more than 13.
“I think the biggest challenge for guys coming into this system to deal with is you’ve got to be able to perform any duty that’s asked of you,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “You’ve got to perform as a blocker in-line, a blocker from the backfield and pass protector and, obviously, a route-runner. The thing that challenges these guys more than anything is having to make split-second decisions at the line of scrimmage and being exposed to as many adverse situations as possible. The last thing you want to do is be second-guessing yourself out there. Whatever you do, be decisive and play fast.”
The wide-open style of the college game has meant quarterbacks and receivers are better prepared for the NFL. The opposite is true for the tight ends, where, at most schools, they are asked to block or catch passes but usually not both. Rodgers, for instance, was an oversized wide receiver for his final two seasons at Cal and almost never lined up as a traditional tight end. That made his third-round status more of a projection than anything.
“I think with Richard’s case, you have to look at the prospect,” McCarthy said. “He has the ability to play in space but also you look at his physical qualities. To me, he was a no-brainer. That was an excellent pick, and I think he’ll just continue to get better.”
Maybe at some point, he’ll be as productive as Finley, but that’s not the case right now, which impacts how defenses scheme to stop Green Bay’s offense. And that goes beyond the obvious of Finley in the passing game. Finley never was a great blocker but the Packers gained 1.08 yards more per rushing attempt with Finley on the field than when he was on the sideline, according to league data. That was the biggest difference in the league by a wide margin, with Washington’s Jordan Reed providing an edge of 0.89 yards per carry.
“When Jermichael was playing, the defenses had to account for him, so they had to know where he was and it affected how they may have approached us,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said.
And that’s the challenge for defensive coordinator Dom Capers this week. While Bennett is second on the team with 47 receptions for 515 yards and is tied for the lead with five touchdowns, Capers also has to account for running back Matt Forte and receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The 6-foot-6 Bennett lit up the Packers for season highs of nine receptions for 134 yards in the Sept. 28 matchup. No team has a defender perfectly suited to stop someone with the size-speed combination of Bennett, Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but Green Bay seems particularly ill-suited for the challenge.
“He’s a big guy. He’s hard to get in front of, hard to stop. Going against somebody my size, he’s able to just shield you off,” said 5-foot-11 defensive back Micah Hyde. “It’s hard, especially with the league we play in as far as the defensive holding and stuff like that. You want to get your hands on him as much as possible but, talking to the refs, they say, ‘You’re touching too much. We’re going to throw the flag.’”
RODGERS GOES DEEP
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers does just about everything at a high level, of course, but the deep passing game has provided big-time impact.
Entering this week’s games, Rodgers is tied for the league lead with eight completions of 40-plus yards, according to STATS. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers has thrown five touchdown passes out of 19 passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield. That 26.3 percent touchdown rate is the best in the league. Rodgers and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (24.2 percent) are the only quarterbacks better than 17 percent.
“It starts with his accuracy. That’s the first thing,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “He’s accurate all over the field— short, medium, deep. His accuracy is rare. That’s the starting point. Then his ability to extend plays. You see lot of the explosive gains come from extended plays.”
That ability to extend plays was first and foremost on the mind of Bears coach Marc Trestman.
“They have speed, they catch everything, they’re physical, so their deep passing can be a short throw and run after catch,” Trestman said in a conference call on Wednesday. “Their deep passing game can be when Aaron scrambles around extending plays. Just like early in the game (against New Orleans) on the long pass (to Cobb), it was Aaron extending the play and guys making plays up the field. It comes in different ways. Certainly, keeping him in the pocket is not an easy thing to do because of his mobility and pocket awareness. It starts there. It starts with him.”
Rodgers has touchdown throws of 80, 66 and 59 yards to Jordy Nelson and 70 yards to Cobb this season. Rodgers has thrown 15 touchdown passes of 70-plus yards in his career. That’s tied with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre for most in NFL history. All of those have come since taking over as the starter in 2008. During that span, Eli Manning is a distant second with 10, followed by Drew Brees and Matt Ryan with eight.
It takes more than a cannon arm to make the long ball possible. In fact, it’s not of overwhelming importance.
“The deep ball traditionally is not caught that far down the field,” Van Pelt said. “Forty-two yards— if you drop back five steps and throw it with perfect timing, 42 yards is about all you should throw it. So, arm strength really has no bearing on explosive throws down the field. Now, you scramble out of the pocket and you get some extended plays, now you can throw the ball 50, 60 yards. But, generally speaking, the deep ball’s not thrown more than 42, 45 yards down the field.”
FORMIDABLE FORTE JOINING LEGENDS
Probably because of the Bears’ perennial mediocrity, Forte is one of the league’s most underappreciated stars.
There’s no denying the elite company he’s joined, though. Forte is the second-fastest player in NFL history to record 7,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards. Who did Forte join on that top-five list? Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas got there fastest (92 games), with Forte tying Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. Hall of Famer Marcus Allen was the fourth-fastest (98) and future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson was next (99).
“I’ve always a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Capers said. “Since I’ve been here, I just think he’s been where everything on their offense starts. He is a threat running, he’s an excellent receiver. Obviously, when he’s got 10 or 12 more receptions than their next receiver, they’re getting the ball to him a lot. He’s a very good athlete. He’s got a good combination of size and athletic ability. He’s so smooth that it doesn’t look like he’s moving that fast. He’s smooth and plays effortlessly.”
Since entering the league in 2008, Forte leads the NFL with 10,637 yards from scrimmage and is tied for the lead with 22 games of 150-plus yards from scrimmage. He is third in rushing and tops among running backs in receptions. With 562 rushing yards and 490 receiving yards through eight games this season, he’s got a chance to join Faulk and Roger Craig as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards in one season.
“Just means that I’ve obviously been playing at a high level,” Forte, in a conference call on Wednesday, said of the elite company he’s joined. “That’s the main thing that I want to do is just play at a high level and play consistently at a high level. To be compared to guys like that, of course it’s an honor. I’m humbled that somebody would even say something like that because those guys are obviously in the Hall of Fame and were great running backs. That’s what I aspire to be one day.”
Even with the talented and towering trio of Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett, it’s Forte who leads the team with 58 receptions. That puts him on pace for 116 catches, which would be the most ever by a running back. With that “smooth” running style described by Capers, it’s no wonder why Forte leads the NFL in yards after the catch.
“Matt’s effect on this football team starts in the locker room because he’s even-keeled, he’s extremely football-intelligent but also emotionally intelligent, so he really does set the tone for us the way he approaches each day, the work ethic he has, the focus he has, the way he practices,” Trestman said. “Then certainly on the field, because he is a triple threat. He’s a very good pass protector, very good running back in terms of being able to run inside and outside, and certainly has been great in space for us catching the football. We’re very grateful and feel very lucky to have him with us.”
The other sideline
— Statistically, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is having a sensational season.
During his five-and-a-half seasons with the Bears, Cutler has completed 61.1 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 84.7. This season, he’s completed 67.2 percent of his passes with a rating of 95.8.
None of his numbers mean a thing, however, until he can get it done against Green Bay, because the Bears haven’t been able to overcome the enormous disparity in their quarterbacks.
Including the 2010 NFC Championship Game, Rodgers has won his last eight games started and finished against the Bears. He’s thrown 19 touchdown passes against seven interceptions in those games. Cutler, on the other hand, owns a 1-10 record against Green Bay. That includes a 1-9 mark as a member of the Bears, with Cutler throwing 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions for Chicago.
“If I had to sum it all up, once Jay gets into a thing where he likes to wing that ball out, he continues to wing that ball out,” linebacker Mike Neal said. “I still think that he’s a good quarterback; I respect him as a quarterback. When he’s on, he’s on; when he’s off, he’s off.”
Cutler and Rodgers have faced off nine times in games both started and finished (Cutler didn’t finish the playoff game; Rodgers didn’t finish the 2013 game at Lambeau). Green Bay owns an 8-1 record. In those games, Rodgers has had the better quarterback rating eight times, with at least a 10.0-point margin in all eight and an average margin of plus-33.7. In five of the last six, Rodgers has won the quarterback rating by at least 32.5, including 68.7 when the teams met in Week 4.
“I like Jay a lot,” Rodgers said. “He’s a guy I enjoy competing against. He was great helping my little brother get acclimated to Nashville when he went to Vanderbilt. You always appreciate that as a big brother, the way that Jay stepped in and helped him out. Him and my brother are friends. I always enjoy seeing Jay and talking to him. He’s a great competitor. We’ve won some games against him, but it’s always a battle when he’s on the other side.”
— No different than for Green Bay’s starting defense, the bye provided a lift for some ailing members of the Bears.
That’s especially true on the offensive line. Through the first eight games, the Bears used five different starting combinations. Michael Ola, an undrafted free agent, has been the Bears’ version of a Swiss Army knife, having started games at left tackle, right tackle and left guard. For Sunday, the Bears will be without only guard Matt Slauson. Defensively, their starting linebacker trio has been intact for just two games. Shea McClellin missed three games; upon his return, Lance Briggs missed the next three. Both players will be ready for the Packers.
“It’s never easy to have a bye after you lost a couple games in a row,” Trestman said. “You don’t like going into a bye that week because there’s so much to think about. On the positive side, you’re exactly right. It gave our team the opportunity to get some rest and we’ll get some guys back this week; hopefully, as we move through the week, we’ll see that, and that should help us, as well.”
— What’s wrong with the Bears? It was a simple question, to which Forte had a simple answer.
“Losing the turnover battle is the main thing,” Forte said.
He’s right. When the Bears win the turnover battle, they’re 3-0. When they lose the turnover battle, they’re 0-5. The Packers won the turnover battle 2-0 when these teams met in Week 4, and it was a huge reason why Green Bay ran away to a three-touchdown victory. It’s not just the big mistakes. The Bears have been guilty of 12 false-start penalties, which ranks 26th in the league, after being flagged nine times for false stats all of last season.
“Being a disciplined football team, playing a clean game, (is the key to victory) because I think everybody is quite similar in talent,” Trestman said. “There’s an ebb and flow to that but, overall, we find week in and week out that teams are able to compete against every team and there really is no indication early on on who’s going to win the game beforehand because it’s proven that anybody can win on any week. If you can eliminate some of those issues that you have control of, you can put yourself in a position to at least be in the fourth quarter and win it.”
— With a 3-5 record, the Bears are one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Still, they’d be right back in the thick of things in the NFC North with a victory on Sunday. The Bears finish the season with five of their final seven games at home, and they haven’t played the Lions or Vikings yet.
“We’re not worried about the thick of things, quite frankly,” Trestman said. “We’re completely focused on the Packers. We’re not creating hypotheticals on what’s going to happen after this game. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us this week. We’re going up to Green Bay to play a very, very good football team. Our guys know that and they’re focused on that.”
Defensively, Chicago’s story reads a lot like Green Bay’s. In the Bears’ three wins, they’ve yielded a total of 52 points. In losing four of their last five before the bye, the Bears allowed 38 to Green Bay, 31 to Carolina, 27 to Miami and 51 to New England.
“I think where we are (defensively) is generally where we are week to week,” Trestman said. “Where we were after the San Francisco game or the Jets game or the Atlanta game is not where we were after the last two games. We haven’t played as well as we would like. We haven’t created any turnovers, we haven’t made the stops at the right time. That’s where we left off. We’ve worked very hard over the last week to see where we are with things, to clean up some of those things and mistakes that we made, and get some people back, as well. We hope we can improve. We’ve seen that we can do it because it’s shown up on tape during the course of our season.”
— My, how things have changed, Part 1.
The Bears lead the series 93-90-6, including a split of two playoff games. Here’s what’s remarkable about that total: When Chicago beat the Packers 30-10 on Oct. 25, 1992, at Lambeau Field, the Bears held an overwhelming advantage of 81-57-6.
With Brett Favre and Rodgers, however, the rivalry has been rewritten. Since Favre led the Packers to a 17-3 win at Chicago on Nov. 22, 1992, through the Packers’ 38-17 win at Soldier Field on Sept. 28 of this season, Green Bay has gone 33-12 against its rivals.
With a win on Sunday, Green Bay would pull within two games in the series. It hasn’t been that tight since 1939, when Green Bay beat the Bears 21-16 and trailed the series 18-17-4. Chicago then pulled away for the next seven-plus decades with a 7-1-1 stretch that included a 33-14 win in the 1941 playoffs.
Green Bay’s last lead? The Packers beat the Bears 2-0 at Soldier Field on Oct. 16, 1932. At that point, the Packers led the series 11-9-4. Chicago won the next six and has led the series ever since.
— My, how things have changed, Part 2.
Along with Green Bay’s 2-0 win — courtesy of Tom Nash’s blocked punt that ran through the end zone — the teams fought to a 0-0 draw three weeks earlier in Green Bay.
In six matchups in 1931 and 1932, the Packers outscored the Bears 21-16. That’s a combined 37 points. The Packers scored more than that by themselves in their Week 4 matchup this season, when neither team punted.
— The Bears swept the series, oddly enough, in 2007 — the year Green Bay went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game. Since then, Chicago has won just three of the 14 matchups. One of those was in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl. Another, of course, was at Lambeau Field last season, when Rodgers was knocked out of the game on the first series.
“We haven’t done enough to win in the games that we’ve lost,” said Forte, who has 1,324 scrimmage yards in 12 career regular-season matchups against the Packers. “We’ve either given up a big play at the end of a game or, in the red zone, (we’re) not scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals. And they’ve got really high-powered offense. You put somebody like Aaron Rodgers in a position like that, you basically leave it up to him. We can’t do that. We’ve got to keep him off of the field and control the clock.”
— The Packers are 7-1 in games immediately following a bye under McCarthy. That .875 winning percentage is tied for second with Andy Reid (14-2) in NFL history among coaches with at least eight post-bye games. With a win on Sunday, McCarthy would be 8-1 for a .889 winning percentage. That would equal Marv Levy (8-1) for the top spot.
The Packers have won five in a row after their bye, though the last three weren’t exactly convincing: 22-9 over the Calvin Johnson-less Lions in 2013, 24-20 on late comeback at Detroit in 2012 and 45-38 over San Diego in 2011.
The Bears also are coming off their bye; they have won four in a row after their bye by a combined 22 points and by never more than one score.
— After managing only two first downs and 27 total yards on their opening possession of the first three games, the Packers have stormed to first-drive touchdowns in four of the past five games. Against the Saints, the Packers won the toss, took the ball and scored. Against the Panthers and Dolphins, the Packers lost the toss, those teams deferred, and the Packers took the ball and scored. Against the Vikings, the Packers won the toss, took the ball and punted. Against the Bears, the Packers won the toss, deferred, and scored.
“Mike has gotten us in a rhythm early,” Rodgers said. “That does a lot for your defense when you’re giving them the lead when they take the field. So if we keep doing that, I think Mike’s going to expect us to score every time, but it’s definitely a big confidence boost when you take the kickoff and go down and put points on the board.”
— Cutler tops the Bears’ all-time record books in just about every meaningful statistic. That includes his 11 300-yard passing games. That’s the good news. The bad news is the Bears are just 4-7 in those games.
And here’s a stat that shows the state of the Bears’ quarterbacking history: Rodgers has 35 career 300-yard passing games; he’s 24-11 in those games, by the way. The top five quarterbacks on the Bears’ all-time list of 300-yard games have a combined 34.
— Their records notwithstanding, situational football is why the Bears are a dangerous opponent: The Bears are seventh in third-down offense (Green Bay is 12th), 20th in third-down defense (Green Bay is 30th) and fifth in red-zone offense (Green Bay is seventh). The Packers’ only advantage is in third-down defense, where they are eighth vs. Chicago being 11th.
— The Packers and Bears have dynamic receiving duos. Green Bay’s Nelson and Cobb have combined for 52.0 percent of the team’s completions, 62.0 percent of the receiving yards and 78.9 percent of the touchdowns. Their combined 15 touchdown catches is one behind Denver’s receiver-tight end duo of Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas for tops in the league.
Chicago’s Marshall and Jeffery each have seven 100-yard receiving games since the start of the 2013 season. The Bears are the only team with two receivers to hit the century mark seven times during that span.
— A major focal point for Green Bay is its run defense. Simply tackling better would help: The Packers have missed 70 tackles in eight games. That’s shown up in their two worst defensive performances, with 18 misses while allowing 36 points at Seattle and 13 misses while allowing 44 points at New Orleans. That’s 40.0 points and 15.5 misses in those two games compared to 18.5 points and 6.5 misses in the other six games.
Forte doesn’t force a lot of missed tackles — his 11 is tied for 32nd among running backs, according to ProFootballFocus.com — but it’s his ability to power for extra yardage that’s a concern to Capers.
“He’s big enough that he runs through tackles,” Capers said. “You see him turn those 2- and 3-yard runs into 5- and 6-yard runs because he’s falling forward. That’ll be one of the big challenges for us is to make sure we get multiple hits to where we’re not letting him bleed us for that extra 2 or 3 yards after the initial contact.”
McCarthy implored his defenders to play with more attitude this week. It’s not just being in the right gap to limit the running room for Forte. It’s about “whoop(ing) the man over you” and making the tackle, as McCarthy put it.
“A lot of run-stopping and having a great run defense is attitude,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Making big hits, talking a little bit and just kind of having a little swagger about yourself on defense. At times we can’t get lost in that and just go about doing our jobs. You have to do a little extra out there. You hate for something like that to kind of put it into perspective for you, but it’s a wake-up call and it’s a reality check. We have a great opportunity this week with a team that did a great job rushing against us last time, so we’re going to have our hands full just like we did last time. But we expect to fix all the shortcomings we had.”
— If the Packers make the playoffs and the Bears fall short, the difference will be Green Bay’s ability to take care of business at home. While the Bears are 0-3 at Soldier Field this season, the Packers are 3-0 at Lambeau Field. For the first time since joining the NFL in 1921, Green Bay has scored at least 30 points in each of its first three home games. The Packers are 29-2 when scoring at least 30 at home under McCarthy.
“We’ve got to make the most of that,” Rodgers said. “We’re 3-0 at home, 2-3 on the road. We’ve got to play better on the road and keep whatever mojo we’ve got going at home. The fans, obviously, the noise that they can make, paired with the potential cold weather, gives us a distinct advantage. But that doesn’t win games for you. You still have to execute (and) you’ve got to be playing the right kind of football going into these winter months, as we look toward our goal, which is winning the division, going to the playoffs, hosting a home playoff game. Everything’s right in front of us still, but we need to be playing the right way as we come down that stretch.”
— These are two of the best teams at catching the football and then making something happen with it. Entering this week’s games, Chicago is tied for No. 1 in the league with only six drops, according to STATS. Green Bay is tied for the ninth-fewest drops with 11. Of the 11 teams with the fewest drops, only New Orleans (fourth), Chicago (sixth) and Philadelphia (eighth) are in the top 10 in yards after the catch.
The Packers are 15th in YAC but they’re no slouches. Of the top 20 players in the league, according to STATS, 11 are wide receivers. The Packers are the only team with two of the top YAC-producing receivers, with Nelson (tied for 12th) and Cobb (17th).
— Forte has three consecutive 100-plus-yard rushing games against the Packers. The last back with four consecutive 100-yard games against Green Bay was Barry Sanders, from Dec. 4, 1994, through Nov. 3, 1996, according to STATS.
Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels, on facing a Bears team desperate for a win: “I think we’re in the same boat. We need a win. We should be angry. We should be desperate, too.”
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