Chicago’s Matt Forte.
Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles.
Those are the star running backs who the Green Bay Packers must contend with during the first three weeks of the season, led off by Forte and the Chicago Bears in Sunday’s season-opener at Soldier Field.
Run defense has been a chronic problem for the Packers. Since leading the league in 2009 and finishing 18th in 2010, 14th in 2011 and 17th in 2012, the Packers wound up 25th in 2013 and 23rd in 2014. Last season, the Packers were No. 31 against the run after Week 1 and never rose higher than No. 22.
If the Packers’ run defense can’t be better than defenseless, this team will have an incredibly difficult time getting past Seattle (Lynch) in the NFC or holding off the likes of Philadelphia (DeMarco Murray) or even Minnesota (Adrian Peterson).
“We know that we’re playing against three of the best running backs and three teams that are very committed to the run,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Thursday. “I think that’s one of the things you’re going to see about Chicago with John Fox, being a defensive head coach and his commitment to the run.”
That makes this a very good Week 1 test for Green Bay. The Bears are undermanned in the passing game with first-round pick Kevin White, who was supposed to replace Brandon Marshall, starting the season on the PUP list. And with Jay Cutler’s penchant for throwing interceptions – especially against Capers’ defenses – a conservative game plan focused on running the ball seems to be the way to go.
For what it’s worth, Capers liked what he saw from his run defense in the preseason.
“The only thing I have to go off of is the best thing we did defensively in the four preseason games is we played the run pretty well,” Capers said. “I think we had something like 90 rushes against us for (3.19 per carry), which I think is a good start. Now, you get the real test when you go against these three top running backs and people that are committed to running the ball. We know the importance of that so I’m hoping we can carry over what we did in the preseason into the regular season.”
Capers has reason to be optimistic beyond four preseason games. The Packers buckled down against the run during the second half of last season, timing that corresponds to Clay Matthews’ move into a part-time role at inside linebacker. During the final eight regular-season games, the Packers ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed (86.4) and seventh in yards per carry (3.60).
“Without looking too far forward, it looks like Chicago’s going to be a team built on the run (and), obviously, the Seahawks and Kansas City, with what Jamaal Charles has been able to do,” Matthews said. “I think that’s what everyone wants to see, where we’re at as far as stopping the run. We made a big turnaround last year after Week 8, but it’s a new year and a new start, so hopefully we start off the right way and resemble that defense you saw late last year.”
Everything in Capers’ defense is predicated on stopping the run. That was evident for most of the playoff games against Dallas and Seattle.
“I think you saw how much of a change that made in terms of how we played the two best running teams in the league in the playoffs,” Capers said. “Because we played the run pretty well, we were able to get nine sacks in those games and you didn’t see those teams get sacked that much. You have to play the run well if you want to pressure the quarterback. That’s always been our game is try to make the game more one-dimensional and try to get pressure on the quarterback. We were able to do that in those two games.”
The focus for now is on the versatile Forte, who ranks second in Bears history with 7,704 rushing yards. That number is third in the NFL since 2008.
“Those are obviously very good backs,” Raji said of the three-week gauntlet, “but in this league, you don’t last very long if you get to thinking ahead that quickly. Our No. 1 priority is to stop this running back this week. Matt Forte, he’s a very good back. That’s our focus right now. Hopefully we can get that done.”
12 > 6
Aaron Rodgers’ two monster games against the Bears last season is a major reason why Marc Trestman was fired at season’s end.
So was Jay Cutler’s play for Trestman’s two seasons in Chicago.
The play of Rodgers and Cutler neatly sum up why the Packers have dominated this series.
For his career against the Bears, Rodgers has thrown 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
As Chicago’s quarterback, Cutler has thrown 13 touchdowns against 22 interceptions.
As you’d expect, those figures have shown up in the win-loss column. Rodgers is 12-3 against the Bears, with one of those losses being the 2013 game in which he sustained a broken collarbone on the first series. Since being acquired by the Bears in 2009, Cutler is 1-10 against the Packers.
Somehow reforming Cutler, who is coming off a league-high 18 interceptions last season, is a franchise-defining job for new coach John Fox. Peppered with questions about Cutler at the Scouting Combine shortly after he was hired, Fox didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the mistake-plagued quarterback. But, for now, Cutler is their guy. Feast on this fact: The Packers, with the MVP Rodgers, drafted Brett Hundley; the Bears, with Cutler and first-round flop Jimmy Clausen, didn’t draft a quarterback.
The early returns with Cutler have been encouraging but, as Fox said, it’s a “production-based business” and the only production that counts is when the regular season begins.
“I’ve got four practice games to evaluate and we haven’t turned it over in those,” Fox said in a conference call. “Right now, on all the pop quizzes, I think we’ve done pretty good. Now the real tests come.”
The first real test comes against Cutler’s chief nemesis. He’s topped a 60 percent completion rate only three times against the Packers. He’s thrown an interception in every game and thrown more touchdowns than interceptions only once.
With that, Fox wisely has come to the conclusion that Cutler can’t be the main reason why the Bears win or lose. Beyond the decision-making, there’s this painful nugget: The Bears are just 5-8 when he throws for at least 300 yards. So, the Bears rolled out a different style of offense during the preseason. Cutler completed an impressive 75.8 percent of his passes but those 25 completions gained only 209 yards. It was dinking-and-dunking rather than the chucking-and-hoping that’s gotten him into so much trouble.
“Not really getting into that,” Cutler said when asked what had gone wrong against the Packers. “All that stuff is in the past. At this point, we’re concentrating on the game Sunday and we’re worrying about that one.”
From the outside, it would seem Fox’s decision to hire Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator and change from the Bears’ traditional 4-3 to a 3-4 would be a case of taking one step backward to potentially take several steps forward.
After all, Jared Allen at outside linebacker? What in the name of Aaron Kampman is going on here?
However, it’s worth remembering the quick transformation made by the Packers under Capers. With Bob Sanders running a 4-3 scheme in 2008, the Packers finished 22nd in points, 20th in yards, 26th against the run and 12th against the pass. In 2009 under Capers, the Packers surged to seventh in points, second in total defense, first against the run and fifth against the pass.
“He’s got skins on the wall,” Fox said of Fangio. “He’s been in the league a long time. So much of these gigs, people think it’s a one-man show. No different than players down in the locker room, a staff that works well together, understands the common goal and are talented at what they do. I think we’ve got an outstanding staff both in the coaching side and in the personnel side.”
For the Monsters of the Midway, the defense had lost its fangs. In Lovie Smith’s final season, the Bears gave up 277 points. In 2013 under Trestman and his defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, the Bears gave up a franchise-record 478 points — a whopping 201 more points. In 2014, the Bears gave up merely 442 points. Those are the two worst figures in franchise history.
To give Fangio some firepower, Pernell McPhee was signed away from Baltimore with a five-year, $40 million contract to play outside linebacker with Allen. Also added in free agency were defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, safety Antrel Rolle and cornerbacks Alan Ball and Tracy Porter. Chicago used a second-round pick on nose tackle Eddie Goldman. All will start on Sunday other than Porter (hamstring).
Ultimately, the difference between 4-3 and 3-4 is overblown. Look no further than Green Bay, which lines up in its base defense maybe one-third of the time.
“We’ve been a hybrid 3-4 for quite some time, even back in Denver,” Fox said. “We were more straight 4-3 back in Carolina because that’s what fit our personnel. Basically, everybody’s running the same stuff, it’s just what you call it. Plus, you spend so much time in a four-down front with nickel defenses, and I think that’s pretty much true around the league.”
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— It might take Fox some time to get things turned around in Chicago but there’s no knocking his track record. In 13 seasons as a head coach, he’s posted a 119-89 record (.572 winning percentage), with six division titles, six 11-plus-win seasons and seven playoff berths. He’s led his teams to three conference championships, including a Super Bowl with Carolina and Denver. In four seasons in Denver, the Broncos won four AFC West championships, making him one of only two coaches in NFL history to win a division title in each of his first four seasons with a team.
“I think the first time he walked through the doors and talked to this team, you could just sense that with him,” Cutler said of Fox’s winning history. “There’s a different energy about him. He’s got a winning philosophy, he’s done it in the past and he’s brought it here to Chicago. Guys bought in with him immediately. We’ve tried to improve on that each and every day.”
Fixing the Bears will be a tall order. In his first six seasons as Chicago’s quarterback, Cutler has led the Bears to one playoff berth and two winning records. On the other side of the ball, the Bears allowed the most points in franchise history in 2013 and the second-most points in franchise history in 2014.
Fox wouldn’t put a timeline on turning things around, which makes sense. Considering his winning history, he’s not under any immediate pressure to work a one-year miracle.
“I think changing the culture, changing how you do things, the expectation level” has been the biggest challenge, Fox said. “I’ve always been a believer in people live up and down to expectations. If you expect a lot, you’ll get a lot. Getting that entrenched. Obviously, it’s kind of identifying and acquiring the best human talent you can find and motivating them to be the best they can be every day.”
— For the past couple seasons, playing the Bears was like playing basketball against the Bulls, with towering Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett providing inviting targets for Cutler. However, Jeffery is hobbled by a calf injury that is leaving his status in doubt and Marshall is in New York with the Jets. The man who was supposed to take Marshall’s place, 6-foot-3 first-round pick Kevin White, is starting the season on the physically unable to perform list due to an injured shin.
That will leave Bennett as a prime target for Cutler. His first six seasons in the NFL were nothing to write home about, with just 140 receptions. But in two seasons with the Bears, the 6-foot-6, 273-pounder ranks third among NFL tight ends with 155 receptions, fifth with 1,675 yards and ninth with 11 touchdowns. Last season, he ranked first among tight ends with 90 receptions and third with 916 yards.
“He’s just a monster. I mean, he’s a big dude,” Cutler said. “He’s a hard cover. If it’s a linebacker, he’s probably going to run past you. If it’s a DB, he’s just so much bigger than everybody. You just kind of throw it up and you’re going to get a PI or he’s going to come down with it. And he’s a really smart football player. He knows the Xs and Os. He knows where the soft spots are. He does a lot of studying on his own. He wants to be better than he is right now, which is a good thing for us because he’s really, really good at this point.”
Bennett has played four games against the Packers while with Chicago. In three of them, he caught seven passes (out of 15 targets) for 96 yards. However, in Week 4 of last season, Bennett was a dominant force with nine receptions (out of 11 targets) for 134 yards.
“We understand he’s a big, physical tight end,” Matthews said. “He’s one of the playmakers on their team. At times, we’ll have people keeping an eye on him. He’s not just any tight end, any blocking tight end or receiving tight end. He can really do it all. As from years prior, you’ve seen he’s had games with 10-plus catches and 100-yard games and touchdowns, this and that. He’s a big threat as with a few of their – we talked about Forte – but a few of their receivers as well. They have a very explosive offense and a very good one that they maybe had last year is really coming into their own.”
— He might not be the Bears’ best defender but the biggest name is Allen. Since entering the league in 2004, his 134 sacks are tops in the NFL. In 14 career games against the Packers, he’s got 16 sacks.
Now, he’s making the move to outside linebacker. Will it be as seamless as Julius Peppers last season? Or will it be as awkward as Kampman back in 2009?
“I don’t expect him to be doing a whole lot of dropping (into coverage),” Rodgers said. “He has the potential to be a Hall of Fame outside rusher, not outside linebacker.”
Allen, who had 5.5 sacks last season when he took Julius Peppers’ place in the lineup, still fells the sting of the Packers’ two dominating victories last season. Fox and Fangio mean a fresh start.
“That’s what’s exciting about every year,” he told reporters in Chicago this week. “You never know how it’s going to go. You may start one way and finish the next. Every year, football, this is what we love to do. Week 1 is like that (Memorial Day) barbecue. For us, it’s the start of our summer. It’s the feeling of, ‘OK, it’s time to get down to business and really embrace it.’ I’m fortunate. This is my 12th one. You don’t get those every time, so I don’t take them for granted at all, understanding you could be done at any time. For me, that’s what Week 1 is about. Just throw a division rival on there, the Packers, and just trying to create something new and everything Fox and Fangio have been preaching around here, it’s time to go out and play and put it all out there.”
— The Bears will be contenders or pretenders by their Week 7 bye. After Green Bay, Chicago hosts Arizona in Week 2, visits Seattle in Week 3 and hosts Oakland in Week 4. Then it’s back-to-back road games against Kansas City and Detroit. The Packers were 12-4, the Cardinals 11-5, the Seahawks 12-4, the Raiders 3-13, the Chiefs 9-7 and the Lions 11-5.
— The Bears own a 93-91-6 edge in the series, with the Packers having a chance to tie the series for the first time since the early 1930s when Brett Favre is honored on Thanksgiving.
Having Favre and Rodgers at quarterback has gone a long way toward getting the Packers back into the series. McCarthy dropped three of his first four matchups against the Bears, including 26-0 in his Green Bay debut in 2006, but owns a 13-6 record. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Packers are 11-2 — a record that includes the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
“It’s still one of the best rivalries in sports,” guard T.J. Lang said. “Obviously, I think recent history has shown that we’ve had good success against them but we know there’s no carryover from previous years. Every year is different and they’ve got a new coaching staff, a new scheme. They’re probably feeling a little rejuvenated right now. We know it’s always going to be a challenge. These division games really come down to the fundamentals, the execution and really the attitude. Who wants it more?”
The Packers have won their last four treks to Chicago. In those games, Rodgers has been lights-out with a 115.2 passer rating on the strength of 12 touchdowns, three interceptions and an average of 302 passing yards per game.
— Chicago is 54-36-5 on opening day, with its win total ranked No. 1 in NFL history and its .600 win percentage ranked No. 4. Green Bay is 52-39-3 on opening day, with the win total ranked second and the .571 winning percentage ranked sixth. These teams will battle in Week 1 for the 32nd time. Chicago is 17-12-2 in the first 31 matchups. Incredibly, this will be just the third time Chicago has opened at home against Green Bay. The teams have split those two games, which were played in 1979 and 1981. The last time these teams met in Week 1? The Packers beat the Bears 21-15 on Sept. 13, 2009, on Rodgers’ game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Jennings.
— From 2006 through 2011, the Packers won all six road openers. They enter this game, however, with a three-game losing streak — their longest skid since losing five straight Week 1 games from 1985 through 1989. Those losses, of course, were to juggernauts: Seattle in 2012, San Francisco in 2013 and Seattle in 2014.
It hasn’t mattered to the Packers, but Week 1 does matter from a historical perspective. Since 1978, when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, Week 1 winners reached the playoffs 281 times and earned 168 division titles. Week 1 losers qualified for the playoffs only 129 times and won their division on 74 occasions.
“We find a way to make it happen,” Rodgers said of overcoming slow starts. “We make it a little difficult on ourselves. We talk about how important these games can be. We lost to Seattle last year on the opening weekend. That game (the NFC Championship Game) would have been at home last year had we won that one. So, it’s things like that that come around the end of the season.”
— This will be Green Bay’s only NFC North game until Week 10. The Packers have fattened up on divisional matchups. Since 2006 – McCarthy’s first season – Green Bay is 40-13-1. Only New England (42-12) has a better record. The Packers and Patriots are the only teams with a winning divisional record in each of the past nine seasons.
— The Packers, as usual, are young. According to the Philly Voice, Green Bay had the third-youngest team in the NFL as of Saturday’s roster cutdown, with an average age of 25.49. That’s right in line with past seasons – 25.62 and sixth-youngest in 2014, 25.42 and sixth-youngest in 2013 and 25.65 and fifth-youngest in 2012. The Bears, not surprisingly with a new regime, are trending younger, as well. After fielding one of the five-oldest teams in each of the past three seasons, the Bears checked in at No. 19 with an average age of 26.21 — a half-year younger than last season.
— A quick-hitter in all three phases: Eddie Lacy has scored in all four career games against the Bears. … Matthews has 6.5 sacks in his last four games against the Bears. … Mason Crosby needs 18 points to break Ryan Longwell’s franchise record of 1,054 career points.
— Cutler threw 18 interceptions in 561 passing attempts last season. Over his last three seasons combined, Rodgers has thrown 19 interceptions in 1,362 attempts. Throw in six lost fumbles and Cutler was responsible for 24 giveaways. The Packers tied for the league lead with just 13.
— The Bears used to dominate on special teams but not so much last season. In the final Dallas Morning News rankings, Chicago was 26th and Green Bay 32nd. Both teams, however, are strong at kicker.
“I think it’s just the experience,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said when looking at his unit. “You can’t go to the store and buy $200,000 worth of experience. The only way you can get experience is you’ve got to play.”
Chicago’s Robbie Gould has a career success rate of 85.6 percent, which ranks sixth in NFL history — pretty darned good considering his home stadium’s notorious field conditions. Crosby has made 83.3 percent the last two seasons after hitting just 63.6 percent in 2012.
— The Packers scored a stunning 93 points in routing the Bears twice last season. Rodgers, of course, led the way with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in those games. Can he possible repeat that feat?
“Kevin Garnett said in the (NBA) Finals a couple years ago, ‘Anything is possible,’” Rodgers said. “Anything is possible when you’re playing the first game of the year. There’s going to be unscouted looks. There’s going to be potentially guys running open; potentially guys running free in the backfield at you. You just have to be able to react quickly to everything. We’d like to think that we can be efficient and be successful from the start but there’s always moving pieces and things you’ve got to work through. Hopefully we can work through them enough to get the win on Sunday.”
— With Forte and Lacy, these are two of the best all-around backs in the NFL. With 1,038 rushing yards and 102 receptions for 808 yards, Forte joined San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson as the only backs in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 100 receptions in a season. The reception total set an NFL record by a running back and his 1,846 scrimmage yards ranked third in the league.
“He's such a productive player, not only being able to run the ball but also catching it out of the backfield,” Matthews said. “He presents a number of problems for defenses. We just have to be aware of that, knowing that he's going to get his fair share of carries, as well as keep an eye on him in the screen game or out of the backfield. It does present problems. It has since we've played him.”
— After intercepting six passes during a brilliant rookie season in 2012, stardom was predicted for Casey Hayward. However, hamstring injuries limited him to only three games in 2013 and he had one interception while playing in all 16 games (one start) in 2014. Asked if Hayward can get back to his 2012 level this season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said Hayward really hasn’t had a drop-off.
“Everybody else has been talking about Casey not doing this or that, but I’ve never said that,” Whitt said on Thursday. “When he’s been out there, he’s played at the same level from his rookie year. He’s played at a high level. I’ve never said he’s taken a step back and I don’t believe he’s taken a step back. The snaps that he played last year, he had more turnovers than anybody on our defense (other than Julius Peppers). I’m fine with Casey. I’m excited to see him play.”
— The equalizer for the Bears could be the change in coaching staffs. The Bears know the Packers inside and out. Not so much for the Packers, who can only guess based on the track records of Fox, Fangio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Rodgers and Fox, however, downplayed that factor.
“I don’t know. Unscouted looks on both sides,” Rodgers said. “We only played our first-team offense I think less than 50 snaps. So, I don’t know that you can take that film and really learn a whole lot. They obviously did some different things in the preseason. That’s what the preseason is. Not a lot of real football. There’s not a lot that carries over. There’s a lot of unscouted looks when you get out there. I’m sure they’ll have a plan. They’ve been able to work on it for a while. And they’ll be ready.”
THE LAST WORD
Goes to Aaron Rodgers, on high expectations: “Yeah, we love it. That’s how we want it. This is Titletown, there’s a reason that’s the nickname. Expectations are always high from the fans, from you guys, from the fantasy football owners, from the pundits out there. We like it like that. We’re a team that has a lot of confidence in itself. We don’t get too high, too low from the hype outside. We just try to focus on things we can control and that’s the preparation and the cohesiveness we have in this locker room and go out on the field and try to put together a good product.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.