World’s Best Preview: The Brains and the Goon in Middle of Packers’ Defense

Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji are setting the tone in the middle of the Packers' defense. Plus, dissecting last week's outside-the-pocket success, the Bears are showing some fangs, the "new" Jay Cutler, the slumping Randall Cobb and much, much more in a preview overflowing with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere else.

Sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The Green Bay Packers enter Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Bears ranked 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game and 23rd in rushing yards allowed per carry.

That seems like a danger sign. Chicago’s star running back, Matt Forte, is expected to play after missing the past three games with a knee injury. He rushed for 141 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry against the Packers in Week 1, and he’s had at least 110 rushing yards with a 5.0-yard average in four of the last five matchups.

Green Bay’s run defense, however, has turned into one of the strengths of the team, and it starts with perhaps the best position group on the team — the defensive line.

“Our defensive line has done an excellent job,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s where it all starts, as we know. You just go back to the Viking game. Staying healthy is always the No. 1 factor. It’s an excellent group. It’s a group that obviously has maturity and veteran players and a good mix of younger players. We’re going to need to get them big tomorrow night.”

With the return of B.J. Raji and the continued growth of Mike Daniels, the Packers have a superb duo. According to the coaches’ stats, Daniels has 44 tackles. That’s almost as many as the next two defensive linemen combined. According to league data, opponents are averaging 0.85 yards less per rushing attempt with Raji on the field compared to when he’s on the sideline.

“B.J.’s a guy who’s going to do all the right things,” Daniels said. “It’s funny, it’s almost as if he’s the brains and I’m the goon. He’ll call the play out and I’ll just go and try to destroy the play, and vice-versa. If I see something, I’ll call it out and, if it comes to him, he’s going to try to disrupt it. We’re learning from each other. We’re learning from each other, man, and he’s a very, very smart guy. His study habits are great. Right before the snap, he’ll call something out and he hasn’t been wrong yet. I just try to bring to the table my intensity, my passion and my work ethic and we just feed off of each other.”

Daniels, who is in the final year of his contract, has been an every-down menace. He’s got four sacks and is tied for second on the team with 11 quarterback hits.

“He’s always been a good run player, he’s always been a good, physical rusher,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “As players mature and get better, they get better at each. Mike takes everything he does very seriously and he tries to build on his past successes. We hope he’s going to be better next year. He’s very conscious of trying to build off of the things that he did well from the year before. The things that he didn’t do well, he wants to know them and see them and look at them and study them and how to improve on those. He’s a real conscientious guy that way.”

Along with the Chicago game, Green Bay’s run defense got routed by the Broncos in Week 8. Otherwise, the Packers have played well every week. In the last three games, the running backs for Carolina, Detroit and Minnesota combined for 164 yards on 61 attempts — just 2.7 yards per carry. Carolina and Minnesota ranked No. 1 in rushing entering their games vs. Green Bay.

It's not just Daniels and Raji. Datone Jones is having by far his best season with three sacks and a team-high 12 quarterback hits. He's been playing so well that he's been taking snaps at outside linebacker to get him more playing time. Plus, Letroy Guion is starting to settle in following his suspension and Mike Pennel looks like a potential starter.

Added together, Green Bay has one of the better defensive lines in the league. That group was unblockable against Minnesota. It will need to play to that level on Thursday and beyond.

“We’ve shown that we can do it,” Daniels said. “We just have to make sure that we keep doing it. We showed that it can be done. We have to make sure we get it done every week.”

RODGERS GETS OUT OF THE POCKET

Denver, Carolina and Detroit found a winning formula against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

For the most part, those teams kept Rodgers contained in the pocket. That was the big difference for Green Bay’s passing game against Minnesota on Sunday. Rodgers was able to get out of the pocket and add a big-play element that had been lacking. On three key third-down plays, Rodgers got outside and threw passes resulting in a combined gain of 114 yards.

“That’s our game,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. “We get out of the pocket when we can.”

Those three plays represented 31.5 percent of the Packers’ offensive production.

“It’s just a feel thing,” Rodgers said. “When nobody’s open, it’s knowing when to extend the play and when to eat it. Was able to kind of move both ways — right on the throw to James on the touchdown and left on the throw actually prior on the same drive, was just a kind of poor rush lane that allowed me to get outside and a good block by our back. I’m always looking to extend plays when I can and be smart about the time clock and continue to play that way.”

First, on a third-and-15 late in the first half, Rodgers escaped to his right and fired a bomb to Jeff Janis that resulted in a 50-yard penalty for pass interference. That put the Packers in position for a touchdown and a 16-6 lead at halftime. There was nothing magical on this one. Janis was going deep from the instant the ball was snapped. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga pushed his man 11 yards past the line of scrimmage, creating the lane for Rodgers to escape.

Second, late in the third quarter, Rodgers escaped to his left and fired a laser up the left sideline to James Jones, who made a juggling 37-yard catch. With left tackle David Bakhtiari taking defensive end Everson Griffen inside and running back Eddie Lacy picking up a blitzing linebacker and shoving him inside, Rodgers was able to easily extend the play by moving to his left. Initially, Jones’ route took him 9 yards to the Packers’ 44. When he saw Rodgers escaping, he took his route upfield and got beyond cornerback Xavier Rhodes for a catch at the Vikings’ 28.

Third, on the same drive but on the first play on the fourth quarter, Rodgers moved to his right and fired a bullet to Jones, who made an amazing catch at the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown. When Rodgers set up in the pocket on this third-and-9, the only player that was open was tight end Richard Rodgers but he probably wouldn’t have been able to get the first down. With the defensive end taking his rush too far inside, Rodgers escaped to the right. At the point of Rodgers’ escape, Jones is covered like a blanket by cornerback Terence Newman on a post route at the 7-yard line. When he sees Rodgers moving to his right, Jones takes his route back to the outside to stay in Rodgers’ line of vision. By the time Rodgers fires the ball past the “3” on the 30-yard line, Jones is about 5 yards beyond Newman in the end zone but only one step ahead. Rodgers threw a bullet for a 27-13 lead.

“It’s choreographed and it’s well-rehearsed,” Van Pelt said. “We do it multiple times throughout every day in practice. It’s second-nature for us as a receiving corps. If he can extend the play, there’s a great chance for explosive gains.”

So, why was Rodgers able to escape the pocket against a tremendous Vikings defense but had been unable to do so during a three-game losing streak?

“I think it’s luck of the draw,” Van Pelt said. “Guys get out of their lanes all the time. You go back and look at New England (last year), their No. 1 point against us was keeping him in the pocket and it didn’t happen. And that’s one of the better teams in the league making it a point of emphasis and not being able to get it done. It’s just the ebb and flow of the game.”

MONSTERS SHOWING SOME FANGS

When McCarthy points to these Bears being vastly improved since their Week 1 encounter, he’s not just spewing coach-speak.

The Bears dropped their first three games en route to a 2-5 start. Since then, they went on the road and beat San Diego 22-19 and St. Louis 37-13 before being edged at home by Denver 17-15 last week.

Here are eight key statistical areas where the Bears have made big strides. The first number set of numbers is for the entire season, the second set of numbers is what they’ve done and where they rank over the past three games:

Opponent points per game: 25.1 (22nd) to 16.3 (fourth)

Opponent passer rating: 97.5 (23rd) to 85.8 (13th)

Opponent passing yards per attempt: 6.8 (15th) to 6.3 (eighth)

Total offense: 352.1 (16th) to 396.7 (eighth)

Yards per play: 5.4 17th to 6.2 (fifth)

Passer rating: 88.7 19th to 104.0 (fifth)

Completion percentage: 62.7 (22nd) to 66.7 (ninth)

Yards per pass attempt: 7.0 (10th) to 8.8 (third)

As you see from those numbers, the big difference has been scoring defense. During the last three games, Chicago is yielding almost nine fewer points per game than its season-long average, with neither the Chargers, Rams nor Broncos even reaching 20 points. That’s the first time since 2012 that the Bears have held three consecutive opponents to less than 20.

“I think it’s just more comfort in the scheme,” first-year Bears coach John Fox said. “The game’s about playing fast and I think the more you understand your scheme, regardless of what phase of the game it is, you play faster. We’ve had some personnel changes as well guys are getting more comfortable in the scheme.”

The personnel changes have been dramatic. After Week 3, the Bears traded defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Jared Allen to Carolina. Two defensive backs who started against Green Bay, cornerback Alan Ball and slot Sherrick McManis, have been replaced by eight-year veteran Tracy Porter and undrafted rookie Bryce Callahan, respectively. Those have been big upgrades. According to Pro Football Focus’ best estimation at coverage responsibilities, Ball (73.7 percent) and McManis (76.0 percent) were allowing about three-fourths of passes to be completed. In contrast, Porter is at 50.0 percent and Callahan at 61.1 percent.

“They’re a lot better,” Packers receiver James Jones said. “I would say they’re a lot more confident. I don’t know if it’s the guys being comfortable in the scheme now with the new defensive coordinator, but they’re moving a lot faster, they’re all getting to the ball and you can tell that they’re playing a lot more comfortable. A lot of guys back there are making plays, so it will be a good challenge for us.”

INSIDE THE BEARS

— Chicago’s Jay Cutler, in a word, has been horrible against the Packers.

In 12 career regular-season games against Green Bay, Cutler has thrown 15 touchdown passes vs. 22 interceptions and has a passer rating of 67.2. Throw in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, when Cutler departed with an injury, and his record falls to 1-12 with 15 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

At age 32 and in his ninth season, is it really possible that Cutler — the NFL’s two-time interception king — has turned over a new leaf? Perhaps not, but he has been tamed by offensive coordinator Adam Gase. With 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, Cutler for the first time in his career has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of better than 2-to-1. His 92.7 passer rating and 7.6 yards per attempt are also career-best rates.

With that, Fox’s words during a Tuesday conference call stood in contrast to what he said at the Scouting Combine, when he couldn’t have been more tepid in his support for Cutler.

“He’s been all-in,” Fox said. “The minute we got here, of course, there was an evaluation process as far as commitment contractually and all that kind of fun stuff. And then once we went through all of that, I think he’s been up here a lot. He works very hard at the mental side of things. He’s very smart. He went through a stretch where he missed six quarters — the second half of Arizona as well as the whole Seattle game to a hamstring injury. He’s shown a lot of toughness to all of his teammates and the coaching staff. He’s working extremely hard. He’s assumed a leadership role on that side of the ball. I’ve got nothing but praise for him at this point.”

While Cutler will not have tight end Martellus Bennett, he is expected to have top receiver Alshon Jeffery at the ready. When healthy, Jeffery has been tremendous. He missed last week’s game with a groin injury. Before that, he had a three-game stretch of 28 receptions for 414 yards (14.8 average) and two touchdowns.

“What I see is Jay Cutler playing some of the best ball that I’ve seen him play,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think he’s settling in and has a good feel for his role in this offense. Jeffery plays big. He’s a big target. Cutler’s got confidence in him. He’ll throw the ball anyplace because he knows Jeffery can go up and win because he’s got such a large catch radius and does a nice job of going up the field and catching the ball. Cutler can make all those throws. He’s got as good of an arm as anybody in the league. I think that the confidence level you saw them playing with is probably as good as I’ve seen.”

— Sunday’s victory was huge for the Packers, who hadn’t gone on the road and defeated a team that finished the season with a winning record since 2012. The Bears, too, have some momentum coming from road success. Of Chicago’s four wins, three have come away from Soldier Field, with an 18-17 win at Kansas City in Week 5, a 22-19 win at San Diego in Week 9 and a 37-13 romp at St. Louis in Week 10.

So, perhaps the Bears won’t crumble at Lambeau Field like they have in the past. Green Bay won last year’s matchup at Lambeau 55-14. Other than the 2013 game, which Chicago won when Rodgers exited with a broken collarbone sustained on the first series, the Bears haven’t won in Green Bay since 2007.

“Everybody talks about confidence but something good’s got to happen to develop confidence,” Fox said. “I don’t care what you’re doing. I think some success on the field, which usually includes winning, breeds confidence. I think we’re more of a confident football team right now than we were to start the season, just because we hadn’t done anything yet.”

— The face of the Bears’ defense is outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. After starting just six games in four seasons with Baltimore, he signed a five-year contract with Chicago during the offseason and leads the team with five sacks. Only McPhee and Kansas City’s Justin Houston have five sacks and an interception this season, and McPhee is the first Bears defender since Julius Peppers in 2010 to have five sacks and a pick in the first 10 games of a season.

In the first game against Green Bay, he had six tackles but no sacks or quarterback hits.

“From playing him last time, he’s a big, strong, fast guy,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “He’s a really good football player. He’s real instinctive. You can’t give him enough compliments because that’s how good of a player he is. He plays the run well, plays the pass well. Just solid overall.”

— The possible return of Forte should help the Bears’ chances, but rookie running back Jeremy Langford has been impressive in his three starts. Langford, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State, had back-to-back games of 70 rushing yards and 70 receiving yards (72 rushing, 70 receiving vs. San Diego and 73 rushing, 109 receiving vs. St. Louis). How impressive is that? Among rookies, only Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers accomplished that feat in Bears history, and Langford is one of eight rookies league-wide to do so since 1960.

“Good football player,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s definitely a three-down back, his ability to win on first and second down and also on third down. So I think that’s the first thing that I always look for in evaluating a running back. And he’s been extremely productive for them. I have the utmost respect for Matt Forte — I don’t know if he’s going to go this week or not — (but Langford) definitely gives them an excellent combination.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— Once upon a time, the Bears held a commanding 80-57-6 advantage in the series. Everything changed once Brett Favre took over at quarterback. With Favre and Rodgers, the Packers have turned the tide by going 35-13. Entering Thursday night, Chicago’s lead is down to a scant 93-92-6. The series hasn’t been tied since 1933, when it was 11-11-4.

“That’d be pretty sweet,” Rodgers said. “It’s been a long history. It’d be nice to be on the other side of that after we let that Detroit streak come to an end.”

— In 16 career starts against the Bears, Rodgers owns a 13-3 record — with one of those losses coming when he exited with a broken collarbone on the opening series of the 2013 game at Lambeau, which Chicago won 27-20. Rodgers owns a passer rating of 108.1 in those games but has been off the charts as of late. In his last three games against the Bears, he’s had passer ratings of 140.5, 145.8 and 151.2 with a combined 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.

— Rodgers and Cutler are climbing the NFL’s all-time passing charts. Rodgers moved into 39th place all-time during the frantic comeback at Detroit and has 31,060 career passing yards. Cutler is 41st with 30,059. At Minnesota, Rodgers passed Boomer Esiason and moved into 20th place all-time with 249 touchdown passes. Drew Bledsoe and Carson Palmer are tied for 18th with 251. Cutler is 41st with 196 touchdown passes; only 38 have thrown for 200.

— The Bears are 18-6 when Forte rushes for 100 yards. However, Chicago is just 1-3 against the Packers, including a loss in Week 1 when Forte ran for 141 yards.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

— Eddie Lacy started the season with a bang by rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown in the opener at Chicago. He’s scored once in all five career games against the Bears, with 507 total yards in those games. He appears to be back on track after a hard-charging 100 rushing yards at Minnesota on Sunday. He had only 78 yards in his previous four games.

“I just made up my mind and I went with it,” Lacy said. “I didn’t try to make too much of a play or try to make a cut where a cut wasn’t. Pretty much just seeing it and just hit it. And I had lower pad level, so when I ran into cuts, I was still able to fall forward.”

He’ll challenge a Chicago run defense that hasn’t been part of the Bears’ recent improvement. Chicago ranks 25th with 123.7 rushing yards allowed per game and 29th 4.63 yards allowed per carry. It’s allowed at least 133 rushing yards in five games, including 170 in last week’s loss to Denver. The Bears are 0-5 in those games.

“We struggled a little bit this last week against Denver vs. the run,” Fox said. “I’m sure we’ll get a dose of it on Thursday.”

— In the victorious Packers locker room on Sunday, receiver Randall Cobb several times pointed out that the receiving corps “left some plays out on the field.”

Cobb no doubt was talking about himself. Over the last three games, Cobb has caught 11-of-31 targeted passes with five drops.

“That’s what great players do,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said of Cobb’s personal frustration. “They push themselves to be the best. When they’re not, there’s no one to be disappointed in but themselves. That’s how he felt after that game. But he’s got to flush that, let that go and understand that’s part of the game. You’ll have these ebbs and flows throughout your career. You just have to fight through it and come out the other side.”

We’ll have a video later today for more on the subject.

— Since entering the NFL in 2008, Forte leads the league with 12,198 yards from scrimmage and 25 games with 150-plus yards from scrimmage, and is fourth with 8,252 rushing yards. Among running backs, he ranks first with 468 receptions and second with 3,946 receiving yards. He is one of 14 players in NFL history with 8,000-plus rushing yards and 3,500-plus receiving yards. He was the second-fastest to those thresholds, doing it in 111 games — four behind Marshall Faulk.

— Among active coaches, Fox ranks fifth with 123 career wins while McCarthy ranks eighth with 101. McCarthy is 3-1 against Fox.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— Robbie Gould and Mason Crosby are two of the best kickers in the NFL.

Gould has made 23 of his 26 field-goal attempts this season. His career success rate of 85.8 percent ranks seventh in NFL history, and he’s No. 3 all-time with 74.1 percent accuracy from 50-plus yards. Those are incredible feats considering he plays so many end-of-season games in poor weather and his home stadium of Soldier Field is notorious for its poor playing surface. His career rate of 83.8 percent in December and January isn’t far off of his overall mark.

Crosby, meanwhile, bounced back from his flubbed game-winning attempt vs. Detroit by hitting all five attempts at Minnesota on Sunday. He became the first kicker in league history to make at least five field goals from 40-plus yards in a game without a miss. After his dismal 2012, Crosby has made 86.5 percent of his field-goal attempts the past two-plus seasons. That includes 82.1 percent in December and January.

That’s noteworthy because of Thursday night’s forecast: low 40s with wind and rain.

“Some of it is just it helps playing in it all the time,” Crosby said of kicking in poor conditions. “We get out and try to practice in it as much as possible. I won’t say you get used to it as far as the temperature but you learn how to manage it. You learn how many kicks do I need on the sideline, what do I need to do to stay loose? Things like that. You learn from experience all those little details. When it gets cold, you have to focus, be very detailed. It’s a trained response, in a sense.”

— This isn’t great news for a Packers passing game that has only sporadically produced with any consistency after Week 3: Chicago leads the NFL by holding six of its 10 opponents to less than 200 passing yards.

Rodgers, on the other hand, has gone from 73.6 percent accuracy in September to 62.6 percent in October to 54.6 percent in November. That represents the worst month of his career, though he could turn it around against the Bears. His 69.4 percent marksmanship vs. Chicago is his second-best against any opponent he’s faced more than twice.

— Something’s got to give: Green Bay’s offense ranks 19th in third-down efficiency at 36.5 percent while Chicago’s defense ranks 30th by allowing opponents to move the chains 43.9 percent of the time. Green Bay has been at 50 percent or better just once this season — 6-of-10 for 60.0 percent at Chicago in Week 1.

The Packers have gone three-and-out 26.7 percent of the time, the fifth-worst rate in the league. What does one first down mean for the Packers? On drives in which they move the chains, they score 51.8 percent of the time.

“I think any time you get the defense above six plays in a drive, you have the chance to tilt the field a little bit your way,” McCarthy said. “Defenses obviously want to get off the field in three plays, particularly how people call defenses may factor into that (and) how they can utilize their personnel and the schemes they try to attack you with. Definitely the longer you keep the defense on the field, the advantage goes to the offense.”

— The Packers caught a break with the Bears ruling out Bennett. Since the start of 2013, Bennett ranks second among all tight ends with 205 receptions and fourth with 2,100 yards. Bennett had five catches for 55 yards and a late touchdown in the Week 1 game vs. Green Bay. The Packers have had their moments against elite tight ends this season but yielded six catches for 106 yards and a 47-yard touchdown vs. Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph last week.

THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...

Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett on Brett Favre, who will be honored at halftime of Thursday’s game. “It’s rare when you get an opportunity to play with a special player like that, a guy that inspires you. It was unique. It was unique. I feel truly blessed for having an opportunity to play with a teammate like that who gives you an opportunity to make plays. You go back and you look, he was the ultimate ironman. He always showed up. That’s a big part of playing in the National Football League. Coming in and getting it done on a day-to-day basis. That was Brett. One of the ultimate playmakers.”

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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