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World’s Best Packers Preview: Quarterbacks in ‘TNF’ Spotlight

Given the injury reports, this game will be decided by the play of Chicago's surprisingly efficient Brian Hoyer and Green Bay's surprisingly inefficient Aaron Rodgers. Plus, another stud rookie back, deep looks inside the Bears and much more in the biggest in a preview overflowing with stats, notes and quotes you won't find anywhere else.

The Chicago Bears’ offensive game plan for Thursday night’s game against the Green Bay Packers couldn’t be more obvious.

Only one team in the NFL has passed the ball more frequently than the Bears have through the first six weeks. The Packers, meanwhile, will be without their three top cornerbacks.

That’s an invitation to throw the ball for a team that hasn’t needed an invitation to throw the ball.

“When you look at the Bears’ statistics, you’ve got four straight games over 300 yards passing,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I would anticipate they’ll throw the ball because that’s what they’ve been having a lot of success doing.”

Chicago’s quarterback is Brian Hoyer, and he’s been mostly excellent in place of injured Jay Cutler. Hoyer ranks seventh in passer rating (100.8). third in completion percentage (68.8) and first in interception percentage (0.0). Last week, he became the only quarterback in franchise history with 300 passing yards in four consecutive games. The week before, he became the first quarterback in franchise history with 300 passing yards and no interceptions in three consecutive games. He extended that streak to four last week.

It’s impressive production from a player who had a 76.5 rating while starting 13 games for Cleveland in 2014 and a 91.4 rating while starting nine games for Houston last year.

“I don’t know. Hard to tell,” Hoyer said when asked during his conference call if this has been his best season. “You’ve got to look at everything together. The yards are there. We’ve got to score touchdowns and win games.”

Hoyer’s right. Yards haven’t been the problem. Despite all of that production, Chicago has scored 73 points in Hoyer’s four starts. Four starts without an interception is impressive but the feeling is Hoyer needs to take some more chances and push the ball down the field.

Hoyer’s not inclined to do that, though. Not after throwing four picks in a blowout loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs last year.

“I’m not about taking chances, risking the football,” Hoyer told reporters in Chicago this week. “The No. 1 priority is taking care of the football. Whenever you start to turn the football over — I learned the hard way in a playoff game last year — you don’t give yourself a chance to win. So even as frustrated as we are, trying to score touchdowns in the red area, you still don’t want to take points off the board. It’s us getting back, working hard at it and executing when it gets to game time.”

Execution should be a bit simpler against a Packers defense that will be without Sam Shields (concussion), Damarious Randall (groin) and Quinten Rollins (groin). In their place?

LaDarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who barely played as a rookie. Thrust into action this year, he played well vs. Detroit and the Giants, then got torched by Dallas. “I don’t know that anything went wrong,” Capers countered. “I think he’s played pretty well. He had two or three plays I’m sure he’d like to have back. I’m sure that there’s probably not a guy on defense that there’s not two or three plays that they wouldn’t like to have back where they can play better, just better technique, better positioning.“

Micah Hyde, the team’s jack-of-all trades defensive back. Against Dallas, he replaced Randall on the outside and played in the slot in the nickel package. “I’m whatever, man. I can be a reporter, too,” Hyde said. “Whatever they throw me at, I’ll do. I don’t think of myself more as a corner or more as a safety. Wherever the coaches put me at, I’ll be willing to do it.”

Demetri Goodson, a sixth-round pick in 2014, who returned from a four-game suspension last week. He’ll likely be making his first career start. “He’s a very good athlete. He’s got some toughness to him that he exhibits on special teams,” Capers said. “I’m glad we got him back.”

Josh Hawkins, an undrafted rookie this year who was immediately passed on the depth chart by Goodson. “He’s like most young players. He’s going to grow with the more reps he gets,” Capers said.

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott took advantage of Green Bay’s injury-riddled secondary to throw three touchdown passes and complete two-thirds of his passes. Safety Morgan Burnett, however, expects a better performance from Gunter and Goodson on Thursday.

“You don’t have to worry about those guys,” he said. “They’re going to be ready.”

GREEN LIGHT FOR RODGERS, TOO?

The inactives list will be key for the Bears. In fact, their cornerback group could be in just as bad of shape as the Packers on Thursday. Chicago’s top cornerback, Kyle Fuller, is on injured reserve. The other starting cornerback, Tracy Porter, is questionable, as is slot cornerback Bryce Callahan. If all three are inactive, Jacoby Glenn and DeVante Bausby would start at corner and Cre’Von LeBlanc would man the slot. Glenn is a second-year player with three career starts and one interception, Bausby is a first-year player who has played in one career game and LeBlanc is an undrafted rookie who has played sparingly in four games.

“You’ve got to study a few more guys,” Packers receiver Randall Cobb said. “On a short week, that’s a little tough.”

Whoever plays, can the Packers take advantage? Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ struggles have been well-documented. This nugget will be featured in Thursday’s broadcast and made the rounds on social media: In their last 12 starts, Hoyer has completed 63.4 percent of his passes, averaged 262.0 yards, thrown 20 touchdowns vs. five interceptions, and compiled a 94.1 passer rating. All of those numbers beat Rodgers’ stats: 58.6 percent, 226.8 yards, 20 touchdowns vs. nine picks, and a 83.3 rating.

“It’s football,” Rodgers said. “There’s going to be stretches where you’re playing really great and stretches where you’re just a little bit off, and we’ve just been a little bit off I think collectively. I’m confident. We’re five games into it. We’re going to get it fixed pretty soon.”

Everyone on the outside, it seems, has a theory on what’s wrong with Rodgers. For those on the inside, they insist there’s nothing wrong with Rodgers.

“I still see the great quarterback that he is with the release and the scrambling and the mobility and the creativity and the accuracy,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said this week. “They’ve gotten beat by maybe the two best teams in the NFL currently in Dallas and Minnesota. They’re still the same offense they’ve always been and he’s still the same quarterback he’s always been.”

Getting a win, obviously, is paramount for the Packers. But there’s something to be said about winning with some style. Green Bay’s offense looked a bit like the juggernaut from past seasons during the first half of the Detroit game. Otherwise, that unit has only been productive in fits and starts. This game will be on Rodgers, given the states of the Packers' backfield and the Bears' secondary. Can Green Bay's passing game finally approach those lofty preseason predictions?

If the Packers’ offense struggles yet again — against a beaten-up secondary, no less — the scrutiny on Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy will only intensify headed into a showdown next week at Atlanta, which kicks off a stretch of four road games in five weeks.

“It’s going to happen,” Rodgers said of the criticism. “I’ve just been going about my process the exact same way. The preparation and the approach every week has been the same, and I hope the guys would say that my attitude and focus has been the same. As a leader, you’re looked at at all times — the highs and the adverse times. You’ve got to be someone who’s consistent every day at work and on the field. I’m trying my best to be that and be a good teammate and realize, hey, we’re still 3-2. We’re in the mix here. We’ve got some work to do, some stuff to clean up, but we’re not far off.”

GROUND JORDAN

Quality running backs can be found anywhere, whether it’s Dallas taking Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick of this year’s draft to Chicago grabbing Indiana’s Jordan Howard with the 150th pick of this year’s draft.

The Packers, and their formerly No. 1-ranked run defense, got demolished by Elliott last week. The Packers had allowed 171 rushing yards all season but got gouged for 191 yards by Elliott and Co.

“They were the better team,” linebacker Nick Perry said. “They made a good string of plays in the first series and they were able to follow it up at halftime. When you look at our defense, we have a lot to prove. It was a bad game for us.

“I still think we’re a great defense,” Perry added later. “We’ve had a couple errors, a couple things that they did that we didn’t take advantage of, and it showed. They were the better team out there. I hope we get a chance to play them again.”

They’ll get a chance to prove they have a great defense against the Bears but it won’t be easy, because Howard is a tremendous talent. Howard, who transferred from UAB after the school shuttered its football program following the 2014 season, has a tremendous combination of size (6-foot, 230 pounds) and speed (4.59 in the 40). He set UAB’s rushing record in 2014 and was all-Big Ten in 2015.

“He was a great back for us,” said Packers offensive tackle Jason Spriggs, who was Indiana’s left tackle last year. “He’s been doing well this year. He’s got a mix of being a bigger back, so he can power through some of those arm tackles, and he’s a hard worker. I think that really pushes out the strength of his game.”

With Matt Forte in New York and Jeremy Langford injured, Howard has carried the running game. Howard has rushed 66 times for 330 yards and one touchdown, plus chipped in 14 catches for 128 yards and another touchdown. While Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy ranks fifth in the NFL with 5.07 yards per carry, Howard is sixth with a 5.00-yard average. He rushed for 111 yards vs. Detroit in Week 4, the Bears’ only win, and 118 yards vs. Indianapolis in Week 5, the Bears’ highest-scoring game of the year. That 100-yard game vs. Detroit marked the Bears’ first 100-yard rookie rushing performance since Matt Forte in 2008, and he’s the club’s first rookie with back-to-back 100-yard games since Anthony Thomas in 2001.

“Big, physical, he’s got good run instincts,” Capers said. “He had those two 100-yard games back-to-back. You’re going to have to tackle this guy, now. He plants his foot and then he gets north and south and he’s a big man that gets his pads down. You’re going to have to get underneath him and you’re going to have to play good leverage. He’s done a nice job for them to this point.”

Will Green Bay’s run defense bounce back? Probably — that unit still ranks second in yards per carry and third in yards per game — though the challenge will be doing so with a game plan presumably focused on helping an injury-ravaged secondary slow down Hoyer and that passing attack.

INSIDE THE BEARS

— The Packers entered this offseason with a need at inside linebacker. The Packers, of course, avoid free agency as if it’s poison ivy, but that didn’t stop fans from drooling over Denver’s Danny Trevathan and Indianapolis’ Jerrell Freeman.

The Bears landed them both, part of the fifth-biggest free-agent spending spree in the NFL this offseason. Trevathan (four years, $24.5 million, $12 million guaranteed) and Freeman (three years, $12 million, $6 million guaranteed) have delivered. Freeman, a former CFL standout, ranks seventh in the NFL with 53 tackles and leads the team with four tackles for losses. In his first four NFL seasons, Freeman had four interceptions and nine forced fumbles — including a whopping six in 2013. Trevathan, who missed two games with an injured thumb that continues to impact his play, has 25 tackles. He might be a newcomer but he was voted a team captain.

Due in part to the new inside linebacker tandem, the Bears have cut their yards allowed per carry from 4.47 in 2015 to 3.87 in 2016.

“I don’t really look at the money aspect,” Bears coach John Fox said. “I think they’re players that were sought-after in the free-agent market, and we feel very fortunate to have both of them. (Trevathan is) kind of getting his legs back under him, but he and Jerrell both have been a good tandem for us when they’ve been in there.”

— A few years ago, the Bears had a dynamic passing attack because they fielded a basketball team on the perimeter with receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall and tight end Martellus Bennett. Some of the names have changed but the size remains the same.

Tight end Zach Miller, the Bears’ leading receiver with 31 catches and three touchdowns, stands 6-foot-5. Jeffery, the team’s best perimeter playmaker with 29 catches for 487 yards and an impressive 16.8-yard average, is 6-foot-3. He was supposed to be paired with 6-foot-3 Kevin White, the Bears’ first-round pick in 2015, but he is out with a broken leg. Not to worry. The Bears plugged in Cameron Meredith, who’s also 6-foot-3.

“They have athletic guys and they have playmakers,” Burnett said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us. That’s what you look forward to when you play in this league and that’s what you look forward to when you match up in a rivalry. It should be a high level of competition.”

Never heard of Meredith? You’re not alone. Meredith, who spent his first two years at Illinois State as a backup quarterback before a career-changing position switch, was an undrafted free agent out in 2015. He’s got 26 catches for 295 yards in four games this season, including a combined 20 catches for 243 yards the past two games.

“I think it's just getting the reps, honestly,” Meredith told reporters this week. “The more I'm out there, the more confidence I'm getting in my hands and routes and stuff like that, and also in my preparation during the week. I'm just going to continue to work on that and continue to get better and grow and come like that every week.”

— The Bears are the ultimate statistical oddity. They rank seventh in yards per game and fourth in passing yards per game yet are 31st in scoring with 16.8 points per game. That gives them a league-worst 22.3 yards per point. No team had a worse yards-per-point ratio over the previous three seasons.

“We’ve found a way to be a top-10 offense but 31st in points,” Fox said. “So, obviously, these games are won by who has the most points. We’ve come up a little short in that area.

The Bears are tied for 28th with a 33.3 percent conversion rate on third down.

“If I had any answers for you, I think we wouldn’t have to ask the question,” Hoyer said. “It’s just a matter of keep going back to the drawing board, the practice field and keep working at it.”

— As mentioned, the Bears are banged up in the secondary. Also on defense, nose tackle Eddie Goldman is doubtful. On offense, slot receiver and standout punt returner Eddie Royal is out, and Cutler and left guard Josh Sitton are doubtful.

However, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee appears ready to make his debut after opening the season on the PUP list. McPhee had five sacks in the first seven games last season but only one the rest of the way as he was slowed by a knee injury. Surgery to repair that knee is what ultimately landed McPhee on PUP.

“Any time you lose a good player — and he was a good a player the first half of last season, as you guys saw — it’s going to have a negative effect,” Fangio said. “We have this whole cottage industry in the offseason about the draft and free agency, right? You get a good player and then he’s no longer there, it has an affect on you.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— The Bears lead the series 94-92-6, including a 1-1 split of the playoff games, but the Packers have been making up ground in a hurry. Since 2008, Green Bay is 12-3. Going back further, Green Bay closed the gap by going a resounding 18-2 with Brett Favre at quarterback from 1994 through 2003. Taking the 2013 game in which Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on the opening series out of the equation, the Packers had won 10 straight until losing 17-13 on Thanksgiving night at Lambeau Field.

— Rodgers has owned the Bears. Will that continue on Thursday, given his struggles? Rodgers boasts a career mark of 13-4, including the playoff game and the collarbone game. In 16 regular-season games, he has a 104.3 passer rating on the strength of 35 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions, 67.8 percent accuracy and 3,839 yards. Last Thanksgiving, the Bears held Rodgers to 51.2 percent with one touchdown, one interception and a 62.4 rating. In the three previous games, he demolished the Bears with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Said Fangio this week about that game: “I think anytime you play any good offense, if you can keep the big plays to a minimum, that always helps. If you can take the ball away a couple times that always helps. And I think that’s the key. You’ve got to play good. I know that sounds like a generic nothing answer, but you’ve got to be able to win your one-on-one battles. You’ve got to be able to deal with this guy scrambling around and creating. He’s going to do that, no matter, in every game he’s ever played. You just have to play good.”

— It’s not just Rodgers who has owned the Bears since 2008. It’s the Packers’ defense, too. In the 17 total games, Green Bay has held Chicago to 20-or-fewer points 13 times.

“Coach Capers, it’s a unique challenge because they do so much defensively,” Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said this week. “They’re really good against the run. There’s a lot of movements. They’re really good up front. They like to blitz the safeties a lot. No. 21 (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) is a good player for them. They’re moving him around. They’re attacking a lot. It does offer a unique challenge in a short week, but it’s an opponent we know. In these short weeks, sometimes it comes down to you learning your game plan and going out an executing it on a short week. And the nice thing about playing on a short week is after a loss like that it gives you an opportunity to get out there and play again.”

Of course, Cutler won’t have a say in this verdict. Cutler’s career record against Green Bay is a miserable 2-12 with 16 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Twelve of those starts have come with the Bears. He had a passer rating of at least 90 in just two of those games — 103.8 in a 33-28 loss in the memorable 2013 finale at Chicago and 90.8 in the 17-13 win at Lambeau last year.

— Rodgers owns the best all-time home passer rating at 108.9. However, as with most things, that’s been on a downward slide. The Packers are 3-4 in their last seven home games, with Rodgers’ 59.9 percent accuracy, 6.13 yards per attempt and 13 touchdowns vs. five interceptions equating to a 85.2 passer rating.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— The NFL is all about player safety. Until it’s time to make money. Then it’s about putting the players through the Thursday night meatgrinder.

“These Thursday night games are brutal,” Hyde said. “They talk about player safety, but we come in on Tuesday and we have to practice and Tuesday is the worst day physically for your body.”

Outside linebacker Nick Perry also used the word “brutal.” Normally, Perry said, his body doesn’t feel normal again until Thursday or Friday. Instead, he’ll be playing another game on Thursday. Hot and cold tubs, yoga and pilates, and rest — as much rest as possible — are critical in helping speed up its recovery.

“I don’t think you can trick your body,” Burnett said. “At this point, it is what it is. You’ve got to go out there and get the job done.”

— The Packers’ philosophy in free agency is well-known. This will mark their third matchup against the NFL’s big spenders. No team spent more than Jacksonville (2-3), but Green Bay beat the Jaguars 27-23 in Week 1. The Giants (3-3) finished second in free-agent spending, but Green Bay beat them 23-16. The Bears finished fifth in free-agent spending but are just 1-5.

Atlanta finished sixth in free-agent spending. The Packers face the Falcons (4-2) next week. Philadelphia finished seventh in free-agent spending. The Packers face the Eagles (3-2) in Week 12. Houston finished fourth in free-agent spending. The Packers face the Texans (4-2) in Week 13.

— If you want a magic number, it’s 17. The Bears have scored more than 17 points just once this season, fewest of any team this season, according to STATS. Meanwhile, including Sunday’s loss to Dallas, the Packers are 0-16 when scoring fewer than 17 points since the start of the 2011 season.

— The Packers have the edge in situational stats. On offense, Green Bay is first on third down and 19th in the red zone; Chicago is tied for 28th on third down and 25th in the red zone. On defense, Green Bay is seventh on third down and the red zone; Chicago is 11th on third down and 13th in the red zone.

The third-down offense could be a building block for the Packers, who have sputtered otherwise on that side of the ball.

“It’s huge, being able to stay on the field,” Cobb said. “We’ve been able to sustain some drives, but you’ve got to be able to capitalize when you get in the red zone. We’ve got to complete those drives and put touchdowns on the scoreboard instead of field goals.”

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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