The Green Bay Packers enter their biggest game of the season with their offensive line coming off of their worst game in years.
The line yielded four sacks, two safeties and more than a dozen quarterback hits during last week's 28-27 loss at Minnesota. While quarterback Aaron Rodgers deserves some of the blame, by and large, he was running for his life or getting up close and personal with the Metrodome's FieldTurf before his receivers had completed their routes.
With the Packers facing what amounts to a must-win game against first-place Chicago on Sunday, the linemen are looking forward to an opportunity to make amends for last week.
"You just have to go back to work," said right tackle Mark Tauscher. "It was a tough week, there's no question. We didn't play well as a unit and we didn't give ourselves a chance to win on the offensive side of the ball. So, you have to get back to work, (and) not panic and starting doubting yourself. You have to play with confidence, and you build that confidence throughout the week in your preparation. I think we're looking forward to getting back out there on Sunday to show some improvement and do things a lot better than we did last week."
The line will be tested by a Bears defense that plays similar to Minnesota in that they're strong against the run (fourth; 74.9 rushing yards allowed per game) but poor against the pass (30th; 251.8 passing yards allowed per game).
Several factors are working in the Packers' favor. One, they're at home, so the Lambeau Field crowd won't be a factor for the Packers' offense. Second, while the Vikings have one of the strongest pass rushes in the league, the Bears are tied for 19th with 17 sacks. And third, it's good, old-fashioned pride.
"Any time you want to come back after a loss and, quote-unquote, prove yourself," guard Jason Spitz said. "Every week's tough. Every week counts. You always want to come out and do your best, especially this week, being a rivalry game, being a division game. It's important."
The Packers can get right back into the race by beating the Bears. If that happens, and the Vikings lose at Tampa Bay, there will be a three-way tie for first place in the NFC North at 5-5, and the Packers' 3-1 division record would look good for possible tiebreakers down the road.
"We're looking forward to it," center Scott Wells said. "It's the Bears. We're excited about playing them. And the other thing is, we understand what a win can do for us in the division race. We're not out of everything. As poorly as we paid the last week, we're not out of the race. We still control our own destiny."
To do that, though, the Packers must finally solve Lovie Smith a week after Brad Childress finally solved Mike McCarthy. Smith is 6-2 against the Packers, 3-1 against McCarthy and 4-0 at Lambeau Field. Much of that success was predicated on his defense making life miserable for Brett Favre.
This Bears defense, however, hasn't been making life miserable for many quarterbacks. In the last four games, Atlanta's Matt Ryan threw for 301 yards, Minnesota's Gus Frerotte threw for 298 yards, Detroit's Dan Orlovsky threw for 292 yards and Tennessee's Kerry Collins threw for 289 yards. The last three of those quarterbacks dissected the Bears' secondary at Soldier Field. Certainly, Rodgers and his talented collection of receivers could be poised for a breakout performance.
Assuming the line rebounds.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher, speaking to reporters at Lambeau Field via a conference call on Wednesday, said the Bears "try to attack more" this season. While that hasn't translated into sacks — former Packer Hunter Hillenmeyer has the only sack among the Bears' linebackers — Smith no doubt will dial up the pressure against a Packers offense that couldn't take the heat last week.
"They really lead that defense," Wells said of linebackers Urlacher and Lance Briggs. "They have a heavy blitz package and a lot of stunts. They do a lot of things that a veteran defense can do. The key will be recognizing what they do and really focus on executing our fundamentals and technique."
Breakdowns in fundamentals cost the Packers dearly last week, and those areas have been an emphasis this week. Venerable left tackle Chad Clifton, who frequently carries a light load at practice as the team tries to keep him fresh and his bulky knees feeling OK, has taken a lot more reps at practice after playing one of the more forgettable games of his career last week.
So, while Packers Nation panics over the state of the offensive line, the linemen themselves believe they'll rebound this week. After all, they've pass protected too well for too many years to think otherwise.
"You have to stick to what you're built on, and in the past, we've been able to do that," Tauscher said. "We've went through tough times. I think we started 1-4 a few seasons ago and ended up going 10-6 and getting into the playoffs. It just comes down to sticking with what you believe in and not really getting pulled, because each week, especially when you're on a little bit of a losing streak, you have a lot of outside influence kind of pulling at you. That's when you really need to stick with what you believe in and how you've gotten to be successful. You have to draw off of those experiences."
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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