Tight End Tipping Point

The Bears have Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark; the Packers have with Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee. That kind of firepower at that position can cause all sorts of headaches, as Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, Lovie Smith, Joe Philbin and Dom Capers tell you in this in-depth feature.

Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark.

Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee.

Bears tight ends Olsen and Clark form arguably the best tandem in the NFL. Packers tight ends Finley and Lee form arguably the best up-and-coming tandem in the league.

"I feel like we can be the best duo in the league," said Lee, who's not prone to be boastful. "Not taking anything from the Bears' guys, but I feel like in this offense, we can do a lot of great things."

The group that produces on Sunday night will play a big role in deciding which team emerges victorious in this marquee Week 1 matchup at Lambeau Field.

Last year in Week 11, when the Packers blasted the Bears 37-3, Lee had more catches (six) than Olsen and Clark combined (five) and the only touchdown among the tight ends. In Week 16, when the Packers dominated statistically but lost 20-17 in overtime, Olsen and Clark combined for nine catches for 96 yards and one touchdown, while Finley had the only catch among the Packers' tight ends. On the winning drive in overtime, Olsen turned a short pass into a 17-yard gain, with a 15-yard penalty tacked on for a horse-collar tackle.

Greg Olsen.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"They put them out there together a lot," said A.J. Hawk, who was exploited by both Olsen and Clark while playing middle linebacker in that frigid Monday night matchup last year. "I think they are both really good route-runners. They both catch the ball well and they can block. There is a reason they put them both on the field a lot, because they want them to get matchups and make plays, and they do that a lot. It's a challenge, but it's something that we know going into that we're going to have to shut that down if we want a chance to win this."

Olsen, who has supplanted Clark as the starter, caught 54 passes for 574 yards and five touchdowns last season. Combined, they caught 95 balls and scored six touchdowns. All of the Bears' receivers combined caught only 31 more passes.

Without an elite receiver at his disposal, it's a good bet that new quarterback Jay Cutler is going to turn to his tight ends early and often throughout the season.

"It takes some pressure off the guys outside (to have strong tight ends)," Cutler said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "We've just got to find some matchups that we can use with those guys and do some different stuff. So, it's definitely going to help the receivers so they don't have to bare the whole load."

Bears coach Lovie Smith is the beneficiary of having Olsen and Clark. As a defensive-minded coach, he knows the stress having two capable receivers at tight end can put on a defense. Clark is a lot like Lee: a do-it-all player who is reliable and productive. The hope is Finley will develop into a clone of Olsen: tall, athletic and able to create matchup problems whether in the traditional tight end spot or flanked out wide as a receiver.

"A lot is said normally about, when you talk about throwing the ball, what kind of receivers do you have? But, of course, there's a lot more to that," Smith said during his conference call. "Our tight ends are a big thing of what we've done, the success we've had around here. Greg Olsen and Des Clark are good football players that can catch the ball, do a lot of things. Of course, Greg Olsen can line up in a lot of different places. Des is versatile also."

The man charged with finding some answers is Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Gone are the man-to-man concepts in which Olsen and Clark tormented Hawk last season. In is a lot more zone, though a top-notch quarterback like Cutler and a quality receiver like Olsen are more than capable of finding the holes.

"Well, you're always concerned about their trying to seek the right matchups," Capers said on Thursday. "They've got a lot of confidence. Olsen's a very good receiver and he gives them a good matchup on inside people. That's kind of the nature of our game now. It's become a matchup game, where people are going to try to see if they can isolate you, and if they can, then try to exploit you. He gives them a real good inside option in their passing game."

Protecting the middle of the field has been an emphasis this week. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner exploited that area during the preseason. The inside linebackers in the base defense will be Nick Barnett, who's coming off a torn ACL, and Hawk, whose strength never has been pass coverage. Nick Collins is a Pro Bowl safety but the other starter, Atari Bigby, is stronger against the run. If either of the linebackers have trouble, Brandon Chillar could get a ton of playing time.

"That's a great challenge," Bigby said. "That's a matchup for safeties and corners because they're so big, it's hard to get around them to make a play on the ball."

Complicating matters is how well offensive coordinator Ron Turner uses his tight ends. For most teams, a two-tight end set means run, because most teams' second tight end is merely an extra blocker. But not so for Chicago. Having two tight ends on the field means there's an extra big body to block, but they're also capable of making plays in the passing game, whether it's on bootlegs or play-action fakes.

"These guys do a great job of balancing up the run and pass," Capers said. "They're not going to give you strong tendencies one way or the other. I think they monitor that very closely. When you're talking about their two-tight end formation, they've got the same ability to run out of it as they do throw."

Assuming Finley is everything the Packers believe he is — and he plays like the dominant force he was in the preseason — then Green Bay's tight end tandem could cause just as many problems as Olsen and Clark.

In 2007, Lee caught 48 passes for 575 yards and six touchdowns. He fell back to 39 catches for 303 yards and five touchdown last season, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was slow to form a chemistry with Lee. Finley caught only six passes as a rookie last year. In the preseason, nine balls were thrown in Finley's direction. He caught all nine for 92 yards and two touchdowns.

"It's like a security blanket, they say," Rodgers said on Wednesday. "That's kind of the cliche. When we have a guy like Jermichael Finley with his athleticism coming in and having such a great preseason, and pushing Donald Lee to I think new levels for his play as well, just guys who are very sure-handed and make plays after the catch. It's an added bonus when you throw a 5-yard route to them and it turns into a 10, 11, 15-yard gain."

Jermichael Finley vs. Charles Woodson.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Athletic tight ends like Finley and Olsen are practically unstoppable. A linebacker might have the size but probably doesn't have the athleticism. A safety might have the speed but probably doesn't have the size.

"The defense is going to make a decision on how they want to cover the guy, whether they want to play zone, whether they want to play man, whether they want to get a guy over the top," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Thursday. "Sometimes the body type of the team we're playing will have an impact on those matchups."

Of course, Packers fans will recall the tandem of Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson in 1996. With Jackson's ability to stretch defenses, Antonio Freeman averaged 16.7 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns, Don Beebe averaged 17.9 yards per catch and scored four touchdowns and Robert Brooks averaged 15.0 yards per catch and s cored four touchdowns before a season-ending injury.

With a tight end that can stress a defense deep down the middle, it makes it next to impossible for a safety to provide help on deep patterns. With Rodgers' ability to throw the deep ball and a deep receiving corps, there could be more opportunities for big plays.

"If he (a deep threat at tight end) can draw more attention to himself, logic would tell you there's opportunities for other guys, if you have a good, balanced offense," Philbin said.

Lee is excited about the prospects, even if he'll be losing a few opportunities in the passing game.

"I feel like with both of us on the field, they've got to do something," Lee said. "With (Donald) Driver and Greg (Jennings), we've got a lot of weapons. If they're trying to stop me, (Finley's) going to be open. If they try to stop him, I'm open, and vice-versa with the receivers."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and 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 twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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