While the Packers' sails have unfurled and the ship is picking up speed since a 2-2 start, the Bears are drifting listlessly after winning three straight following an opening-night loss in Green Bay.
Since both teams enjoyed a Week 5 bye, the Packers have won six of eight to cruise to the top of the NFC wild-card standings. The Bears, on the other hand, have lost six of eight — and the only wins have come against Cleveland and St. Louis.
"Just haven't performed the way we thought we would," Bears coach Lovie Smith said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "We've been blown out in a couple games where we haven't played well, that we haven't deserved to win. We've had some close games where we just didn't make some plays at the end of the football game to win the game. That's where we are right now."
Last year, the Bears finished 9-7 and would have qualified for the playoffs had they not lost at Houston in the season finale. Chicago ranked 14th in the NFL in scoring at 23.4 points per game, and that productivity was expected to rise after acquiring Jay Cutler from Denver for Kyle Orton and a few high draft picks.
Instead, the Bears enter today's game against the Packers ranked 22nd in the league with 19.4 points per game. Rather than finding more room to operate with Cutler, running back Matt Forte is on pace to rush for 845 yards and five touchdowns, compared to the 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns from his phenomenal rookie season.
Forte's lack of output stumps even Smith, and he's the one who's paid to figure out the problems.
"You know, it's hard to say exactly what teams have done. Of course, last year, a lot of teams didn't know about (Forte)," he said. "This year, you know, when you're not doing things in the running game, you have to of course look to Matt a little bit. Just the second year we haven't been as productive, you have to look at the offensive line a little bit. It's a combination of a few different things. Our passing game, we haven't had a consistent passing game to take a little pressure off of him, too."
It hasn't helped that Cutler has regressed rather than progressed. In Week 1 at Green Bay, Cutler completed 47.2 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and four interceptions. In the next three games, he completed 71 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and one interception.
At 3-1, the Bears again looked like contenders in not only the NFC North but the entire conference. Instead, Cutler has thrown nine touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his last eight games. He's completed better than 63 percent of his passes in only one of those games — a padded 70.3 percent in a 45-10 loss at Cincinnati. He's been sacked 26 times — hardly any in comparison to counterpart Aaron Rodgers — but that problem has gotten worse instead of better, as well.
In the process, Cutler has gone from the toast of Chicago to having fans long for the good old days of Orton, who has the Broncos pointed to the playoffs.
"He's handled it the way you can ask a veteran professional: with poise," linebacker Lance Briggs said in his conference call. "The heat's going to come and with the heat, you have to take the heat. We're in a position where we're just trying to fight to finish this season and on a positive note and whatever happens, happens. As the leader of the team, when people start to lay blame, you know it's coming into you and the head coach so you have to know how to roll with the punches."
From the perspective of Packers coach Mike McCarthy, injuries have been the big bugaboo for the Bears. They lost two-thirds of their stalwart linebacking corps — Brian Urlacher and free-agent pickup Pisa Tinoisamoa — to season-ending injuries against Green Bay in Week 1. Briggs was out last week, leaving Chicago without its three starters.
So, it's probably no surprise that the Bears have allowed 24.0 points per game in their last eight — compared to 14.3 for the Packers during their four-game winning streak — including 36 at Minnesota, 41 against Arizona and 45 at Cincinnati.
"A lot has been focused on Jay, but our football team hasn't performed the way we would like," Smith said. "Of course, the quarterback will get a lot of the blame for that but Jay's come to work each week. He's been through some tough times but all players have to go through adversity. He has gone through his share, we have. Hopefully, he'll see better days ahead. We see what we have in Jay and we have to do some things a little bit better to help the case a little bit, which Jay is working on here today."
Third down, Take 2
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Asked why the Packers have been so successful on third down, receiver Greg Jennings pointed in the direction of the offensive line's locker stalls.
"He didn't say anything?" center Scott Wells asked when told of Jennings' pointing.
Actually, Jennings did say something.
"They've been doing an excellent job," Jennings said of the line. "I think what's been taking place now, they've been kind of getting overlooked. The offensive line was the focal point when Aaron was on his back all the time, but now, it's like, ‘Aaron's doing great, the receivers are doing great.' But it's because of them, the things that they're doing on the front end, that's allowing us to go forth and make plays. It starts right there. It starts and it ends right there."
Wells deflected the credit, but there's plenty of it to go around.
Rodgers has been sacked four times in the last three games. The receivers have been getting open and making plays. And Rodgers has been downright lethal. He's converted a league-high 11-of-12 (91.7 percent) with passes on third-and-less-than-3. On third-and-3 through third-and-7, he's second in converting 33-of-52 (63.5 percent) through the air.
"I feel like with the plan we've got and the guys we've got to throw to, it's on me just to deal with the ball," Rodgers said.
Common sense dictates that on, say, third-and-6, an ideal play would be to hit a receiver 7 yards downfield. Of course, that's exactly what the defense is trying to take away.
"Quite often, it's not always about throwing the ball beyond the marker," Robinson said. "It's about catching the ball, breaking a tackle and getting past the marker. It's making something happen when you know you've got to break a tackle. Everybody else has to rally up and get a block for you to do that. It's a very, very important part of offensive football."
And it's a big reason why the Packers are considered to have an elite receiving corps. Among wide receivers, Jennings ranks third in the NFC in yards after catch and Donald Driver is fifth.
The line's improvement has been huge, too, and not just by limiting sacks on third down. By eliminating the sacks on first and second down and creating more running room for Ryan Grant, the Packers have been facing more third-and-4s or third-and-6s than third-and-longs.
"I think, third-and-11-plus, those are tough ones to convert," Rodgers said. "Those are more in the 25 percent league average. I feel like anything in third-and-manageable, those are situations we should be able to convert."
The Bears' big picture
Like the Packers because of their dominant preseason, the acquisition of Cutler made the Bears a chic Super Bowl contender in the preseason. The assumption was that with Smith taking over the reins of the defense again, with former Lions coach Rod Marinelli taking over the Bears' defensive line, and with Cutler adding a passing dimension and opening up things for Forte, the Bears would take a big step forward, win two or three more games and roar into the playoffs.
That, of course, hasn't happened. But in a win-now world, it's important to remember that the Bears didn't get a one-year rental with Cutler. The trade was meant to make the Bears winners this year, next year and the coming years. With Cutler's contract extended through 2013, it's up to general manager Jerry Angelo to fill in the blanks.
Greg Olsen is a big-time tight end, but Cutler doesn't have a No. 1 receiver among Devin Hester and Earl Bennett. Finding that stud receiver might have to be done in free agency, with the Bears without their first-round pick (for Cutler) and second-round pick (for Gaines Adams) in April's draft.
"We have some good, young players that we're playing right now that will only get better," Smith said. "When you bring in a new quarterback, a new marquee guy like that, of course you would like for the offense to be championship-ready right away. Everything takes a little bit of time, like the Packers went through last year a little bit. We feel like we do have pieces in place, though, to make a serious run — and not just offensively but defensively also."
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Those numbers notwithstanding, he was considered something of a disappointment by then-Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, and it took only three games for new Bucs coach Raheem Morris to wash his hands of Adams.
Adams has had practically no impact for the Bears, though. He was deactivated for last week's game against Chicago — an interesting decision considering the Bears are out of the playoff chase and should be auditioning talent.
"Talented player," Smith said. "We have a few defensive linemen that we like that have played good ball for us around here. Sometimes you bring a player in in midseason and it's hard to really get them involved as much as they eventually will be, and that's been the case with Gaines. He's a good athlete, will help us win a lot of football games, it's just when."
The Packers have allowed long kickoff returns in each of the last three games, and today, they'll face the dynamic duo of rookie Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning. Knox leads the league with a 29.4-yard average, and only Minnesota's Percy Harvin has more than Knox's four returns of 40-plus yards. Manning averages 24.7 per return. As a team, Chicago's average of 25.6 ranks second, and it has a league-high six returns of at least 40 yards.
After a brilliant start to the season, Green Bay ranks 26th in kickoff coverage with an average return of 24.5 yards.
"They've got some good returners, and that's not including Hester," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "They have a power and speed mixture. It's going to be a challenge for us. We have to play our keys and be disciplined."
— Jennings ranks 29th in the NFL in receptions (53), 19th in yards (799) and tied for 53rd in touchdown receptions (three). Last year, he ranked 16th in receptions (80), sixth in yards (1,292) and eighth in touchdowns (nine). Earlier in the season, he voiced some unhappiness about his role, but with the Packers on a four-game winning streak, you couldn't wipe away his grin this week.
"Man, I'm telling you, playing the way we're playing, we're winning, you're going to get nothing but smiles," he said. "If it were reversed, then maybe, but no. I'm not trying to mess with anything. We're good where we're at. We're all helping one another, we're all making each other better, we're all complementing one another. There's no reason to mess with anything."
— One area the Packers will want to attack the Bears is with Jermichael Finley against linebacker Nick Roach. The Bears thought they had a tight end-stopper in Tinoisamoa, but he injured a knee on the first play of the Week 1 game against Green Bay and tried to come back a few weeks later before electing to have surgery.
"We always thought a lot of him. I always liked him," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I thought he was a good football player. He's very solid, very sound, good in coverage, had some blitz ability. He's a good player. I'm sure they'd like to have him."
— Rodgers leads all NFL quarterbacks with 277 rushing yards. More impressive, though, is he ranks fourth among all players by converting 69.2 percent of his third-down runs into first downs.
"I like to extend plays," he said. "We talk about setting goals of around 10 yards per game or so in the quarterback room, that you need to make one first down really to extend the drive or extend the play. But it is nice to know that I have been able to extend some plays and make positive rushing yards and have a couple of explosive runs, that we call it, over 12-yard runs. Probably had a half-dozen or so, those are fun for me. But I think the biggest thing is, I haven't fumbled on a run. That's one thing I pride myself on is really taking care of the ball, and to have that many rushes counted to me, I know a few of them are sneaks, but that many rushes counted and not have a fumble, I'm pretty proud of that."
— With so much young and in-their-prime talent, McCarthy likes his team for this year and beyond.
"We're the youngest team in the league," he said. "With that, it means we have growth and the ability to get better and continue to improve. I've said it before, it's a title we'd like to give up here soon, being the youngest team. But yeah, I think our days are very bright down the road."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.