Where: Soldier Field, Chicago
When: 4:15 PM EST
Green Bay's offense vs. Chicago's defense
The last time these two teams played, it was the most recent NFC Championship at Soldier Field, and the Bears wound up making Aaron Rodgers look more mortal than any other recent defense had. It certainly didn't start out that way, though — on the Packers' first drive, Rodgers picked apart Chicago's tighter 4-3 defense and forced the Bears to go with more nickel sets. That's what Chicago did on Green Bay's second drive, and Rodgers found the landscape far less friendly with linebackers blitzing and dropping, and different nickel pass defenders reading into the Bears' zone coverage concepts. Chicago ended Green Bay's third drive by looping linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Israel Idonije around each other, pacing the Packers' offensive line, and creating the confusion needed to neutralize the Packers' passing game.
And so it went. The NFC Championship game was Rodgers' one hiccup on the way to a Super Bowl MVP award and one of the better postseasons we've seen from any quarterback. However, if the Bears believe that they can solve Rodgers in the same ways they did last season, they may be in for a nasty surprise. As Rodgers proved in the 2011 season opener against the Saints, he's become one of the best in the game at analyzing what's in front of him and changing the play or the reads to take advantage. Add in the fact that he's been the NFL's most efficient quarterback under pressure over the last two seasons, and Rodgers presents a series of nearly impossible problems.
The Bears' defense struggled mightily against the Saints last week in a 30-13 loss, and that started right away, when Drew Brees forced the Bears out of their blitzing comfort zone and had Urlacher and Lance Briggs covering intermediate spaces with quick screen passes to multiple targets. The Packers played a fairly similar defense in the Carolina Panthers last week, and the first thing they did against Carolina was to spread that defense out with as many three- and four-wide sets as any defense will ever see. Last season, Green Bay ran three-wide 60 percent of the time, fifth-highest in the NFL, and they went four-wide 19 percent of the time, third-highest in the NFL. They do so differently than the Saints, who like to run close formations and leave the mystery of the route combinations for after the snap — the Packers are more formationally diverse than they are prone to blow your mind with trickery.
As a group, the Packers' receivers are expected to run combos and crosses, slants and seam routes, and they run a lot of routes that look like pick-and-roll plays in basketball — get the defenders in an area thinking that the read is in one place, and have that receiver block out the coverage for another receiver blasting through to an open space. They will like to trap defenders in short spaces. However, with Jordy Nelson taking the hat off the defense downfield, the Bears must watch for the tendency for quick receivers — especially from the slot — to exploit Cover- or Tampa-2 by forcing the safeties back and opening up all kinds of route possibilities underneath.
Rodgers has several talented receivers, but two have stood out this season — Nelson has become the team's deep threat down the seam, and tight end Jermichael Finley is just about uncoverable in underneath stuff when linebackers have to deal with him. The Bears are very adept when it comes to tight end coverage, but they'll have their work cut out for them here. Greg Jennings is the bread-and-butter receiver, though — he's replaced longtime great Donald Driver as Rodgers' go-to-guy. He's a physically tough receiver with a dynamic burst off the snap and a great route understanding.
Chicago's offense vs. Green Bay's defense
No discussion of the Bears' offense can begin without the elephant in the living room — this is a truly horrible offensive line that has quarterback Jay Cutler on pace for an incredible 88 sacks this season. That would beat the daylights out of the NFL single-season record (76), set by Houston's David Carr in 2002. The Saints sacked Cutler six times and hit him mercilessly -- right now, is seems that the only way Cutler won't break that record is if he's simply unable to withstand the beating.
A review of the tape on those six sacks reveals one disturbing fact — the Saints were sending different kinds of personnel, and the Bears were set up with different kinds of protections, and it simply didn't matter. The Bears are completely vulnerable to edge pressure — their tight ends struggle to pick up oncoming defenders, and you'll see free rushers coming in totally unobstructed in larger blitz packages because the Bears don't seem to alter their protection concepts. That's always been the case in Mike Martz offenses — he'll hang his quarterbacks out to dry to gain a schematic advantage — but in an era where more and more teams are running more explosive formations, the standard is to employ shorter dropbacks and quicker routes to allow quarterbacks to bail themselves out. The Bears simply don't do this, and it could cost them their franchise quarterback. Against the Packers, the primary challenge is outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who gets about half of his sacks by stunting inside. That will be a major issue for a line that has problems picking up the simplest pressure packages.
The one thing Cutler has is an amazing ace in the hole in running back Matt Forte. Forte has always been a productive back, but I'm seeing a different edge to his play this year. Before, he was more of a gliding runner. This year, he's running angrier and with more dynamism. That may have a root in Forte's unhappiness about his contract situation, but whatever the motivation, it really shows up on tape. The most impressive thing about Forte's productivity is that he's so infrequently able to blast anything up the middle because of that offensive line. He's great at bouncing outside and accelerating upfield, and he's also very productive in the passing game. The idea is to use Forte as Martz used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, and while Forte doesn't have Faulk's pure talent (not a slight on Forte; there are about three backs in NFL history as good as Faulk if you ask me) the usage pattern is pretty similar.
The difference between the Bears' current offense and the Greatest Show on Turf is the Bears' lack of consistent receivers. Last year, Johnny Knox was the most efficient and productive receiver in an iffy group. Of course, the Bears responded to this by demoting Knox in favor of Roy Williams, who happened to find a nut half a decade ago in Detroit in a Martz offense. Result? Knox is still the Bears' most efficient receiver per Football Outsiders' metrics, but he'll be coming off the bench today if the reports are true that Roy Williams (groin) will start today.
Facing all this dysfunction is a Dom Capers-led Packers defense that has given up 800 passing yards in its first two games, the most in the league. The front seven is solid, but the secondary is in flux — especially now that safety Nick Collins is out for the season with a neck injury. That's a huge hit for a Packers D that relies heavily on having certain defensive backs on the field as moving chess pieces. Green Bay will get cornerback Tramon Williams back, but Williams and Charles Woodson may have to play more traditional cornerback roles right now.
Sam Shields is the primary nickel cornerback, and Morgan Burnett is coming along at free safety, but Woodson can't really line up all over the place as easily without Collins up top. Ideally, he'd be in the slot, blitzing as a nickel defender, and causing havoc everywhere. Against the Panthers last week, he was on Steve Smith in single coverage on just about every play. Woodson's still a great player, and he can still take care of business, but it helps that the Bears just don't have any targets set to threaten pass defenses right now.
How this could go: From a Bears offensive perspective, this could shape out like one of those "When Animals Attack" videos. There's no doubt that Capers will run different blitzes to take advantage of the Bears' alleged protection concepts, and if those work early, this game could get ugly. Cutler must involve Forte as much as possible to get the blitz off his back. On defense, the Bears need to combine pressure and coverage as they did last January in icy Soldier Field. However, it's the Bears' offensive line that puts them on the spot to win any game at this point in time. It is their greatest vulnerability, and it's a vulnerability the Packers are well-equipped to exploit.
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