Senior writer jclombardi scouts Packers vs Bears afternoon game.
Preview: Teams: Packers (9-6) vs. Bears (11-4). Time: 3:15 p.m. CST. Place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay. Packers injury report: S Atari Bigby (groin), FB Korey Hall (knee), DE Cullen Jenkins (calf) and LB Frank Zombo (knee) are out. CB Sam Shields (knee), S Nick Collins (ribs), LB Clay Matthews (shin), DE Ryan Pickett (ankle), CB Charles Woodson (toe), LT Chad Clifton (knees), LB Erik Walden (quadriceps), LB Diyral Briggs (ankle) and C Scott Wells (back) are probable. Line: The Packers are favored by 10 points. THE BREAKDOWN: Things to Watch. Something to play for: A game is about survival for the Packers, who will earn the NFC”s No. 6 playoff seed with a victory over their longtime rivals. The NFC North-champion Bears, meanwhile, have secured the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye. The odds are against them leapfrogging New Orleans and Atlanta for the No. 1 seed, so they likely will have nothing to play for. Still, coach Lovie Smith insisted all week that his team would “play to win,” meaning he wouldn’t rest his starters even if Atlanta and New Orleans win, locking the Bears into the No. 2 seed. ESPNChicago.com reported on Friday citing sources that Bears backups were being told to be ready to play. Tampa-2 faced: Brian Urlacher knows the Packers are on to him and the rest of the Bears’ defense. While Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 version of the Cover-2 defense has been the basis of much of the Bears’ defensive success over the past seven years, they don’t play the scheme as often as fans might think. Part of the chessmatch Sunday will be the Packers’ ability to know when the Bears are in Tampa-2 and when they aren’t. Quarterback Rodgers said the Bears play more single-high safety more than they play Tampa-2, while offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said calling the Bears a Tampa-2 team a “misnomer.” “Aside from that second half of the ‘07 game … they play a lot of other defenses, obviously. They’ve got a lot of other calls,” Philbin explained. Fun with the run: In their past two games, the Packers running backs have gotten 34 and 33 carries, respectively. For a team that has been very much a pass-first operation, that’s quite the commitment to the run. That said, the Packers do need more productivity out of their high number of attempts. Their backs had 131 yards against New England on Dec. 19 and 93 yards against the Giants last week. But the elimination of negative runs has given the coaches more confidence in the ground game, even if the production hasn’t been high enough. That includes more play-action passes, which the Packers used brilliantly against the Giants, with Rodgers completing 11 of 12 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns (158.3 perfect passer rating) on play-action passes last week. “You have two categories in the way you throw the football, and 50 percent of it is action passing game and the other 50 percent is dropback. Now, that doesn’t mean you go out and throw 20 passes and it’s 10-10 each week,” McCarthy explained. “Play-action is very important. But running the football is important. The attempts in the running game in my opinion is the most important.” Flag day: The Packers left their first meeting with the Bears feeling as if they’d given the game away with their penalties – a team single-game record 18 for 152 yards. Since then, though, the Packers have been among the league’s most disciplined teams in the penalty department. After leading the NFL in penalties (341) and penalty yards (3,047) from 2007 through ’09, the Packers enter the rematch tied for fourth in the NFL for fewest penalties with 74, and with third-fewest penalty yards with 587. Rodgers’ neighborhood: Rodgers’ return from a concussion, suffered Dec. 12 in Detroit, was breathtaking against the Giants. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements thought it was the smartest game Rodgers has played in his career. It’s hard to argue with completing 25 of 37 passes 404 yards (a career regular-season high) with four touchdowns (matching his career best) and no interceptions for a 139.9 passer rating. He is determined to get his team back to the playoffs. He’s yet to win a playoff game – he lost his only one, 51-45, to Arizona last January despite a career performance – and intends to change that next week. But first, he must play well in this de facto playoff game to get his team into the tournament.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH: CHANGING OF THE FRONT: In the Week 3 meeting, the Packers had three sacks, three knockdowns and eight hurries against Jay Cutler. On Sunday, the Bears’ offensive line will be different at three positions. “The first time they played, they were running Mike Martz’s offense and the Packers got after their quarterback,” a personnel man for a Bears opponent said. “Now they’ve got Mike Tice running the offense and the protections are better and they’ve got a running game.” DYNAMIC THREAT: “There are times when you hit Hester a great punt and he maybe forces the return and struggles a little bit,” an opposing special-teams coach said. “He’s the most prolific specialist maybe in the history of the NFL and he’s red-hot right now.” Hester also has been returning kickoffs of late. “You try to move the ball around and they end up getting such good field position,” the coach said. “They’ve got the No. 1 starting field position in the NFL (31.5). A lot of it has to do with the fact nobody wants to kick to this guy. They can dominate field position with those return guys.” STEADY AS SHE GOES: “They just sit in that ‘Tampa 2,’?” one scout said. “Lovie (Smith) has said his defense was designed to stop offenses like the Packers’. It’s one of the top defenses in the league. The defensive line is generating so much pressure. They have (Julius) Peppers and (Israel) Idonije, and now Tommie Harris is back playing at a high level. He disappeared in the first half of the season and now they’ve got him back starting. He’s rested and flying around.” FIFTH MEETING: As a Bronco, Cutler was 0-1 against the Packers. As a Bear, he is 1-2. “He’s playing within himself more,” one scout said. “They’re running the ball more. They’ve been smart how they’ve used him and he’s playing pretty good. He’s got a talented arm.” BACK END: One reason the Bears’ opponents have just a 73.6 passer rating is the ability of Chicago’s three cornerbacks to perform adequately. The Bears have gone with LC Tim Jennings, RC Charles Tillman and nickel back D.J. Moore. “They’ve been OK,” one scout said. “They are helped by the front, and they play a lot of Cover 2. Very sound with it.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Packers P Tim Masthay vs. Bears PR Devin Hester. Green Bay special teams coordinator Slocum will have to pick his poison after being burned in Chicago’s win in Week 3. He allowed Masthay to kick to Hester in that game, and the league’s all-time touchdowns leader on returns scored on a 62-yard runback. Masthay has been better the second half of the season with hang time and ball placement, so the Packers don’t figure to tempt fate again by sacrificing some field position in having the first-year punter angle his punts out of bounds. Packers LT Chad Clifton and RT Bryan Bulaga vs. Bears RDE Julius Peppers and LDE Israel Idonije. Clifton and Bulaga had winning performances Sunday in holding the NFL’s top sacks tandem of Umenyiora and Tuck to all of one sack in the Packers’ rout of the Giants. Another dynamic duo comes to Lambeau Field with eight sacks apiece for newly anointed Pro Bowl starter Peppers and Idonije who is having a career-best season.
GAME PLAN: Barring the Bears receiving a double dose of good news in the early action Sunday, Chicago will treat this like a preseason game. Never mind that coach Smith says he’s not inclined to rest some of his starters. Not having to face the red-hot Cutler and instead having the defense bear down on 39-year-old Collins or third-year Hanie would make Green Bay’s pursuit of the win that would ensure it a playoffs berth a lot easier. If Cutler does play for any significant amount of time, the onus will be on defensive coordinator Capers to be more liberal with the pressure packages against a feeble offensive line. Capers dialed that down some in the teams’ first meeting and allowed Cutler, who threw only one interception and was sacked just three times, to rally the Bears to victory in the second half with downfield throws. Minus Cutler, the Packers will key in on bottling up Forte if he’s allowed to play and/or Taylor in the run game. Depending on what personnel the Bears trot out on defense, running the football effectively could be out of the question for Green Bay’s offense. That should mean plenty of pitch-and-catch for Rodgers and his band of receivers after their big outing of 400-plus yards against the Giants. Head coach/play-caller McCarthy will be cognizant of getting Rodgers to the 307 passing yards he needs for a third straight 4,000-yard season.
COMMENTARY: For a rare instance, a fluff Packers press reporter said something smart about winning teams, “On paper, the Bears might not look like an outstanding team. In reality, they are. Ground attacks, pass rush, sound schemes, no injuries, great special teams, confidence and veteran leadership have won a lot of games. Under normal circumstances, this game would be a tossup, with a chance to go down as a classic in the ancient rivalry.” If the Packers had the same management style, the fans are correct. The NFC Packers would mirror the AFC Patriots’ domination, instead of playing for the 6th playoff spot.