8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Green Bay -7
Another entry in the NFL’s oldest rivalry takes place tonight at Lambeau Field, as the Green Bay Packers host the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football. Both teams emerge from their respective Bye Week after blowout losses, but are trending in very different directions. The Packers (5-3) saw their four-game winning streak snapped in New Orleans, as the hosts exploded for 495 yards in the 44-23 drubbing. With the game tied at sixteen points apiece at the halfway mark, the visitors were outscored 28-0 over the final thirty minutes, as Aaron Rodgers suffered a strained hamstring which caused Mike McCarthy to pull the former MVP Quarterback out of the game midway through the Fourth Quarter. Fortunately, the Bye came at the right time as Rodgers will get the opportunity to carve up a struggling Bears’ defense that is licking their wounds after giving up 51 points to the Patriots two weeks ago. In fact, the last time the tenth-year veteran faced Chicago, he dismantled their once vaunted defense on 22-of-28 passing, for 302 yards, and four touchdowns in an easy 38-17 victory at Soldier Field. And who could forget when he proceeded to shatter the collective hearts of their fan base in last year’s Regular Season Finale? After returning from a broken collarbone sustained seven weeks prior against these same Bears, Rodgers went 25-of-39 for 318 yards, and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions, including the game-winning 48-yard touchdown toss to Randall Cobb, effectively eliminating their hated rivals from the postseason.
So with half of the season in the books, Rodgers and Co. are once again in contention for the Playoffs, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of their offense, which has really rounded into shape after a slow start to the campaign. Thus far, the Packers have averaged 27.8 points (6th overall) on 362.8 yards per game (16th overall), including 265.3 through the air (13th overall) on 7.1 net yards per attempt (8th overall). As expected, Rodgers has played at the highest of levels; No. 12 has completed 67.6% of his passes for 2,092 yards (8.4 yards/attempt), with nineteen touchdowns and just three interceptions, with a Passer Rating 113.6, best in the league. In fact, he’s been so efficient with the ball in his hands, the two interceptions he threw against New Orleans marked the first time in which he was picked off since Seattle managed that feat in the season opener. Benefiting from his stellar play are Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who have terrorized opposing Secondaries throughout the campaign. Nelson leads the Receiving Corps with fifty catches for 737 yards (14.7 yards/catch) and six touchdowns, while Cobb has hauled in forty receptions for 578 yards (14.5 yards/catch) and a team-high nine scores. With that said, the only thing missing from this unit is the running game, which has been terribly inconsistent this season. A year removed from averaging 133.5 rushing yards (7th overall), by far the most of the McCarthy Era, Green Bay has slumped back to 97.5 yards per game (24th overall). Injuries along the Offensive Line have played a part here, but reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy simply hasn’t found the success that he did in 2013, when he burst onto the scene 1,178 yards and eleven touchdowns. A lingering ankle injury suffered in the preseason carried over into the early stages of the schedule, but with the exception of a 105-yard effort against the Vikings, has yet to surpass 63 yards in a game. However, the major difference has been opportunities; Lacy is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, same as he did last year, but is carrying the ball 5.8 times less per contest. And there’s your problem; through eight outings, the sophomore has yet to receive more than seventeen carries in a game. But there is good news yet, as Offensive Linemen T.J. Lang (ankle) and Josh Sitton (toe) are likely to return from injuries, and should bolster the rushing attack against Chicago’s porous defensive front.
Despite their struggles on the ground, Green bay has been able to compensate with the play of their defense. Waitaminute, you mean the same Green Bay defense that ranked above twenty-fifth overall just once since winning the Super Bowl in 2010? Yes, that’s precisely what we’re trying to say. Over the last three seasons, the Packers have invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the Draft where they have used fifteen picks on defensive players, including each of the past three First Round Picks. All that young potential is starting to bear fruit, especially in terms of takeaways, where this unit has been as opportunistic as any in the league; thus far, McCarthy’s defense has forced fifteen turnovers (7th overall), including ten interceptions, which is good for fifth-best in the NFL. One of only a handful of teams to force a turnover in every game this season, the Packers have now logged thirteen over their last six outings. Eight different players have corralled an errant pass, with Cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Sam Shields sharing the lead at two apiece. The pass-rush has played an integral part as well, accumulating eighteen sacks, with nine different players dropping the Quarterback for a loss. Datone Jones and Nick Perry, two of those aforementioned First Round Picks have accounted for four of that total with veteran Defensive End and former Bear Julius Peppers, who was acquired in the offseason, leads the group with four unto himself. But with all that said, what the defense has in common with their compatriots on offense is they have been struggled in the running game, and that there ladies and gentlemen may be a little too generous. Simply put, the Packers have the worst rush defense in the league, allowing a whopping 153.5 yards on the ground (32nd overall) on 4.8 yards per carry (31st overall). And their opponents are well aware of that, averaging 32.1 carries against them, fourth-most in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the alarms are ringing loudly in the Windy City, as the Bears (3-5) look like a team on the precipice of a breakdown. Since beginning the season 2-1, Marc Trestman’s charges have lost four out of their last five contests, and they continue to get uglier and uglier. But nothing could prepare Bears fans for what they would endure two weeks ago in Foxboro, as the Patriots mercilessly put them out of their misery in an embarrassing 51-23 beatdown. And to be honest, the game wasn’t even that close; the hosts quickly jumped out to a 31-7 lead by halftime, before ringing up a whopping 487 yards of offense by the time final whistle blew. Tom Brady and Co. just did whatever they wanted to the beleaguered defense, torching for 376 yards through the air, and trampling them to the tune of 122 yards on the ground. But if you really want a culprit in this team’s struggles, look no further than their own mistake-prone offense, which is seemingly always a turnover away from falling apart. Trestman’s outfit committed two more turnovers that day, bringing their total to five over the past two games. It may sound like hyperoble, but when you turn the ball over, you oftentimes lose games, and that is exactly what has happened to these Bears; in their three victories, Chicago has committed just one turnover while enjoying a plus-seven differential, but in their five losses have given it away a staggering fourteen times, with a dreadful differential of minus-eleven.
Easily the most frustrating thing about this group is the fact that they remain arguably one of the most talented offenses in the league today, but continue to make the same boneheaded mistakes that have kept them out of the postseason since 2010. It’s not like they haven’t been coached well; regarded as one of the brilliant offensive minds in the league, Trestman has overseen an offensive overhaul that has propelled the Bears towards the top of the league in many categories, after years of being a stagnant, conservative unit. This season, they have averaged 22.5 points (18th overall) on 367.8 yards (13th overall), including 265.5 through the air (11th overall) on 6.3 net yards per attempt (18th overall), and another 102.5 on the ground (18th overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (12th overall). While not bad by any means, there has been a statistical decline from the previous campaign, where they ranked second in scoring (27.8) and eighth in total offense (392.4), and not to mention fifth in passing yards (278.1) and sixteenth in rushing yards (114.3). That would be the effect of turnovers, which have habitually killed promising drives on a slew of occasions. At the center of this storm is of course Jay Cutler, the mercurial Quarterback whose once limited potential has been constantly trumped by his own recklessness. The ninth-year veteran was resigned in the offseason to a considerable contract, despite only going 5-6 as a starter and watching his backcup, Josh McCown, go 3-2 while he was out with a hamstring injury. It also didn’t help matters that once Cutler returned, the Bears lost their final two games of the season and missed out on the Playoffs yet again. However, Management showed faith by bringing him back, but they may soon regret that decision if they haven’t already; in eight starts, Cutler has completed a career-high 67.2% of his passes for 2,093 yards (7.1 yards/attempt), seventeen touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also fumbling a league-high nine times. And this does not bode well with the Packers on deck, for he has played some of his worst games against the bitter division rivals; since arriving in Chicago in 2009, Cutler is just 1-9 versus Green Bay, including the Playoffs, all the while throwing a harrowing twenty interceptions to just twelve touchdowns.
Equally as disappointing has been the remarkable, yet inevitable erosion of the defense, which was one of the league’s very best for nearly a decade. Under former Head Coach Lovie Smith, the Bears finished worse than sixteenth in points allowed just once, and no worse than seventeenth in total defense twice from 2003 to 2012, ranking in the top-five in those respective categories four times apiece. In fact, Chicago fielded the fifth-ranked defense in Smith’s final season on the sidelines, but has since seen his former charges deteriorate overnight. In comparison, with Trestman at the helm, this unit ranked thirtieth in both points allowed and yards allowed last season, and has only marginally been better in 2014. So let’s take moment to run through the numbers; through eight game Chicago has allowed 27.8 points (29th overall) on 372.4 yards (22nd overall), including 262.3 yards versus the pass (23rd overall) on 7.9 net yards per attempt (29th overall), and another 110.1 yards versus the run (13th overall) on 4.2 yards per carry (18th overall). Even with a solid pass-rush (twenty sacks), the defense has been picked apart by their opponents. Even their uncanny ability to force turnovers has apparently dried up; the Bears forced eight turnovers through the first three games, but have since managed just four takeaways over the last five games. No team in the league has fed off of takeaways over the past ten years as these guys, which should make the sudden dearth of game-changing plays all the more alarming. Then again, Brian Urlacher is walking through that door, folks, and neither is Mike Singletary or Dick Butkis.