I do consider myself as die-hard a Bear fan as it gets; but the second half of Sunday’s beating at the hands of the Saints was hard to watch. I started having flashbacks of the Giants game at Meadowlands last year, one which Jay Cutler was knocked out of after suffering 8 sacks. In the first half.
As far as the pass protection goes, people are quick to blame the injuries to OT Gabe Carimi and OG Lance Louis, or the insertion of OT Frank Omiyale as reasons we had some trouble keeping Cutler upright. Upon further review, Omiyale played fairly well for being thrown into the fire against the Saints, and i expect him to do well going forward. The injuries never help, but every team has to deal with injuries—it is not an excuse for performance or execution. I will give my take on why our offense struggled later. But onto the review of the key points from my preview of Week 2, from last Thursday:
1) Bears’ tackling. Our defenses’ tackling was very average. There were a few impressive stops—most notably, a Tim Jennings’ tackle that forced a field goal from the Saints early in the 3rd quarter—but we had trouble bringing down rookie RB Mark Ingram and RB Pierre Thomas; and had a hard time even catching Darren Sproles.
2) Saints’ TE Jimmy Graham versus the Bears’ LBs. Graham finished the game as the Saints’ 2nd-leading receiver with 6 catches for 79 yards, including a 31-yarder.
3) The Bears’ Offensive Line versus The Superdome Crowd. The Bears committed 6 penalties for 47 yards, including 2 false starts on substitute OT Frank Omiyale. Even worse, there were numerous missed assignments on pass protection which led to alot of unnecessary hits on QB Jay Cutler. Whether those missed assignments were not a product of missed audibles, and just crappy blocking, we may never know. But the crowd was certainly a factor.
4) Kick and Punt Coverages. This was actually not a factor on either side, as neither return man really got anything going.
5) The Saints’ offensive line versus the Bears’ defensive line. This was a matchup the Bears HAVE to win in every game for the Cover-2 philosophy to work. They were dominated most of the game by the Saints’ offensive line; and they looked slow in pursuit. Take this for a contrast : In Week 1, Matt Ryan of the Falcons dropped back 48 times and was hit 11 times and sacked 5 times—a sack percentage of 11 percent. In Week 2, Drew Brees of the Saints dropped back 38 times, was hit just 2 times and sacked only once, a sack percentage of 2.5 percent. We must do a better job of creating pressure from our front four going forward.
Now…onto the pass protection troubles. I think there is are many facets to this problem that we need to fix before Jay Cutler gets killed:
A) I don’t know if we will ever know the reasoning behind the play-calling, but Matt Forte ran for 50 yards on 7 carries in the first quarter; and had 3 carries for -1 yards the rest of the way. Now, maybe the lack of running in the second half was a result of being down and trying to catch up…but what about the second quarter? Especially when you take into account the hostile environment…and how scrutinized our offensive line was all pre-season…you gotta get them into a rhythm and build some confidence.
B) Not having Roy Williams and Earl Bennett hurt, but I think it speaks ALOT to the ability of Devin Hester and Johnny Knox as receivers (or Cutler’s confidence in them; or both) that rookie Dane Sanzenbacher got a majority of the ‘clutch’ looks once Bennett went down. It is obvious that Hester and Knox have NO CLUE in the passing game.
– They do not break off routes on 8-man blitzes and get open quickly. They do not beat the jams and give Jay a good targets. There was one play in particular, where the Saints showed an 8 man rush, pre-snap. Jay takes a two step drop and looks for Hester or Knox out on the edge, expecting them to run a slant or a hitch. The only problem? Both Knox and Hester are running go routes and have not even looked back. Which is probably a good thing, because all they would have seen was Cutler getting thrown to the ground. Again.
– They do not make the clutch catches routinely. Hester, Knox, and Sanzenbacher all dropped very catchable passes that would have extended drives, or at least showed the Saints that we could be functional on blitz reads, and perhaps slowed the blitzes down somewhat. One thing I notice in this regard is that Hester, Knox, and Sanzenbacher NEVER come back to the ball to shield the defender and thus give Jay an easier target to throw into. They are always falling to the ground, away from Jay—which allows the defender to easier get in the way of the pass.
– Alot of people will blame this on Jerry Angelo for drafting smurf WRs who are not terribly physical, or not going out and getting a number one WR-type. But Hester and knox have been WRs now for 3 years apiece; you KNOW they have been coached up on how to do these things. There are WRs in the NFL with the same body types that do very well in third-and-short situations—Wes Welker, Steve Smith, just to name a couple—HESTER AND KNOX JUST HAVE TO EXECUTE.
– in other words, if you are going to try to win with those two guys, then you have to alter the game plan. ALOT. Keep 8 guys in to block for Jay, send Knox and Hester on go routes, have Jay chuck it 60 yards, and see if they can out-run the CBs and catch up to the ball. Its what we used to do with Bernard Berrian a few years back, because he had alot of the same deficiencies as Knox and Hester.
C) A coach can draw up the best plays and protection plans in the history of the NFL…but eventually your players have to MAN UP AND BLOCK SOMEBODY. Our OTs, TEs and RBs routinely whiffed on blocks, and nearly got Jay killed. Kellen Davis had a couple; Kahlil Bell had a really bad whiff on an inside blitz. Having Barber back will help there, as he is more of a physical presence than Bell. But again, blitz pickup is more about “want to” than skill. Us Bears fans had the chance to witness one of the best ever, Walter Payton—and he was only 5 foot-10 inches; maybe 200 pounds. As for Davis, maybe it is time to leave Speath in there full-time, or see what rookie Kyle Davis can do; because Kellen Davis looked SOFT in the Saints game.
D) I am not letting the coaches off of the hook on this one. On the 80-yard TD pass to Devery Henderson, credit Saints’ head coach Sean Payton for calling the play. Most coaches have a tendency to not try those deep balls against the Bears’ Cover-2 defense, and just are satisfied trying to 5-yard slant us down the field (eg.- The Falcons in Week One). Payton knew he had to stretch our defense out to open up some running lanes for his RBs and underneath passes to RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham. So, even if Major Wright doesn’t get beat and the pass is incomplete, Payton’s purpose would have been served. I NEVER see the Bears doing this anymore. You have two of the fastest WRs in the game in Knox and Hester. You have one of the strongest arms in the game in Cutler. THROW THE BALL DOWN THE FIELD A COUPLE OF TIMES—if nothing else, you will loosen up the underneath stuff, or at least get Hester and Knox a cushion from the CBs, so they do not have to try and beat press coverage.
And please—when we are losing by 3 scores midway threw the fourth quarter and you have 2 backup offensive linemen in the game and your franchise QB has been getting beaten to a pulp all game long, PLEASE TAKE JAY OUT OF THE GAME, RUN THE BALL, AND LIVE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY. As we learned by the Giants’ debacle last season, it is just one game—we still won the NFC North last season, regardless of that game.
The good news? Our coaching staff made the adjustments last season, after the Giants game, and we went on to win the NFC North. So don’t write off our team just yet—just know they have some stuff to fix before Sunday.
The only good thing about the lockout and subsequent late-starting training camp was that it made this preseason fly by; and all of a sudden, here we are at Opening Week. Experts have said that the scheduling gods did not do us any favors the first 3 weeks—versus Atlanta; at New Orleans; and versus Green Bay. I think this could end up being a plus for the Bears; especially when you consider if we can get through this cluster of games at 2-1 or even 1-2; our schedule is noticeably easier for the final 12 games—especially the final 6 games of the season, which gives us an advantage for a late-season playoff push.
At any rate, we open the season at home against the Falcons; a trendy pick by the experts to be an NFC contender—led by (overrated, in my book) quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and wideout Roddy White. A win here could be huge later in the season, when head-to-head tiebreakers could determine playoff spots, seeding, and possibly home-field advantage. Here are some things that are key for the Bears to come out of Week one with a win:
1) Good Tackling. Matt Ryan averaged about 6.5 yards per pass attempt last season, which was actually a career-high for him. Which means the Falcons throw alot of bubble screens, slants, hooks, and quick outs. They rely on players like Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and (now) Julio Jones to break tackles in space in order to create big plays. In fact, the Falcons only had 2 plays the ENTIRE GAME over 15 yards—a 40-yard TD catch and run by White and a 16-yarder by Gonzalez—both the result of missed tackles that would have limited those plays to 4- 5 yards. We did do a good job on Michael Turner, limiting him to just 30 yards on 13 carries. But he is one of the premier RBs in the NFL, and he is a load to bring down.
Coincidentally, the Thursday night game between the Packer and Saints would have been about a 21-14 game if either side was tackling well. It looked like a charity flag football game at times. I am not sure if this was a fluke, or a result of a shortened training camp, or the reduced number of padded practices—but this bears watching in al the week one games, not just the Bears game. If the Bears miss alot of tackles, our defense could be in some trouble. If we tackle well, the Falcons should have trouble putting up more than 20 points.
2. Pass protection. We have a 2nd-year player in his first year as a left tackle (J’Marcus Webb) and a rookie right tackle (Gabe Carimi) going against top-tier pass rushers in Ray Edwards and John Abraham. I expect us to run the ball ALOT early; and a game plan that attempts to get Forte out in space in the passing game matched up on the Falcons’ LBs and safeties, who are not known for their speed. I also expect to see alot of help from TEs Matt Speath and Kellen Davis on those edge rushers.
3. Our WRs versus the jam. The Falcons play a TON of man coverage, relying on their pass rushers to cause inaccurate passes and generate takeaways. Their CBs like to play up and aggressive on opposing WRs. However, they were exposed TERRIBLY in their last playoff game against the Packers, because if they are left to cover WRs for more than 2 or 3 seconds, or forced to try to make one-on-one, open-field tackles, they struggle. Heck, their CBs had trouble guarding our WRs during our last meeting in 2009, as Cutler threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs. Our offense’s downfall last season was the inability of our WRs to get open against in-your-face, physical CBs. Knox, Hester, and Bennett all look like they added some strength this offseason—not to mention the addition of Roy Williams—and we will see if this results in improved play in beating jam coverage, and better windows for Cutler to throw into.
4. Punt Coverage. I do not expect to see that much action in the kickoff return game, as both Robbie Gould and Falcons’ KO specialist Michael Koenen can bury the ball into the back of the endzone from the new 35-yard line kickoff line. However, the Bears and Falcons boast Pro-Bowl punt returners in Devin Hester and Eric Weems, respectively. And the Bears had some trouble covering punts last season, and now have a new punter and as many as 5-6 new players on punt coverage. Field posistion will be huge in this game, and one big punt return either way could be the difference.
5. Cutler’s decision making. One of the most under-noticed things about the Bears’ 2010 season was how QB Jay Cutler’s decision making improved over the last 8-10 weeks of the season. Knowing when to take what the defense gives you, or when to scramble if nothing is open. As we saw in the Thursday night game, one turnover by the Saints early in the game put them in a 14-0 hole they could never overcome. When you play elite teams, you cannot give them anything easy in the way of good field position or defensive touchdowns. As long as Cutler makes smart decisions, I really do not see the Falcons moving the ball at will against our defense.
FINAL PREDICTION: The name of the game in the current NFL is being able to create big plays. I think the Bears are more suited for this than the Falcons, and—especially being at home—-the Bears beat the Falcons in Week One, 28-17.
We started our roster observations with the offense in Part 1, now we will look at the defense and special teams.
(starters in bold)
Defensive Line: #90 Julius Peppers; #95 Anthony Adams; #69 Henry Melton; #71 Israel Idonije; #91 Amobi Okoye; #98 Corey Wootton; #75 Matt Toeaina; #96 Mario Addison; #92 Stephen Paea; #94 Nick Reed
The defensive line pretty much returns in tact from last season—the only real change here as far as starters go is Melton replacing Tommie Harris-Matt Toeaina as the starting 3-technique. Corey Wootton showed flashes last season and should see the majority of the action spelling Peppers and Idonije at DE. Amobi Okoye and Toeaina will provide the depth at DT. I am not sure how much playing time rookie DT Paea will see this season, unless he supplants Toeaina as the backup to Adams at the other DT position. Mario Addison came out of nowhere this preseason and earned a spot on this team, and should see some action on special teams. I have a feeling Reed is here to fill a spot until Wootton (who was hurt in Week one of the preseason) and his knee are ready to go. Again, just like we mentioned with the offensive line, you have alot of interchangeable parts here, with Idonije having the ability to move inside and Melton and Okoye being able to slide outside, if needed. Overall, you have to feel like Melton/Okoye should be an upgrade from Toeaina/Harris, which should open things up for Peppers and Idonije to build on their 16 combined sacks in 2010.
Linebackers: #55 Lance Briggs; #54 Brian Urlacher; #53 Nick Roach; #52 Brian Iwuh; #58 Dom DiCicco
At first glance, linebacker would not seem like a weak spot for the Bears. I did have some concern when we went into camp with as many undrafted free agents as we did; and now that J.T. Thomas is lost for the year after being placed on injured reserve, we have two backups who came into the league undrafted and are better suited to be special teamers at this point. In other words, our depth is SCARY THIN. A few waiver wire names have been mentioned (AJ Edds), and I think we will see Pisa Tinoisamoa back here as soon as he is healthy. But this is certainly a position to keep an eye on going into the season.
Cornerbacks: #33 Charles Tillman; #26 Tim Jennings; #30 DJ Moore; #21 Corey Graham; #35 Zack Bowman
You have to think the Bears were somewhat disappointed that Bowman or the recently-cut Josh Moore could not unseat Jennings at the corner spot opposite Tillman; but you can get by with Jennings. He is a competitor and plays bigger than his size. Tillman stayed healthy and had possibly his most consistent season in 2010. DJ Moore emerged as a playmaker and has found a perfect niche as the nickel corner. Graham is an okay backup and elite special teams performer. The Bears continue to wait and hold out hope that one day Bowman can reach the flashes of potential he showed as a rookie. The play of this group will be HUGE, as all the ‘elite’ NFC teams that we would probably end up playing in the postseason (Packers, Eagles, Falcons, Saints) employ a ton of 3-WR sets.
Safeties: #46 Chris Harris; #27 Major Wright; #31 Brandon Meriweather; #20 Craig Steltz; #47 Chris Conte; #36 Winston Venable
The Bears made a major splash on the Monday after final cuts by scooping up FS Brandon Meriweather from the Patriots; whether this is an indictment of Major Wright’s inability to get anywhere hear a football in the air, the Bears hedging their bet against Chris Harris leaving after the season, or just seeing an opportunity to grab a potentially elite player remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: he will bring a big-play ability to our secondary that we haven’t had since Mike Brown was staying healthy and running back interceptions for touchdowns every week. I do not think the Bears would be upset if the starters at safety were Harris and Meriweather by Week 3 against the Packers. Steltz, Conte and Venable provide some depth, but are more on the teams for what they can do on special teams at this point.
Special Teams: LS #65 Pat Mannelly; K #9 Robbie Gould; P #8 Adam Podlesh
Mannelly and Gould have and should remain among the league’s best at their respective positions; Podlesh was brought in and was somewhat inconsistent in the preseason. He should, however, be an upgrade over last season’s punter, Brad Maynard, who was near the bottom of the league in punting average; and whose sorry hangtime led to some big punt returns against the Bears last season.
Part 1 Of this post covered the projected depth chart on the offensive side of the ball, as the roster stands presently; now we will look at the defensive side of the ball. Again, keep in mind that some holes can still be filled via Free Agency, once the lockout is lifted.
Defensive End –
1) Julius Peppers
2) Israel Idonije
3) Corey Wootton
4) Nick Reed
Peppers was exactly what the Bears’ defense needed last season; being that guy on the defensive line that the other team has to account for on every play. He made game-changing plays in the 1st Detroit game and the Eagles game; and finished the season with 8 sacks, despite getting held on nearly every single play. Idonije had a great season in his first year moving from tackle to end; racking up 8 sacks. I still believe that if the Bears had seen a defensive end they really wanted in the first round; they would have no problem moving Izzy back to the 3-technique tackle. But since we drafted a DT, Izzy will stay at end. Wootton came on strong at the end of the season, and should be the top backup at both end spots. Nick Reed was claimed from the Seahawks, and could be an interesting addition as a backup end. Here is some video of Reed going against the Chargers’ Marcus McNeill. He shows good quickness in getting into the backfield.
Defensive Tackle –
1) Matt Toeaina
2) Henry Melton
3) Stephen Paea
4) Marcus Harrison
5) Tank Tyler
Anthony Adams is a Free Agent, and may or may not be re-signed. Matt Toeaina had an okay season sharing starting duties with Tommie Harris; but is more of a hustle guy and better suited to be a 3rd DT in a rotation. Reports have Melton as bulking up to 290 pounds to switch to the 3-technique DT, and if he can maintain his quickness at that weight, could be a stud. Stephen Paea was drafted to line up on the nose at the other tackle. If the knee injury suffered this post-season is not serious, then he might start from Day one. Some experts had Paea as the 3rd-rated DT in the draft; behind Dareus and Fairley. Its hard to tell what to make of Marcus Harrison. His time may be up here. Tank Tyler is a one-time 3rd-round draft pick of the Cheifs, and has also spent time with the Panthers. Here are some highlights that include Tyler in college. He has some tools; but looks now to be fighting for a roster spot with Harrison.
WLB) Lance Briggs
MLB) Brian Urlacher
SLB) J.T. Thomas
LB) Patrick Trahan
LB) Chris Johnson
This is a position that could change quite a bit in the next 2-3 months. As of now, the only LBs under contract for 2011-2012 are Briggs, Urlacher, Thomas, and 2 unknowns—Patrick Trahan and Chris Johnson. Nick Roach, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Iwuh and Rod Wilson are all free agents, and Hunter Hillenmeyer was let go. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2 of those 4 are re-signed; if I had to guess, I would say Roach and Iwuh, because of their value on special teams. I scoured the internet for information on Trahan and Johnson; all I could find was some obscure scouting reports. So not real sure what to make of this position.
1) Charles Tillman
2) Tim Jennings
3) DJ Moore
4) Zack Bowman
5) Josh Moore
6) KJ Gerard
Corey Graham is the only CB on the roster who us a free agent; and he really did not spend much time on the field other than on special teams. I could see the Bears re-signing him, if he does not get the interest from other teams that he obviously anticipates he will get. Zack Bowman lost his starting job for good in Week 2 versus the Cowboys to Tim Jennings. Jennings is good, but he is smallish and can get abused if he has to start for 16 games. DJ Moore had a solid year as the nickleback, but also is probably too small to start full-time. Josh Moore spent the season on the inactive list for almost all of the games, as he tries to get stronger; but he did impress me with his closing speed and footwork last preseason. Charles Tillman stayed healthy for the first time in a long time, and had maybe the best season of his career. KJ Gerard spent the entire season on our practice squad. He has good size (6-1, 192) and speed (4.49-40), but other than that, there is not enough information on the web about him to consider him anything more than a training camp body. Overall, I feel like we can get by with this group; but I wouldn’t be terribly upset if we upgraded during Free Agency. I cannot see the Bears shelling out the money for All-Pro CB Nnamdi Asumoguha; but I could see us making a run at Carlos Rogers of the Redskins or Jonathan Joseph of the Bengals, should they be allowed to test Free Agency.
1) Chris Harris
2) Major Wright
3) Chris Conte
4) Craig Steltz
Chris Harris played well in his return to the Bears, making big plays and solidifying the back half of our defense. Danieal Manning had his best season as a Bear, but he is a free agent after rejecting the Bears’ extension. Major Wright was hurt most of the season, and looked quite lost when he was in there; hopefully a full offseason will help him in 2012. Chris Conte was drafted to be the long-term answer at Free Safety. He has the range that the other 3 safeties on our roster all lack; how he holds up against the physical, greuling nature of the safety position in the NFL after spending just one year there in college remains to be seen. Craig Steltz can not seem to get any playing time other than on special teams. I think the Bears feel much better about the safety position than most experts or fans do at this point. It might not be a bad idea to go after a free agent, like Michael Huff or OJ Atogwe, once Free Agency begins.
1) Richmond McGee
Brad Maynard is a free agent, after having his worst year statistically as a punter. It would not surprise me if the Bears re-signed him for insurance; it would not surprise me if the Bears just go with McGee.
From the outside, one might say that the Bears are in a better place at the linebacker spot than any other position on the team. MLB Brian Urlacher and OLB Lance Briggs have played together now for 8 seasons; they are both perennial Pro Bowlers, and both fit exactly what you need from a linebacker in a Cover-2 defense—fast in pursuit, solid tacklers, and always going for the ball.
The problem for the Bears is that when you look at the depth chart, the only other player with NFL game-experience is Brian Iwuh, who played a couple games in relief of Briggs. The other LBs currently on the roster? Chris Johnson from South Dakota State, and Patrick Trahan from Mississippi. Have you ever heard of either of those guys? ME EITHER. In addition, Briggs will be 30 and Urlacher 33 at the start of the season; and while they have been relatively-speaking pretty durable, they will not play forever. While we might re-sign Nick Roach, Pisa Tinoisamoa, or Rod Wilson to fill the void at SLB next season, we desperately need an infusion of depth at LB.
One thing that does worry me about the idea of drafting LBs is that Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith have not been very good at it. Since stealing Briggs in the third round in 2003, here are the LBs that Angelo and Smith have picked: Joe Odom (Purdue); Leon Joe (Maryland); Jamar Williams (Arizona State); Michael Okwo (Stanford); Joey Larocque (Oregon State); Marcus Freeman (Ohio State). Two problems I see with the philosophy here are that a) the Bears have usually been unwilling to invest anything higher than a 4th round pick on a linebacker; and b) when they do—Okwo and Williams—they seem to pass over the better overall LB prospect to take a guy who might fit the Cover-2 better. Keep in mind that when you look at Urlacher, he is not a guy who would have EVER been drafted to play in thid defense—but he has done okay for himself, right?
MY POINT—A GOOD LINEBACKER CAN PLAY IN ANY SYSTEM.
Anyway, on with the prospects. We will leave out the college DEs who are switching to 3-4 OLBs. Click on the player name to link to his draft scouting report:
1st Round: Von Miller (Texas A&M); Akeem Ayers (UCLA).
2nd Round: Bruce Carter (North Carolina).
3rd Round: Mason Foster (Washington); Lawrence Wilson (Connecticut);
4th Round: KJ Wright (Mississippi State); Ross Homan (Ohio State).
5th Round: Brian Rolle (Ohio State); Adrian Moten (Maryland); Doug Hogue (Syracuse).
6th-7th Rounds: Mark Herzlich (Boston College); Scott Lutrus (Connecticut); JT Thomas (West Virginia); Jabara Williams (Stephen F Austin); Eric Gordon (Michigan State); Michael Morgan (USC); Malcolm Smith (USC); Jacquain Williams (USF).
1st Round: Martez Wilson (Illinois).
2nd Round: Quan Sturdivant (North Carolina).
3rd Round: Greg Jones (Michigan State).
4th Round: Colin McCarthy (Miami); Kelvin Sheppard (LSU); Nate Irving (North Carolina State).
5th Round: Casey Matthews (Oregon); Josh Bynes (Auburn).
6th-7th Round: Mike Mohamed (California); Chris White (Mississippi State); Mario Harvey (Marshall); Jeff Tarpinian (Iowa); Kendall Smith (Florida State); Cobrani MIxon (Kent State).
The Bears typically look for linebackers who can a)fly to the ball; b)tackle well; and c) play on special teams. Unless the unthinkable happens, and Von Miller or Martez Wilson fall to us at the end of the first round, do not expect the Bears to address the strongside linebacker position or depth at linebacker in general until the 4th round or later.
At OLB, guys who intrigue me for the third day of the draft are Adrian Moten & Doug Hogue as 4th or 5th rounders; and Malcolm Smith and Jacquain Williams in the 6th or 7th rounds. At MLB, I do expect the Bears to draft a ‘measurables’ guy to perhaps groom as Urlacher’s replacement on the third day—Colin McCarthy in the 4th round, or Mario Harvey and Cobrani MIxon in the 6th or 7th rounds. All of these guys could be special teams dynamos from day one; and in the case of Martez Wilson, Adrian Moten, and Colin McCarthy, they could even have a chance to win the strongside LB job as a rookie.
Today, we will look at the matchup between the Packers’ offense versus the Bears’ defense. The Packers are hot, having scored an average of 35 points per game the last 5 weeks. However, the Bears held them to 10 points in the third game of that 5-game span. In fact, the Bears’ defense has matched up well with the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense over the last 2 years—in 4 games against the Bears, they have scored 17 points per game. In the 31 games against everyone else? Just under 30 points per game—almost 2 TDs less per game. Lets look at the matchups:
Packers’ offensive line versus Bears’ defensive line: The Packers offensive line, blamed last year for almost sending Aaron Rodgers into early retirement, was much improved this year—Aaron Rodgers was sacked 31 times this season, as opposed to 50 times last season. This season, in the Bears’ 20-17 win in Week 3, the Packers committed 18 penalties—mostly holding and illegal procedure, and the referees missed another 10-15. In the Packers’ 10-3 win in Week 17, the offensive line did a much better job protecting Rodgers, and he was able to complete a couple long passes to set up the 2 Packers’ scores.
Green Bay X-Factor: Aaron Rodgers’ scrambling ability. He is not Michael Vick, but Rodgers’ ability to move in the pocket and throw in the run could give the Packers’ WRs more time to get open and create big plays.
Chicago X-Factor: Tommie Harris. You know what you’re going to get from DEs Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Tommie Harris has 3 sacks in the past 2 games. If he can shoot gaps in the run game and create up-the-middle pressure in the passing game, Green Bay’s offensive line will have trouble keeping Aaron Rodgers comfortable.
Packers’ RBs, TEs and WRs versus the Bears’ LBs and secondary: You will have a hard time finding a trio of LBs that read plays and fly to the ball like the Bears’ Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Pisa Tinoisamoa. That being said, Packers’ TE Jeremichael Finley had 9 catches for 120 yards in the first meeting this season. Luckily for the Bears, he is out for the year. The Packers have maybe the most talented trio of WRs in the league with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones. And Jordy Nelson is as good a 4th WR as you will find in the league. For the Bears, there seemed to be alot of holes in the secondary once S Chris Harris left the game with a hip injury. Our back four seemed out of position. Alot. Harris says he will be able to go, so lets hope he is at 100 percent. Also, Tillman dropped 2 potential INTs in that 4th quarter against the Seahawks, and we cannot afford to miss those opportunities against an elite QB like Rodgers.
Packers’ X-Factor: WR James Jones. The Bears were able to shut down the first option of the Seahawks, WR Mike Williams. However, WR Brandon Stokely was open out of the slot the entire game. It seemed that there were some holes in the Bears’ zones between the nickle corner DJ Moore and the LBs for quick hitting seam plays. Expect the Packers to try to exploit some quick hitters to negate the Bears’ pass rush.
Bears’ X-Factor: Stripping the Ball. The key play in the Week 3 win over the Packers was Urlacher popping the ball loose from WR James Jones, which CB Tim Jennings recovered. Last week against the Falcons, WR Greg Jennings had the ball knocked out from behind by LB Stephen Nicholas in the first quarter. CB Charles Tillman and FS Chris Harris are notorious for popping the ball out while tackling runners. The Packers should be throwing alot of underneath passes and trying to run after the catch. In a game where one mistake could determine the outcome, a fumble recovery could be the difference once again.
I’m not sure if there is a more relaxing weekend in the world for an NFL fan than Wild Card Weekend when your team has a first-round bye. Lovie Smith sent the players home for the weekend on Thursday; hopefully, those guys with minor injuries (Major Wright, Chris Harris, Nick Roch, Pisa Tinoisamoa) are healing up and will be ready to go on Monday when the team re-convenes.
This weekend is still important to the Bears, however. The results of the NFC Wild Card games over the next two games—New Orleans at Seattle on Saturday; and Green Bay at Philadelphia on Sunday—will determine the Bears’ opponent next Sunday afternoon. Its an interesting scenario for the Bears—the weakest team of the lot—the Seahawks, have already beaten us on our home turf this season; The Saints are scary because they have a great passing offense and they are the defending World Champs; and the Eagles have a dynamic offense that might be tough to beat twice in one year. With all this in mind, here is what I will be looking for this weekend:
1) How will the loss of their top 2 RB’s affect the Saints? This weekend, Julius Jones will be the starting running back for the Saints. Seriously. Their top 2 RBs, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, are both out for the playoffs. Last year, Pierre Thomas was maybe more important than Drew Brees to that offense, bringing balance to a team that has always been pass-happy. So look for the Saints to rely on the pass more than ever, and if they do run, expect a lot of 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations for the Saints. Even if they beat the Seahawks on Saturday, I am not sure they can move down the field on the Bears if there is no threat of a run game. Look how we stopped the Packers’ offense last Sunday. And to all Saints’ fans: with Malcolm Jenkins out as well, and playing in Seattle, I have a feeling this game might be closer for longer than most people are thinking. With that being said…
2) Can the Seahawks’ Pass Defense hold up with the Saints’ Pass Offense? The Seahawks were abysmal defending the pass this season, allowing over 7 yards per pass attempt, almost 14 yards per pass completion, giving up 31 passing touchdowns, and only getting 14 interceptions. Now, you look at the secondary with a past Pro Bowler in Marcus Trufant, dynamic rookie Earl Thomas, and savvy veteran Lawyer Milloy, and you automatically think that their pass rush was lacking; however, they were 6th in the nFC with 37 sacks, so thats not terrible. However, if you give up 31 TDs in a season where you get to play St Louis, San Francisco, and Arizona all TWICE, you have some issues in the back half. And you are facing Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Reggie Bush. I look for WR Lance Moore and TEs Jeremy Shockey and Jimmy Graham to have big days. While we are on the subject, let me say without sounding crazy that the Seahawks, in alot of ways, offer more of a matchup problem for the Bears’ defense than the Packers or the Saints. Seattle has something that is an all-time Cover-2 killer—a downhill, cutback runner—Marshawn Lynch.
3) Can the Packers stop LeSean McCoy? You have to think that last Sunday, if he was watching Matt Forte average 6 yards per carry and catch numerous passes out of the backfield against the Packers, that LeSean McCoy, who has a similar skill set to Forte, was already licking his chops? The Packers have no ability to stop an off-tackle run. The Packers have nobody who can cover a pass-catching RB or a pass-catching TE—and the Eagles have both in McCoy and TE Brent Celek. Andy Reid is no dummy—I expect him to run the ball down the Packers’ throats until they prove they can stop it.
4) How will the Eagles attack Aaron Rodgers? The normal school of thought when facing an elite QB, like Aaron Rodgers, is to get pressure by blitzing from alot of different angles. However, since the Packers cannot run the ball, you can rush four and flood the passing zones, which is what the Bears did last Sunday—and if not for a blown coverage by Danieal Manning, would have held the Packers out of the End Zone. Greg Jennings vs. Asante Samuel is a wash; if the Packers are going to move the ball, they will have to exploit Donald Driver versus Dimitri Patterson (who played pretty well in his first year as a starter), and James Jones versus the Eagles’ nickelback , Joselio Hanson. The Packers like to chuck the ball downfield—and the Eagles like to jump routes—so there are going to be big plays, one way or the other.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, you have the Jets visiting the Colts, and the Ravens visiting the Chiefs. Let me say that if I am a Jets’ fan, I am wondering WHY WOULD REX RYAN GIVE PEYTON MANNING ANY EXTRA MOTIVATION TO PLAY WELL? You know Manning is still upset about the way the Super Bowl ended last year. Remember, the Bears’ offense scored 38 on the Jets’ supposdely vaunted defense. And, if it comes down to QB play—who do you trust—Peyton Manning, or Mark Sanchez? I expect the Colts to win, and it not to be that close. As far as Ravens-Chiefs, the Chiefs can keep it close if Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles have big games, as they have had all year long. Matt Cassel is not spectacular, but he doesn’t lose games either. And I am not sold on Joe Flacco until he actually has to win a game that his defense lets him down in. The Ravens are the sexy pick here, but I think the Chiefs at least keep it close. These two teams are closer statistically than you initially would think. And Arrowhead Stadium is one of the great home-field advantages in the NFL.