Both the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears needed help two years ago (Packers) and last year (Bears). The NFC Championship game could come down to the moves Chicago’s Mike Martz and Green Bay’s Dom Capers make.
The Green Bay Packers were a mess when they hired Dom Capers as their defensive coordinator two years ago, and the Chicago Bears had issues on offense when they turned to Mike Martz after last season.
Well, now look at them.
The Packers and Bears meet in the NFC championship game on Sunday, and the outcome just might hinge on the chess match between two veteran coordinators.
“Mike has certainly been doing this for a lot of years, and he has a lot of little intricacies that are true to his system, I think, that you never know when that’s going to come out,” Capers said. “And he knows when he wants to use them and he knows when I think they’ll be the most effective against you.”
Martz called Capers “a terrific teacher” whose teams have always been “well schooled.” And Green Bay’s defense sure earned high grades this year, helping the Packers get to the conference championship despite a list of injuries that would have derailed many teams.
The Bears, meanwhile, looked as if they were coming off the tracks before making some key adjustments on offense and turning around their season.
Now, these teams are facing off for the 182nd time and the stakes have never been higher. Only once before have they played in the postseason, and that was a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Chicago beat Green Bay at Wrigley Field on the way to the championship.
Finally, they meet again in the playoffs.
Franchises with a combined 21 championships and 47 Hall of Famers – with icons on both sides such as Halas, Butkus and Ditka, and Lombardi, Starr and Nitschke – are set to go at it for a spot in the Super Bowl.
It’s a chance for young and talented quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler to cement themselves among the best at their position, with two of the league’s stingiest defenses staring at them.
Then, there are the coordinators.
“They show you a lot of looks,” Cutler said. “They’re really good. Dom Capers does a great job of preparing each and every week and keeping offenses off balance, which they’ve done to us in the past.”
Statistically, it looks like a mismatch. Capers is leading the fifth-ranked defense, while Martz’s offense ranked 30th, but the improvements the Bears made on that side of the ball during the season helped lift them to the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye.
For Green Bay’s defense, the work began two years ago. Capers took over a unit that was vulnerable to the big play and couldn’t hold big leads. The transition from the 4-3 to his 3-4 set wasn’t an easy one, but the Packers made big strides and kept it up despite a string of injuries.
Three defensive starters are on injured reserve and several other key players missed time with injuries, but they still have Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews. Tramon Williams developed into a top-tier cornerback, adding depth in a secondary with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins.
The Packers held opponents to 15 points per game, the second-lowest scoring average, and made things miserable on quarterbacks. With 47 sacks, they tied for second in the league, and leading the way was Matthews with 13 1/2.
That might make Bears fans cringe, considering Cutler got sacked a league-high 52 times. But Chicago also came on strong over the second half of the season after it committed to the run and settled on a starting offensive line, helping spark a 7-1 run that saved the season.
That was something few envisioned when the Bears stumbled into their break at 4-3 after dropping three of four in a brutal stretch. Cutler was taking a pounding behind a line that was being juggled because of injuries and poor execution. The running game was being ignored, too.
The deep drops that Martz likes to use simply weren’t working, and many were wondering if the architect behind “The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis was the right fit. The team that returned from the bye had a different look, a different emphasis.
The Bears cut back on the deep drops and started handing the ball off, getting Matt Forte (1,069 yards) more involved while keeping defenses off balance. The blocking improved, too.
One thing that didn’t change: the players’ belief in Martz.
“He’s a great coach, great mentor, great teacher,” receiver Earl Bennett said. “He’s one of those coaches that always can help you get better. By having a guy like him around, he can take your game to a whole ‘nother level.”
Even so, Martz’s hiring was viewed by many as an act of desperation, a high-risk gamble by a team that went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the third straight year.
He left St. Louis on bad terms. Stints as coordinator in Detroit and San Francisco didn’t end well, either. He was perceived as stubborn and addicted to the pass, someone who might get Cutler hurt behind a weak line. He also criticized the Bears’ quarterback as an NFL Network analyst last season.
Then again, he also developed one of the most prolific offenses with the Rams, helping Kurt Warner go from stocking grocery shelves to a starring role, and coach Lovie Smith head an up-close view as Martz’s defensive coordinator.
It took time – and a different approach – for the offense to click.
“Their formula for success, running the football has a lot to do with it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “If you look at the way the offense has performed over the course of the season, they’ve had very favorable field position, and running the football particularly of late, and how they ran the ball against Seattle is a little different than how they’ve run the ball against us in the past. Those are the types of things we’re looking at.”
There will be plenty of eyes on the strategic adjustments, too.
“(Capers) understands this game as well as anybody defensively,” Martz said. “I have great respect for him.”
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