By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Please avoid falling into the trap of calling the Packers overrated just because they’re 0-1. They lost to a 49ers team who may be the league’s best – certainly the deepest – that was a muffed punt away from representing the NFC in Super Bowl 46.
The 49ers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, played turnover-free on offense, gut punched the soft middle of the Packers defense, and schemed plays to get their wide receivers advantageous matchups against linebackers. Has a blueprint to beat the Packers been designed?
The Packers are far from a perfect team, but they are still elite. They boast one of the league’s most explosive offenses, and possess the league’s best player at the most important position on the field, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. What else can be said about Rodgers that hasn’t been said already? He is mechanically sound, athletic, poised, decisive, has surgeon-like precision, and his arm strength is second-to-none.
Rodgers throws to a deep group of wide receivers, led by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, who form one of the league’s deadliest 1-2 combinations. Jennings suffered a groin injury on Sunday, and his status remains uncertain for Thursday night.
An interesting offensive wrinkle was unveiled this past weekend, when the Packers lined Randall Cobb up in the backfield. This is designed to exploit matchups against linebackers, and get Cobb the ball in space. Cobb made a lot of noise last year returning kicks, but head coach Mike McCarthy has carved out a new role for him in his sophomore season.
Tight end Jermichael Finley has owned the Bears, tallying four touchdowns in their last two meetings. Finley’s athleticism forces teams to make a decision on how to defend him. He’s too fast to be covered by a linebacker, and he’s too big to be covered by a safety. To date, the Bears have yet to figure out the proper way to defend Finley, so expect him to be featured heavily in the gameplan.
The Packers running game, however, isn’t up to par. Rodgers has been the Packers leading rusher in their last two games, and that is a stat that cannot remain if they want to win another Super Bowl. It is a passing league, which the Packers embrace, but their inability to run the ball allows opposing defenses to keep extra defenders in pass coverage.
Recall the playoff game versus the Giants (or the 49ers), with no threat of a running game, the Giants were able to rush – and get pressure – with just their front four. The Packers offensive line, which is another question mark (especially left tackle), didn’t hold up, forcing them to keep in running backs and tight ends to max protect.
Football becomes simple math in these situations: if you keep seven players in to protect, that leaves you with three eligible receivers, which in turn, allows the defense to double cover multiple receivers, and ultimately leaves the quarterback with limited options.
Cedric Benson’s Packer debut was a dud, carrying the ball nine times for 18 yards, with a long run of four yards. Granted, nobody runs the ball on the 49ers, but with the weapons the Packers have in the passing game, stat lines like this are concerning.
Seven of Benson’s nine carries went to the right side of the Packers offensive line, behind guard Josh Sitton and tackle Bryan Bulaga. Tendencies like this should be noted to help Bears defenders read their keys when diagnosing plays.
There’s a lot of familiarity between the Packers offense and the Bears defense. When Rodgers sees the Bears in a Cover 2 look pre-snap, he typically checks to a run. When Rodgers sees the Bears in Cover 1 man pre-snap, he typically checks to a pass. This is where a healthy Brian Urlacher – who didn’t look that way in Week 1 – is needed, to play the in-game chess match with Rodgers.
Defensively, the Packers are in a bit of trouble. They have given up 67 points in their last two games (108 in their last three). There’s no doubt the Packers can rush the quarterback and will test the Bears protection schemes, but there will be opportunities for the Bears to challenge a soft set of inside linebackers and a seemingly fluid secondary.
Clay Matthews was outstanding in Week 1, providing relentless pressure against a very stout left tackle in Joe Staley. Not only was Matthews a factor as a pass rusher, he played with great downhill speed in run support, blowing up running lanes on runs to the outside.
The Packers spent a first-round pick on another USC Trojan, Nick Perry, who was a college defensive end, but now plays outside linebacker. Perry was drafted to be the complementary pass rushing bookend to Matthews. However, as I alluded to earlier, the 49ers schemed to get Perry matched up against wide receivers – frequently Michael Crabtree – which was a mismatch the 49ers exploited.
Eric Walden returns this week from a one-game suspension, giving the Packers three outside linebackers who have a nose for the quarterback.
Nose tackle BJ Raji, is as good as they get in the NFL. Raji has rare quickness for a 340-pounder, but is also powerful enough to occupy two blockers. Raji is paired with Ryan Pickett, CJ Wilson, and rookie Jerel Worthy along the defensive line.
The impact of losing inside linebacker Desmond Bishop cannot be understated, it was a huge blow to the interior of the Packers defense. Bishop is a physical player, a thumper in run support, but is also critical to the Packers blitz packages. Replacing Bishop with DJ Smith is a downgrade, and something the 49ers took advantage of, running sweeps to get Smith caught up in the wash at the line of scrimmage.
The biggest problem area on defense for the Packers is their secondary. It is future Hall-of-Famer Charles Woodson – converted to safety – and a bunch of question marks. By moving Woodson to safety, cornerback Jarrett Bush is now a starter, which may not be a good thing.
Bush had a rough start to the season, and seems to be in a timeshare situation with Sam Shields for the spot opposite Tramon Williams. Shields replaces Bush in nickel, where the Packers frequently run an unconventional 2-4-5 personnel grouping. There was a lot of finger-pointing and confusion in the secondary during the 49ers game, which indicates this unit is not in synch.
Much like the Bears, the Packers defense thrives on turnovers, which they weren’t able to generate on Sunday. If the Packers are able to consistently generate pressure on Cutler, there may be opportunities, as Cutler is more of a risk taker than 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
The Packers sense of entitlement is a bit bothersome. First it was Matthews who suggested this offseason that the Giants didn’t beat the Packers in the playoffs, but rather “we beat ourselves,” now Bush took his turn. Bush said after the 49ers loss: “We beat ourselves. They really didn’t beat us.” Never mind the fact that both the Giants and 49ers manhandled the Packers in those games.
All that being said, this is still a deadly Packers team. Offensively, they’re capable of lighting up a scoreboard. Defensively, their pass rush is able to accelerate the decision making process of a quarterback to force mistakes. This is a firm grasp of the obvious statement, but this game is going to come down to limiting mistakes, more specifically, limiting turnovers.
This Bears team has a much different offense than the Packers have grown accustomed to over the years, so with a short week, the Bears may have an advantage. It will be interesting to see what elements of the 49ers offensive game plan – if any – the Bears incorporate this Thursday night.
When the Bears have the ball: It’s too easy to say watch the Bears offensive tackles, so pay attention to how the Bears attack the Packers nickel (5 defensive backs) package. Charles Woodson slides into the slot, and rookie Jerron McMillan moves to safety, so there should be opportunities for the Bears to attack the middle of the field with their Posse (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) personnel grouping.
When the Packers have the ball: Keep an eye on where Julius Peppers is lining up. You saw the Bears rotate and change their front four more than they ever have before under Lovie Smith, giving Peppers extensive time inside. With Nick Collins being reinstated (and potentially Amobi Okoye), the Bears should have a lot of defensive lineman active on Thursday to keep their pass rush fresh.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.