By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — The Chicago Bears’ coaches would normally have used this bye week to prepare themselves for the Green Bay Packers.
Having an extra week to prepare for a rival that has tormented them for so long would give the Bears a greater chance to come away with a victory in their Week Nine matchup in Green Bay. However, Jay Cutler’s groin injury means that the Bears need to get Josh McCown up to speed in order to have a fighting chance.
The Packers have beaten the Bears six straight times and in eight of their last nine meetings.
It’s one thing for a backup quarterback to come into a game filled with adrenaline and find himself up to the challenge of facing a slow and soft Washington Redskins defense. It’s quite another to get the best of the Green Bay Packers.
In the last two years, the Bears have known that the Packers are vulnerable against the run. Green Bay ranked 26h in yards allowed per attempt in 2011 and 2012.
That’s not the case this year, as the Packers have improved quite a bit. Going into their Sunday night game against the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson, they rank 3rd in that category.
The big reason for that improvement is the return of defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, who has given the Packers a much greater battle level when trying to stop the run.
Jolly, who had not played a down since the end of the 2009 season because of a league-imposed substance-abuse suspension caused by a codeine addiction, returned to the Packers and won a spot on the 53-man roster with an excellent training camp. He plays with a nasty attitude and it translates to the rest of his teammates.
“We’re meaner,” defensive end Mike Daniels told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Guys are definitely playing with more of an edge. And Johnny Jolly is a big part of that.
“He has a natural nastiness to him, and that’s what he had when he played here. You can definitely see we’re playing a lot harder, a lot tougher. We’re meaner. We’re definitely nastier this year.”
With B.J. Raji at the defensive end spot opposite Jolly and nose tackle Ryan Pickett in the middle, the Packers are holding their ground. In games against Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, the Packers have given up an average of 49.5 yards on the ground.
That defensive line is going to be an issue for Bears running back Matt Forte, who is the team’s most important offensive player with Cutler out of the lineup.
It’s clear that the Bears will want to get the ball to Forte as a runner or receiver as often as possible, but the Packers will have the firepower up front to make life difficult for him.
Additionally, Green Bay is not just focused on stopping the run. The Packers are also the owners of a compelling ground game for the first time in years.
Rookie Eddie Lacy is a power back who takes on linebackers and defensive backs and has the ability to punish them once he gets in stride. Green Bay is averaging 134.7 yards on the ground and Lacy has become the team’s best back.
The Packers still have one of the league’s best passing attacks because Aaron Rodgers may be the game’s most accurate thrower, but it’s not all on his shoulders this year. If an opponent is going to try to take away the passing game, all Rodgers has to do is give the ball to Lacy or backup James Starks.
That’s just fine with Packers’ running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, who knows he has a stud in Lacy. He said that the rookie running back is capable of carrying the ball as many as 30 times a game, but he’s not going to have him do that because he wants Lacy fresh in November, December and January.
But don’t be surprised if Lacy gets 25 carries against the Bears’ soft run defense, which is especially vulnerable without All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder).
The Bears are used to seeing Rodgers throw the ball up and down the field against them. It may be different this time around.
The Packers have more options on offense and a defense that can assert itself. It makes for a difficult – and perhaps sleepless – bye week for the Bears’ coaching staff.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.