By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) By now, you’re well aware of the lopsided nature of the Bears-Packers rivalry since Jay Cutler has arrived in Chicago in 2009. Cutler is 1-8 with a 65 passer rating and has thrown six more interceptions than touchdowns.
But what you may not be aware of is last Sunday marked the first time the Packers have been held to single-digit points in a game that Aaron Rodgers started and finished since Oct. 31, 2010, when the Packers beat the Jets, 9-0.
There’s never been more parity in the league than there is now. It’s a week-to-week league in which virtually any team can win.
Sunday’s matchup between the Bears and Packers marks the 189th time these two have squared off, but in reality, it’s just another in a series of 16 one-game seasons.
What heightens this matchup is the potential for the Bears to get to 3-1 and in turn drop the Packers to 1-3 overall and 0-2 in the division.
There’s no refuting the fact that the Packers offense hasn’t been in sync this season. From a stagnant running game to Rodgers’ pedestrian passing totals — at least by his standards — the Packers don’t resemble the weekly juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to.
Does this slip in production have more to do with the foes they’ve faced, all of which rank in the top eight in total defense? Or is it truly a systemic issue? It’s a mixture of both, but more of the former.
Through three weeks, opposing defensive coordinators have tested the Packers’ offensive line. In the passing game, they’ve brought pressure and against the run, they’ve trusted their ability to stop it with seven-man fronts.
Typically, approaches like these have been non-starters against the Packers. Few quarterbacks make teams pay for blitzing more than Rodgers, who uses nimble footwork to slide and climb in the pocket and extend plays and then finishes them with pinpoint accuracy, finding receivers down the field in the wake of the blitzer.
In his rookie season last year, running back Eddie Lacy added a new element to the Packers running game. The Packers would line up in their preferred 11 personnel grouping (68 percent of their plays in 2013, 78 percent in 2014) out of the shotgun to get teams into their nickel package, spread them out, then run one-back power, tosses and traps to force nickel cornerbacks to come up and play run support on the edge.
While the Packers are still deploying that personnel grouping and those schemes, they’ve struggled to control the line of scrimmage, and the overall timing of running plays has been off to start the season. They average 78 rushing yards per game, which ranks 26th in the league.
Despite its early season struggles, this offense is still more than capable of putting up points. The Packers simply have too much playmaking talent not to. Previously, they used a variety of formations to scheme advantageous matchups, but this season their goal is to run their offense at a higher tempo. The Packers rarely huddle, which is designed to slow down the opposing defense and keep them in simplified schemes.
Receiver Jordy Nelson leads the league in targets (37), receiving first downs (16) and is second in receiving yards (351). Teams have successfully targeted the voids between the Bears linebackers and safeties this year with deep slants and dig routes, which Nelson runs with extreme effectiveness. He’s able to quickly eat up a cornerback’s cushion, get in and out of his break with no wasted motion, then shield the defender from the ball.
Fellow receiver Randall Cobb has three touchdowns to start the season but hasn’t had the explosive plays that have defined his career. He’s been primarily targeted on stick and hitch routes. As a change of pace, Cobb has had a few carries out of the backfield, but that’s resulted in minimal success. The Packers must find more ways to get Cobb the ball in space, as he’s a dangerous open field runner with elite suddenness.
Another factor that’s contributing to the Packers issues on offense is the attrition they’ve seen within their receiving corps over the past few seasons. Gone are players like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jermichael Finley.
The hope is players like tight end Andrew Quarless and receivers Jarrett Boykin and rookie Davante Adams fill those roles, but none have emerged as consistent threats to win in single-coverage situations as coverage is rolled to Nelson and Cobb.
For a few seasons now, the Packers’ protection has been an issue. This offseason, they lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith to Tampa Bay. J.C. Tretter was originally set to succeed Dietrich-Smith but suffered a knee injury, forcing Corey Linsley into action. Linsley had a fair start to the season, but last week he was pushed around by the interior of the Lions’ defensive line.
Flanking Linsley are Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, who form a solid set of guards. Sitton is one of the best combination guards in the league, for he can anchor in pass protection and maul in the run game. Lang is a limited athlete who wins with technique and angles.
Where the Packers are really struggling up front is at offensive tackle. Second-year pro David Bakhtiari mans Rodgers’ blind side. Bakhtiari has good feet to mirror pass rushers in one-on-one sets, but he’s light in the lower body and can give up ground. On the right side, Derrick Sherrod was the weak link, giving up three sacks this season. Fortunately for Green Bay, starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned to action last week.
Defensively, the Packers are still looking for answers along their defensive front. They need more disruptions from their pass rush to help enable the hybrid coverages and pressure packages defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes to run.
For years, they Packers have been on a quest to find a complementary pass rusher for Clay Matthews via the draft. Matthews is dealing with a groin injury, but he’s been a nemesis to the Bears, using his first-step quickness to bend the edge, racking up eight sacks in nine career games against Chicago.
A 2012 first-round pick, Nick Perry hasn’t panned out, and 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones has been slow to develop. Consequently, this past offseason general manager Ted Thompson took a rare dip into the free agent pool and signed former Bear Julius Peppers.
Peppers was used primarily as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end in Chicago’s 4-3 scheme but would occasionally drop into coverage in fire-zone blitzes. Peppers’ scheme versatility appealed to the Packers, who use him as a stand-up outside linebacker as well as a down lineman in certain fronts. Last week against the Lions, Peppers turned in his strongest performance yet, with a sack and a forced fumble.
Defensive end Mike Daniels has been the Packers’ best defensive player to start the season. Daniels is primarily used as a three- and five-technique, where he flashes violent, active hands to disengage from blockers to hold the point or press the pocket. Other than Daniels, the down linemen have struggled to anchor, and the Packers are giving up 156 rushing yards per game, the third-worst mark in the league.
Capers utilizes his back seven heavily in zone-pressure packages, so their base defense is really a 2-4-5, but they play a lot of dime packages as well. With two strong man-to-man cover corners on the perimeter — Sam Shields and Tramon Williams — Capers can play matchup zones with his linebackers underneath and safeties over the top.
Safeties like Morgan Burnett and Michah Hyde are used interchangeably, while rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been primarily used as a strong safety. The variety of pieces Capers has to work with helps keep quarterbacks guessing about what coverage they’re seeing. They rank sixth in pass defense and have held quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 77.
The Packers are searching for answers on both sides of the ball. The offense isn’t in sync, and the defense is still unable to stop teams from running the ball. However, a team led by Rodgers can never be counted out. Against a banged-up Bears secondary, Rodgers could find his rhythm.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.