By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Sunday marks the 189th meeting the Bears and Packers, the NFL’s longest-running rivalry. For the fans, this game means bragging rights until the teams square off again in Week 10. For the players, this game could set the tone for the NFC North.
Fresh off of back-to-back road wins in primetime games, the Bears (2-1) have an opportunity to pick up their second win against a 2013 NFC playoff team, seize early control of the division and send the Packers to 1-3 overall, 0-3 against the NFC and 0-2 in the division. Game time is noon at Solider Field.
The Bears are constructed to win games with their high-powered passing attack that boasts arguably the most talented collection of eligible receivers in the game. As teams have focused on neutralizing receiver Brandon Marshall, fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett have consistently had single-coverage opportunities down the field.
The Packers’ pass defense is one of the league’s best and will be the stiffest challenge the Bears have faced all season. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are sticky in man coverage and allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers to play mixed coverages underneath and over the top.
For years, Capers has flummoxed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler. But last season, with improved talent along the line and at receiver, combined with the arrival of Marc Trestman, Cutler posted a 103.8 rating in his only start against the Packers, the infamous season finale that ended in bitter fashion for the Bears.
Despite that success, Trestman still has the utmost respect for Capers’ scheme.
“We played against him twice in this system with the coaches that we have here, and we’re challenged by him,” Trestman said. “It’s always challenging to play against him. The things he brings, not only front structure, which sometimes things appear to be simpler than they are. They’re very well coached. And back end, same thing. They’re very good in their man-to-man techniques. They’re very sound in zone. So we have a lot of respect for that.”
Through three games, opposing offenses haven’t had much success passing the ball against the Packers, but teams have been able to run the ball with impunity.
Given Capers’ preference to play nickel and dime packages, opposing offenses have spread the Packers out with multiple receivers, then run the ball at them to force the cornerbacks to come up and play run support on the edge. Opponents are averaging 156 rushing yards per game, which is the third-most in the league, and have scored a league-high five rushing touchdowns.
The Bears’ running game has been stalled to start the season. They rank dead last in the league, and running back Matt Forte is averaging 45 yards per game. But there’s a reason for that — the caliber of the run defenses the Bears have faced. In back-to-back weeks, the Bears have run into the league’s sixth-best run defense (49ers) and the best (Jets).
Chicago offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said earlier this week that the Bears won’t run the ball out of obligation if it’s not going to yield positive results for the team.
“Gameplan-wise, in the last two games we’ve chosen and gone into them thinking, ‘We’re not going to hand the ball to the halfback in the backfield very often,’” Kromer said. “We didn’t feel it was advantageous towards winning the game. So you can see we limited the opportunities that Matt (Forte) had, and we thought we had to throw the football to win but run enough to keep them honest. I feel we did a nice job in the last drive when we were trying to kill some time to secure the lead of running the football.”
However, this week against the Packers, the Bears’ running game could get on track. In his last two games against the Packers, Forte has 336 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.
The Bears aren’t the only team in this game that has struggled to run the ball to start the season. The Packers are 26th in the league, averaging 78 rushing yards per game, but they’ve also run into brick walls defensively. The Packers’ first three opponents — the Seahawks, Jets and Lions — rank fourth, first and second, respectively, against the run.
Last week, the Lions tempted the Packers to run the ball, playing split (two-high) safeties and seven-man fronts, yet the Packers were unable to get on track. Overall, the Packers haven’t found their rhythm offensively, but with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, this is still a dangerous team.
Early on, the Packers’ goal offensively has been to slow defenses down. They’ve turned up the tempo of their offense, rarely huddling and primarily playing with their preferred 11 personnel grouping (three receivers, one back, one tight end). This has had an adverse effect on the offense, as what made them so difficult to defend in the past was the variety of formations and personnel groupings they threw at teams.
Rodgers’ connection with wide receiver Jordy Nelson is as as good as it’s ever been, but the Packers need to have other weapons emerge. As long as Rodgers is unable to get in sync with other receivers, teams will continue to roll coverage to Nelson — as the Lions did — and stymie the Pack attack.
Against a young and banged-up Bears secondary, this could be a get well game for the Packers offense.
Every element that fans look for in a game is present on Chicago’s lakefront Sunday at noon, and the game shouldn’t disappoint.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.