By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (4-6) are on the road to face the Packers (7-3) on Thursday night. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Rebound in the red zone
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler admits his team’s margin for error is slim, and that’s especially true when it comes to the red zone. After failing to score a touchdown on three of four trips inside the Denver 20-yard line last week, Chicago’s red zone touchdown efficiency dropped to 41.2 percent for the season.
A larger concern is six possessions this season resulting in no points. The Bears have scored only 14 touchdowns in 10 games in the red zone. If receiver Alshon Jeffery, running back Matt Forte and eventually slot receiver Eddie Royal return from injuries, Cutler’s red-zone arsenal expands significantly and loosens up a defense.
In a sense, Chicago is competing against Green Bay’s red-zone efficiency. The Packers are seventh in the league at 63.3 percentage, the bulk of the damage provided by 16 passing touchdowns inside the 20 by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Bears are doing a good job moving the ball, staying ahead of the chains and piling up 43 big plays (of more than 20 yards). The next step is more consistent red-zone success.
Defense: Slam the door early
It seems the focus is always on the Bears offense when it comes to starting fast, but the defense is looking to do the same, particularly against the Packers.
At Lambeau Field since 2014, the Packers have outscored opponents in the first quarter, 151-27. They thrive playing with the lead. This season, the Packers have scored first-quarter touchdowns in seven games and are first in the league with a plus-57 scoring differential in that regard.
Meanwhile, the Bears defense has permitted nine first-quarter touchdowns, including in each of the last six weeks. Coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit has excelled at adjusting, going seven consecutive games without giving up a third-quarter touchdown.
Here again, the Bears defense is competing with the Packers’ defensive stinginess. On first possessions to start the game, the Packers have allowed just six points this season, forcing eight punts, tied for second-best in the league. In the Bears’ last 42 games dating to the 2013 season, they’re allowed the opponent to score first a startling 29 times.
Special teams: Need one big play
Green Bay consistently makes you pay for the slightest of slip-ups, breakdowns or untimely penalties. So disciplined play is required, especially on special teams.
In the season opener, it was Packers rookie returner Ty Montgomery who had 46- and 41-yard kick returns on the Bears. This week, the Bears must avoid the big, momentum-changing plays and go and make one of their own. It could be a big hit that forces a fumble, a blocked punt, a return touchdown, etc.
A year ago, the Packers’ special teams were tabbed the worst in the NFL, according to the Dallas Morning News’ annual rankings. The Bears were ranked 31st. While both teams have improved, the Bears have given up three return touchdowns and the Packers one this season. Keep an eye on Packers receiver Jeff Janis, who returned two kicks last week, one for 70 yards.
The punters will have weather to deal with. Rain and maybe snow is expected. Chicago’s Patrick O’Donnell and Green Bay’s Tim Masthay have each worked in inclement weather before.
Intangibles: Favre effect
The Packers specifically asked the NFL schedule-makers to bring the Bears to Lambeau for Thanksgiving night and, as it turns out, a reunion with Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.
His No. 4 will be retired in a special ceremony. It has nothing to do with the game, but it figures to charge up the home crowd.
The Bears must match and surpass the emotion of the night in prime time with their most physical, error-free and consistent performance of the season and let the Packers know they aren’t an easy out. Chicago coach John Fox and his staff have correctly established a mindset where backing down is no option, so I expect a tough game.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.