By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The Bears travel to Green Bay for a Thanksgiving day tilt against the Packers (7:30 p.m., NBC).READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Slight Chance Of Storms Overnight; A Quiet Pattern To Come
Given their 2-12 record in their last 14 games against Green Bay, the Bears don’t have much to be thankful for when the Packers show up on their schedule.
The Bears start their second spin against NFC North teams. After losing the first trio of contests, they’re seeking their first division win and just their second conference win.
Here are some aspects on the field to focus on during Thursday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
After reviewing the game tape of the Broncos and Panthers victories over the Packers, I saw both offenses were able to generate several explosive passes (defined as 18 or more yards) by attacking the middle of the field on inside-breaking routes. More specifically, both teams attacked the Packers with dig (deep in) routes.
Typically, the dig routes were run by the No. 1 (closest to the sideline) receiver, with the inside receiver running up the seam to lift the deep safety and create a void in between the intermediate and deep passing zones. With Alshon Jeffery seemingly a go for Thursday night, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has his top weapon back whom he can consistently trust to get vertical and create throwing lanes.
Look for offensive coordinator Adam Gase to use Jeffery as the split end on the two-receiver side of the field, clearing out the deep safety with slot receivers and slipping tight ends and running backs into the flats on check releases.
The Packers defense causes a lot of issues with its pressure packages and hybrid coverages (man outside, matchup zone inside), but its aggressiveness and willingness to bring extra rushers creates opportunities down the field.
Executing in the run game
The Bears’ offensive line struggled to get movement at the line of scrimmage last week against the Broncos, and the entire offense sputtered as a result of it.
Over the past three games, rookie Jeremy Langford filled in admirably and has proved to be a reliable playmaker, but the return of Matt Forte will be a boost to the running game and allow Gase to get creative with how he uses his stable of backs.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers schemes as well as any coordinator in the league. Green Bay ranks sixth in the league with 29 sacks and brings pressure from all three levels.
Capers uses nickel personnel as his base defense and gets creative with personnel groupings and alignments with his front. He also uses a variety of coverage schemes in the secondary. His goal is to give the quarterback and receivers a false image of the defense pre-snap and bait them into adjusting a route or checking into something that will work to the defense’s advantage, both numerically and schematically.READ MORE: At Least 1 Person Killed, 28 Wounded In Gun Violence In Chicago So Far This Weekend
However, the Packers can struggle to play assignment football against teams that simply line up and attack with the run game. The Bears will likely deploy two- and three-tight end sets to create extra gaps and force the Packers to be disciplined with how they fit against the run.
What to watch for when the Packers have the ball
The Packers’ passing offense has been out of sorts all season. Since Aaron Rodgers took over as the full-time starter in 2008, the Packers have never finished outside of the top nine in passing yards per game. Yet so far this season, they rank 22nd.
The offensive line has struggled to protect at times, and Rodgers hasn’t looked as comfortable in the pocket as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. The improvisational aspect of Rodgers’ game that’s made him and the offense as a whole so difficult to defend has been missing, in large part due to the absence of receiver Jordy Nelson.
It was assumed the Packers’ offense was deep enough to withstand losing Nelson, but the dynamic, vertical element that he brought to the group has had a cascading effect, and the personnel packages are unsettled.
Defenses have dared to do what was previously unthought of against the Packers and are playing press-man coverage and seeing great results from it.
The remaining group of receivers — Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and James Jones — lack suddenness and explosiveness to gain separation in tight man coverage. Furthermore, the Packers’ passing concepts rely more on individual routes, rather than complementary, combination routes to scheme receivers open.
As they did in Week 1, expect Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to press and challenge the Packers receivers off the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing and stay with them late into the down, where Rodgers does most damage.
Eight in the box
Given that the vertical element of the Packers’ game is gone, Fangio can safely play more single-high coverages. This will allow the Bears to play more man-free coverage, but it will also give them an eighth defender in the box to help out against the run.
Just two weeks ago, the Packers threw the ball 61 times in their loss against the Lions. They’d completely lost any semblance of balance on offense. Part of that was the poor productivity of running back Eddie Lacy.
Prior to Lacy’s 100-yard rushing performance this past Sunday against Minnesota, he had accumulated a mere 78 combined yards over his previous four games. Lacy ran hard against the Vikings, showing his trademark contact balance. But Sunday’s game also marked the first time this season he’d received more than 20 carries, getting 22.
Lacy’s played injured this season but looks to be nearing full strength. The Packers need him to become their workhorse again as they look to close out the season and the division.
Fangio will likely drop his strong safety into the box to the closed side of the formation to pitch in against Lacy, who can be a load to bring down at the point of attack.MORE NEWS: 3 People Hospitalized After Ammonia Leak At Frozen Pizza Factory In Wheeling
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.