To say that the Chicago Bears’ defense has struggled in recent games is an almost comical understatement, but those difficulties against offenses that aren’t exactly prolific (New York, Washington) could pale in comparison to the challenge they will be up against when they face the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.
Sure, the Packers are still without some serious weapons on offense, as Jermichael Finely and Randall Cobb are both still shelved long-term and James Jones will be at best a question mark heading into that game, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers seem to be rolling along just fine without those weapons. Guys like Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy have been filling the void just fine, and previously unknown commodities like Jarrett Boykin are doing an admirable job as well.
Exhibit A in that argument that the Packers are still in good shape came in the form of the work they did against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night. In that game, the Packers possessed the ball for over 40 minutes, and ran 30 more plays than the Vikings offense did. Rodgers went 24-of-29 passing in the game for 285 yards, and Lacy ran for 95 yards as the Packers won a 44-31 decision over Minnesota. The Packers didn’t even have to punt in the game, going 13-of-18 on third down and converting on two fourth downs en route to the win.
The question then is a simple one: how are the Packers doing all of this without some of their primary offensive weapons? Sure, having a quarterback like Rodgers who is both capable of scrambling for extra time or yardage and throwing the ball quickly and accurately is great, but there is more to Green Bay’s offensive success than just an All-Pro quarterback.
For starters, the Packers finally have a rushing attack that can take more pressure off of Rodgers. Lacy is capable of running the ball straight up the gut and in bringing it around the edges, and he showed off both of those abilities in spades against the Vikings. Even with Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway shadowing his every move, Lacy was able to find gaps in the Viking defense, and even when he wasn’t handed the ball by Rodgers, he was always alert for a screen pass or a dump-off throw from Rodgers, and in that vein he caught four passes for 18 yards.
Part of Lacy’s success with the Packers comes with the formations that they utilize to help their running game get going. Normally, the Packers have been a team that gets Rodgers into the shotgun formation quite a bit, and while they still do that, they have adopted the two-back set way more frequently this season, and that has opened up all sorts of new avenues. Lacy is a decent run blocker when James Starks gets hand-offs. Rodgers is proficient at running play action passes and getting linebackers to commit to the run early. The Packers are even capable of running screen passes out of that look, usually using an extra receiver and/or tight end to get some separation between Lacy and oncoming defenders.
These kinds of plays are always tough to defend, but when you consider the lack of push that the Bears’ defensive ends have been getting this season, the problems could be exacerbated. The Packers are having a tough time in getting good run protection from their left and right tackles this season, but against a guy like Shea McClellin, who is just about worthless against the run, and Julius Peppers, who still seems a step slow, things could get ugly in a hurry for the Bears against this style of attack.
With that short passing game as a constant threat, the Bears are going to be tempted to pull their linebackers in coverage like the Vikings did, but that poses another problem, as Rodgers is so quick to get rid of the ball.
On one particular play in the second quarter, Rodgers dropped back and faked a hand-off. Greenway dropped back into coverage on Nelson, but by the time he read the play and did that, it was too late, as the throw was already over his head and into the hands of Nelson. One safety had dropped into coverage in the flat for the Vikings, so it was up to Andrew Sendejo to try to corral Nelson, but he overcommitted and Nelson blew right past him for an easy 76 yard touchdown reception.
Those kind of matchup problems in the secondary could be a big problem for the Bears on Monday. Jon Bostic is a very athletic linebacker, but he is still a step slow in terms of recognizing whether to defend the run or pass, and when you couple that with the fact that defensive leader Lance Briggs won’t be in the lineup, things could get even worse with Khaseem Greene in coverage. Throw in the tackling/coverage difficulties that Major Wright and Chris Conte have been having at the safety position, and you could have a recipe for disaster against a smart and quick passing attack.
Obviously, the Bears are in for a huge test in this game, both with the Packers’ skill on offense and the spate of injuries that the Chicago defense has had to endure. Stopping Green Bay is going to be a tall order, but if Mel Tucker and company can pull it off after having 15 days to prepare for it, then it will have to be considered one of the biggest coups of the season.