A disappointing 21-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday tempered the Bears’ expectations of winning the division en route to the playoffs. Chicago will likely be in a battle for one of the two wild-card spots.
The Bears and Packers last met up back in Week 2 in Green Bay, with the Packers coming away with a 23-10 victory.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to prove week in and week out that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Through the Packers’ first 13 games, he has thrown for just under 3,297 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
Rodgers has the ability to fit the ball in a tight window, to throw it downfield and to pick up yards with his feet when needed. The Bears defense has given him fits in the past, but he still has put up great numbers against them. In 10 career games against Chicago (including the playoffs), he has thrown for 2,439 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The sliver lining in that time is that the Bears have been effective at getting him to turn the football over in comparison to other teams.
The loss of Brian Urlacher in the middle will help open up the middle of the field more, and his replacement, Nick Roach, will be asked to drop off in coverage and to also keep contain on Rodgers if he gets outside of the pocket.
The Packers wide receiving corps has been decimated by injuries all season. Greg Jennings returned two weeks ago from a groin injury and has just 17 catches for 151 yards on the season. Veteran Donald Driver missed time with a broken thumb but has been a shell of himself this season, with just eight catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
Jordy Nelson has missed time this season with a hamstring injury but still is viewed as the anchor of the wide receiving corps and has hauled in 46 catches for 658 yards and six touchdowns. The big surprise this season has been the solid play of veteran James Jones. Jones, once knocked for his big drops and penchant for mistakes, has taken his game to a new level with 46 catches for 556 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns.The most consistent receiver on the roster this season, however, has been second-year player Randall Cobb. He has the team lead in catches (71) and receiving yards (777) and has also hauled in seven touchdowns. He has been a matchup nightmare with his ability to stretch the field vertically and make defenders miss in open space, and he’s also been effective when lining up in the backfield or running the ball on an end-around.
With the bevy of talent at the wide receiver position, the Bears secondary will have its hands full. They are hoping that Tim Jennings can return this Sunday following a shoulder injury suffered against the Seahawks two weeks ago, and he would likely draw the task of defending Cobb. Charles Tillman will likely face off against the bigger Jones, and nickelback Kelvin Hayden will likely have a chance at facing off against a number of the Packers receivers.
Never known for much of a running game, the Packers have done a better job at trying to establish the run this season, particularly in their last few games. Cedric Benson was supposed to give them a threat in the running game, but he suffered a foot injury and will not be able to return this season.
James Starks suffered a knee injury two weeks ago and could miss the remainder of the season (h/t CBS Sports). In the absence of Benson and Starks, Alex Green has stepped up, particularly in their last two games, gaining 127 yards rushing on 25 carries. They expect to use more of DuJuan Harris, who scored a touchdown against the Lions on Sunday night as well as newly signed former Packer, Ryan Grant.
The Packers will never be a run-first team, but they have begun to realize the importance the running game has, particularly here in the later part of the season. A strong running game will force the Bears to bring up safety Major Wright into the box, which would in turn open up plays down the field. The Bears front seven will need to be able to stop the run, and that all starts with what their defensive line can do up front against the banged-up Packers offensive line.
Sunday against Detroit, the Packers were forced to start undrafted rookie Don Barclay. Barclay played a solid game against a stout Lions defensive front and was at the forefront of a lot of the Packers’ big gains while running the ball.
The usual right tackle, T.J. Lang, was dressed for Sunday’s contest after missing time with an ankle injury, but the Packers likely wanted to give Barclay reps in case Lang is not able to play out the rest of the season. If Barclay again gets the start, expect the Bears to try to load his side with blitzes from either safety Chris Conte or even linebacker Lance Briggs.
The Packers have struggled this season at keeping Aaron Rodgers upright, giving up 42 sacks on the season, second-worst in the NFL. Veteran Jeff Saturday has been a nice addition to the interior of the line, and guards Evan Dietrich-Smith and Josh Sitton are average-at-best NFL guards.
Left tackle Marshall Newhouse has struggled against the pass rush, allowing eight and a half sacks this season. Julius Peppers will get the first crack at Newhouse, and expect a steady flow of Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin.
Matt Eurich is a contributor to Bearsbacker.com. Follow Bears Backer on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute news about the Bears. Also, check out Matt’s work on BleacherReport.com and follow him on Twitter @MattEurich.