Cleaner Play, Better Defense the Real Key to Packers Success

Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains what happened on the Packers offensive line in Sunday’s blow out loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

“[David] Bakhtiari is out, [Brian] Bulaga goes down, [T.J.] Lang and [Corey] Linsley both miss portions of what ends as a humiliating 30-point loss for the visitors. The key reserves are once again tested, and the offensive tackles fail in volcanic fashion: 8 1/2 pressures (unofficially) and multiple sacks allowed by Don Barclay; five pressures and a strip sack yielded by Josh Walker.”

That’s quite a test of the Packers’ offensive line depth, even against a Cardinal team that isn’t that good rushing the passer without blitzing. It’s something they’ve been able to adjust to in the past by winning one-on-one match ups with their wide receivers but not this year when they are not only giving the team their usual high number of drops but aren’t producing in other ways as well. Nevertheless, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett has a plan:

“The change could be as simple as asking running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks to chip block on incoming pass rushers, something the Packers have done sporadically this season. Or they may choose to utilize the blocking skills of tight end Andrew Quarless, who returned to the field Sunday after spending roughly three months on injured reserve/designated to return. Or they could move the pocket laterally to take advantage of the mobility of [Aaron] Rodgers, who threw for just 151 yards against the Cardinals and posted a passer rating of 66.2.

“‘Without getting into our scheme,’ Bennett said, ‘we’ll do certain things to put our players in the best position to win.'”

None of this is brain surgery. But with the exception of the last thing on the list, all of them require that the team be in a close enough game to where they don’t have to pass with the Packers usual multiple wide receiver sets. That wasn’t the case on Sunday where the Packers fell behind early in spectacular fashion.

Many will claim that the key to the Packers success this week against the Vikings and in the playoffs after that will be the performance of that much maligned offensive line. But the really essential element is much simpler. The Packers still have Rogers and even though that’s not enough to carry the team as it has been in the past, if they simply avoid turnovers and play good defense, they’ll give the team a chance. If they do that, the necessary adjustments will flow from it and the Packers should be able to move the ball even against a good Minnesota defense, albeit not all that well.

The Packers Turn a Corner Behind Eddie Lacy

Rob Demovsky at ESPN describes a change in the Packers play calling that may be a turning point in more than one way.

“Even those who wanted – begged, really – the Green Bay Packers coach to take back the offensive play-calling duties couldn’t have fathomed this: 44 runs and 230 yards on the ground.

“This is Mike McCarthy 2.0.

“The same coach who too often proved reluctant to stick with the running game during his first nine seasons as the head coach/offensive playcaller did an about-face – first in his decision to strip Tom Clements of the job he handed him this offseason, and then in his approach to his first game back in control of the offense. In Sunday’s 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy showed a previously unseen commitment to the run.”

It’s not a coincidence that the Packers were at their worst Sunday when they stopped running the ball. After a hot start behind Eddie Lacy where they went up 14-0 in the first half, their offense stalled as they seemed to forget about him. It picked up again when Lacy did in the second half. Most Bears fans will remember that the Packers did an uncommonly good job of running the ball on Thanksgiving with Lacy. Had they stuck to it, they probably would have won that game, too.

Something tells me that the Packers turned a corner yesterday. Lacy is a load and he’s tough to stop behind an under-rated run blocking offensive line in Green Bay. It’s a little early to tell but it’s entirely possible that with good, spirited defensive play, the Packers could finally be on their way to another Super Bowl run.

Tracy Porter to the Pro Bowl?

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times takes us through 10 Bears question marks:

“9. Who on the Bears can make the Pro Bowl?

Tracy Porter, maybe? No Bears player leads their position group in fan voting, which runs through Tuesday on NFL.com. Only two NFC North players do: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.”

Porter is the 36th ranked cornerback in the league of 118 rated according to Pro Football Focus.  Kyle Long is also in the middle of the pack at tackle.  Not that that’s the definitive reference. But its all we’ve got.

Porter isn’t one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the Bears have no Pro Bowlers at all. I consider this to be yet another demonstration of how effective the coaching staff has been at extracting the most out of what talent they have been given.

Another Challenge for Jay Cutler

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune takes us through some of the numbers relevant to Sunday’s match up with the Redskins:

“46.6: Jay Cutler’s rating in two career starts against the Redskins, both losses. In 2013, Cutler left a 45-41 loss late in the first half after suffering a torn groin muscle. Cutler also threw a pick six in that game. Three years earlier, he threw four interceptions – all to Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall – in a 17-14 loss at Soldier Field. Cutler’s numbers against the Redskins: 29-for-48, 309 yards, one TD pass, five picks.”

This will be another watershed game for Cutler.

Two games ago on Thanksgiving Cutler took advantage of the opportunity to show critics like myself that he’s a different quarterback this year. Similar to that game, Cutler will be able to show that he can perform in situations this year that he has previously collapsed in. It doesn’t help that he’s coming off of his worst game of the year (18 completions of 31 attempts for 202 yards with a passer rating of 64.2). It was one in which he was more than usually erratic, especially on deeper throws.

Like all Bears fans, I wish him good luck in defeating the demons that have haunted him in days gone by.

Doing It All the Time

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Why hasn’t Lamarr Houston been promoted to starter yet? I think he’s proven over the last few weeks that he’s the answer opposite Pernell McPhee. It can’t be because he’s a liability on first and second down, can it? All I heard and read when he came over from Oakland was what a great run defender he is. Not to mention he’s certainly being paid like a starter, as opposed to Sam Acho or Willie Young. — Nicholas D., Birmingham, Ala.”

Biggs points out that Houston’s snaps increased dramatically against the Packers.

“More important than the designation of who is starting is playing time, so that’s worth keeping in mind, too. I don’t think decisions on playing time should be based on money either. When you start putting players on the field because they have a bigger paycheck, that’s when you get in trouble. Young’s contract isn’t shabby either. He’s earning a base salary of $2.45 million this season. I like the way they’re moving guys in and out at outside linebacker and handling McPhee’s knee situation, which is clearly keeping him on the sideline more than anyone would like.”

jimmy-garoppolo-lamarr-houston-nfl-chicago-bears-new-england-patriots-850x560I couldn’t agree more. Both Young and Houston have earned more playing time. I also feel the need to point out that Houston has a bad habit of disappearing until points in the game where the opponent absolutely has to pass and he can go all out after the quarterback without worrying about other responsibilities. I’d like to see him do it at other points in the game before I’ll become a real believer that he’s as good as his recent statistics indicate.

This Week Will Be All About the Running Game

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune goes over the six most telling plays from the Bears victory over Green Bay:

“Lacy’s stampede: On the night’s second snap, Packers running back Eddie Lacy busted off his longest run of the season. Zero in on the 29-yard charge and you’ll see the Bears overpowered up front. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman was swallowed by a double team at the snap and Jarvis Jenkins was driven 5 yards backward and dumped on his tail by [Josh] Sitton. Inside linebacker Jonathan Anderson overran Lacy in the backfield. Pernell McPhee couldn’t get off a block. Shea McClellin was overpowered by JC Tretter. And safety Adrian Amos missed a tackle 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Off Lacy went, headed toward midfield before Kyle Fuller finally pushed him out of bounds. It wasn’t just a fluky moment either. The Packers had their way in the running game all night, piling up 177 yards on the ground with Lacy averaging 6.2 yards on his 17 carries. Over the past two games, the Bears have allowed 347 rushing yards, dropping to 29th in the league against the run. It’s a troublesome weak spot that the Bears will need to patch up in December to keep their playoff hopes alive.”

This point is well taken.

The Bears haven’t done badly stopping the run this year. They kept both Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson down without stacking extra players in the box or doing anything special to stop them. But they need to continue to stop the run if they’re going to continue to win games. The lesson apparently hasn’t been lost on the defense. Via Rich Campbell, also at the Chicago Tribune:

“‘It’s about staying gap-sound and playing with great fundamentals,’ linebacker Pernell McPhee said. ‘When it gets late in the season, people tend to lose those tendencies. But we’re doing a great job this week of stressing that, stopping the run. Hopefully when Sunday comes, we’ll be ready.'”

I believe that they will be, too. The game will depend upon it because its going to be all about the running game. Both of these teams have to find it on offense. The 49ers haven’t had a rushing TD since week 5 and haven’t had a 100 yard rusher since Carlos Hyde in week 1. The Bears running game has been stymied the last two weeks in which, not co-incidentally, they have scored only 34 points.

For once, this game is going to be simple. The team that runs the ball better against the opposing defense will win.

 

The Reality of the Bears Situation

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune reviews the problems that the Bears have to overcome in order to continue to win football games.

Jay Cutler’s turnover-free night? Well, Quentin Rollins dropped a shoulda-been interception in the first quarter. And Cutler had to make a desperate hustle recovery to avoid disaster on a fumbled fourth-quarter snap.

“That spirited defensive effort? The Bears still are getting pushed around up front and proving way too vulnerable against the run.

“This list could go on for awhile. And it’s why the Bears can’t take their newfound position as favorites against the 49ers and Redskins as a sign that they can exhale. They still have a razor-thin margin for error and haven’t enjoyed a three-game winning streak since September 2013.”

He’s got a good point. In talking to Bears fans around town and around the Internet, there’s considerable optimism about how this team is going to finish the year. What I’m hearing a lot is, “With that schedule? They’re going to the playoffs.” Much though I like what I see, I think fans are setting themselves for disappointment.

Looking ahead, I see San Fransisco, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit. Are those winnable games? You bet. But I feel compelled to point out that those teams are saying the same thing about their game against the 5-6 Bears. And with the exception of the Vikings, all of them are on the upswing, just as the Bears are. And the Vikings were pretty good to begin with.

San Fransisco just limited the Cardinals, possibly the best team in the NFC, to 19 points. Tampa Bay has won three of their last five and is in contention for a playoff spot. Washington has also won three of five and are the favorites to win their division. The Lions just beat the Packers three weeks ago in Lambeau, matching what the Bears just did, and they absolutely destroyed the Eagles on Thanksgiving. And both the Vikings and the Lions beat the Bears earlier in the year.

Could the Bears finish strong and be in contention for the playoffs? No doubt. But much more likely fans will be sitting at the end of the year and be happy that the Bears gradually improved over the course of the season with a bright future ahead of them. But only if they stay grounded in reality.

Apparently Allowing Only 13 Points Against the Packers In Lambeau Isn’t Good Enough

Mark Potash at the Chicago Sun-Times cites the “statistics” on the Bears defensive effort.

“According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears’ composite defensive rating against the Packers on Thursday night was minus-18.8. It was minus-3.2 in Week 1, when [AaronRodgers had a 140.5 passer rating and threw three touchdown passes in a 31-23 victory.”

Do I really need to comment?

Very Quick Comments: Bears at Packers 11/27/15

Both the best and the worst thing about watching football on Thanksgiving is that you get to watch it with family. Surrounded by almost 20 of the closest people in the world to me, many of whom grew up watching football with me, is one of the greatest pleasures I get all year. But concentrating completely on the game and taking notes was simply impossible. I might as well have been watching in the middle of a hurricane. So my notes on this wonderful Bears victory will be brief and to the point if for no other reason than I don’t have as much as usual to say.

Defense

  1. The Packers game plan was clear from the outset and they never deviated from it. Play three wide receivers, thus forcing the Bears into nickel, then obliterate them and wear them down with Eddie Lacy up the middle over and over and over again. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, on the other hand, must be one of the most stubborn men on earth. As with Adrian Peterson two weeks before, he flat out refused to do anything special to stop Lacy.  This was the battle of wills that was waged all night. Lacy had over a hundred yards rushing but it wasn’t enough.
  2. Give the defensive backs a lot of the credit for this win. Though Lacy continually took chunks of yardage up the middle, whenever Aaron Roger dropped back to pass, it was a tough exercise. Over and over again Rogers made time with his feet as he avoided the pass rush. And over and over again, right down to the last play, he still could not find open receivers. It was a wonderful display by a unit that, at least up until now, I didn’t consider to have much talent. Like a lot of things about this team, I’m now going to have to re-assess this.

Offense

  1. As most regular readers know, I’m not much of a Jay Cutler fan. Repeatedly over a period of ten years, Cutler has flat out quit in tough games, especially in Lambeau. He’s still the guy who quit on Denver so long ago.  And he’s still the guy as late as last year who gave up against New Orleans to the point where he was actually benched for the now departed Jimmy Clausen.
    But fair is fair. This is the game that I was pointing to all year as Cutler’s watershed. Based upon past history, it’s exactly the type of game he should have collapsed in. When the Packers came out swinging, confused him, put a lot of pressure on him, and forced him to throw a near interception early in the first quarter, I thought that’s what was going to happen. The offense started with repeated three and outs and I was convinced the Packers were going to wear the courageous Bears defense down to a nub.It didn’t happen. Cutler hung in there and the Bears re-grouped. It was ugly but they managed to possess the ball and keep the defense off the field. And it was largely due to Cutler and his mobility and the fact that he kept calm and adjusted.It’s going to be very hard to continue to trash Cutler from here on out. This was a big game for him.
  2. Give credit to some of the lesser known receivers who stepped up in this game. Marquess Wilson and Marc Mariani both had big catches throughout the game. Due largely to their efforts along with the return of Alshon Jeffery, the Packers had a great deal of trouble getting the Bears off of the field on third and long, especially late. Wonderful job.
  3. The Bears offensive line had a tough time handling the Packer defensive line. I credited a lot of the Packers success Sunday against the Vikings to the deplorable state of the Minnesota offensive line. But the Packer defensive line is pretty good and the battle in the trenches was enjoyable to watch. The Bears had just over 100 yards rushing. Not as good as you’d like but also not a complete shutdown.

Miscellaneous

  1. Want to know why Cris Collinsworth is the best color man in the game? Look no further than the wonderful job he did pointing out how the Packers defensive linemen were shooting inside to beat the Bears on stretch running plays. I’m convinced that there are few others that would have picked it up despite the obvious penetration that the Packers were getting.
  2. Special teams weren’t good enough. They allowed at least one huge run back that set the Packers up and the Bears 30 yard line. You can’t ordinarily get away with that against the Packers anywhere, especially in Lambeau.
  3. If you had told me that the Bears were going to win a game against the Packers where they had 12 penalties to their three, I would have refused to believe it. The officiating left a lot to be desired but to be fair, the poor calls were on both sides. The Bears aren’t going to get away with that often.
  4. As is their habit, the Packers had a lot of drops. They’re finding it harder to overcome them than usual this year. Jeremy Langford had a particularly tough time catching the ball in this game. If it was the rain, he’d better learn to adjust. He’s got a lot of wet football ahead of him.
  5. Not surprisingly, the two Packer turnovers were huge in this game. In contrast to last Sunday, the Bears didn’t have one. This is especially notable in regard to Cutler. Nice work, there.
  6. I’m in the state of shock and its not going to go away any time soon. Time after time I would watch Eddie Lacy carve out huge chunks of yardage and shake my head.  But then I’d look up at the scoreboard and the Bears were still ahead.  Honest to heaven, I still can’t figure out how it happened.
  7. Up until this game, my assessment of the Bears has been one of a talent deficient but well-coached team, especially on defense. But how talent-deficient can they possibly be and still beat the Packers in Lambeau?  It’s obvious that I’m going to have to spend some time re-assessing this team. I’d still like to see more but based upon the last two games against two of the better teams in the league, I might be under-estimating them.

 

Revising Expectations for the Bears

Jon Greenberg at ESPN is revising his expectations for the Bears:

“In the beginning … we predicted 6-10 for the Chicago Bears and it seemed just about right.”

“But then Jay Cutler returned [from injury] ahead of schedule and things settled down, and now, weeks after fans stopped watching games between their outstretched fingers, this looks like, knock on Mike Ditka’s pompadour, it could be a wholly respectable team with a longshot chance of making the postseason.”

The Bears are on a hot streak and Cutler is certainly a big part of that. But Cutler or not, I’m sticking with 6-10.

The Bears are 4-5 and at this point in the season, I think that’s great. But let’s not forget that they are the same team that lost to the Lions a month ago. They’ve won two games since then but they’ve gotten a lot of help from two teams that, frankly, played well below their talent level. Such things have a bd habit of evening out and more often than not, given decent coaching and a good environment, teams end up right where their talent level says they should.

I’m not disparaging the Bears here. I think they’re a well-coached team that is making progress every week. But Denver is a much better team that is unlikely to give the game away with poor discipline in the same manner that the Rams did. And I don’t care how badly the Packers are slipping at the moment, I can’t believe that they won’t pull it together and beat the Bears on Thanksgiving. I also see the Vikings as a loss in Minnesota. After that, the Bears are still a team that’s going to be no more than a coin flip against Washington, San Fransisco, Tampa Bay, and Detroit. If they win half of those, that’s two more wins. And that’s where I’m still sitting.