Chicago Bears: Chad Clifton
Complete Bears season preview.
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 10:
1. Road/home-field advantage: It's true that the Chicago Bears have won 10 of their past 12 regular season divisional games at home. But from a national perspective, I wonder if everyone is aware of the Detroit Lions' recent road success. The Lions are 4-0 on the road this season and have won six consecutive games away from Ford Field after stopping a 26-game road losing streak last December. The Bears feel confident that playing at home will alleviate the issues they experienced in the teams' Week 5 matchup in Detroit, namely nine false start penalties. The experts seem to agree. The Bears have been steady three-point favorites this week and all 10 ESPN experts, human and otherwise, are predicting a Bears victory. Recent history, at least, suggests the call is not quite that clear-cut. A victory would give the Lions a 7-2 record for just the second time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
3. Stretch run: Monday night will mark the first of a three-game, 11-day stretch for the Green Bay Packers. They'll play on Nov. 14 against the Minnesota Vikings, on Nov. 20 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then Nov. 24 for their Thanksgiving showdown with the Lions. It's not as difficult as it might seem. In 2009, you might remember, the Packers played three games in 12 days and won all three.
4. Smart pressure on Rodgers: Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has 11.5 sacks against the Packers in games that left tackle Chad Clifton hasn't played. Clifton (hamstring) has been ruled out of this game, to be replaced again by Marshall Newhouse, and the Vikings are hoping to get Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of his rhythm Monday night at Lambeau Field. But Allen brought up a good point this week. He noted Rodgers throws well when flushed out of the pocket and suggested that "we've got to get him to scramble where we want him to scramble." Allen wasn't specific about where that might be, but here are the facts: Rodgers has thrown 38 passes from outside of the pocket this season. He's averaging 14.5 yards per attempt (not completion) on those throws, the best in the NFL by a long shot. No other quarterback is averaging more than 8.5 yards per attempt outside of the pocket with a minimum of 20 attempts.
5. Slowing Peterson: Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson has eclipsed 100 yards in two of his past three games at Lambeau Field and had 175 yards against the Packers in the teams' meeting at the Metrodome last month. Of that 175-yard performance, 89 yards came after first contact. That was the third-highest total in an NFL game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Peterson has saved some of the hardest running of his career for games against the Packers, and he is the Vikings' best chance for a victory Monday night. Quarterback Christian Ponder has displayed poise in his first two starts, but it's helped that Peterson has gained 258 yards in those games.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BEARS
Left tackle Chad Clifton participated in the Packers' last two practice sessions leading into the game, but his sore knee has been a well-documented cause for his struggles over the last two weeks. The Bears need to line up Julius Peppers on Clifton's side often and have the defensive end try a variety of pass-rush tactics ranging from finesse moves to the full-on bull rush to see if Clifton's injured knee holds up. If it doesn't, the Packers will likely insert inexperienced Bryan Bulaga, which means the Bears should be able to pressure Aaron Rodgers.
Go after the rookie
Green Bay's first two opponents interestingly stayed away from rookie cornerback Sam Shields, but you can count on the Bears directing a few passes his way to see what he's got. The Packers' No. 3 cornerback, Shields has had just two balls thrown his way in the first two games. That number should go way up in Monday night's game. Shields (5-11, 184 pounds) will likely be matched against Earl Bennett in the slot. Bennett lacks big-play speed, but you can't discount his route-running ability and chemistry with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
Be patient; don't take chances
Cutler struggles against the Packers historically. In three games against them, he's thrown four touchdown passes and six interceptions for a passer rating of 68.5. The Bears need to give the Packers the 2010 version of Cutler, the quarterback who has done a masterful job of taking what the defense gives while not forcing throws into traffic. It's almost a given the Packers will confuse Cutler early. But the quarterback needs to exercise patience and make smart decisions to prevent the Packers from gaining unnecessary field position from turnovers.
THREE KEYS FOR THE PACKERS
Make Urlacher play the pass
The area between the safeties in the seams is one of the most vulnerable in Chicago's Tampa-2 based scheme because there's so much ground for Urlacher to cover. While Urlacher is one of the league's most athletic middle linebackers, it won't hurt to send tight end Jermichael Finley in Urlacher's zone as much as possible to test him. Defenders all around the league struggle to cover Finley one on one. So it's worth it to see if the Bears will be any different.
Attack the tackles
Take advantage of the fact the Bears are using a pair of back-ups in right tackle Kevin Shaffer and left tackle Frank Omiyale by making sure both of them spend some time lined up across from Clay Matthews. A savvy veteran, Shaffer lacks range and is somewhat short-armed, which can be a major disadvantage on the edge. Omiyale possesses the most athleticism between himself and Shaffer, but could be susceptible to the bull rush. The Packers need to keep the Bears guessing in the protection by moving around Matthews.
Get Jackson going
Aaron Rodgers can't win this game by himself, so it's important to find some semblance of a running game to complement the pass. Packers coach Mike McCarthy admits the club's passing game is set up by the run. So if Jackson isn't effective, Green Bay's passing game is sure to take a hit as the offense becomes one-dimensional. Jackson currently averages 3.2 yards per carry, but needs to find a way to rip off larger chunks against the Bears' top-ranked rush defense. Without the threat of a viable running game, the Bears will basically pin back their ears and invest significantly in pressuring Rodgers.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: BRIAN URLACHER VS. JERMICHAEL FINLEY
Coming off a game against Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher didn't make too much of his pending matchup with Jermichael Finley, one of the league's most dangerous pass-catching tight ends.
In fact, Urlacher matter-of-factly lumped in Finley with the rest of the league's best.
"He's a big tight end who runs well and catches the ball [well]," Urlacher said. "He's like [San Diego tight end Antonio] Gates and those guys. They run well and know how to get open. [Bears tight end] Greg Olsen is the same way."
One of the main keys to coverage in the middle of Chicago's defensive scheme, Urlacher still possesses plenty of range to handle the middle zones underneath the safeties. He and Finley also possess similar size, which should give Urlacher an edge that most defenders don't have against the tight end.
Because of Urlacher's skill set, it's unlikely the Bears will have to resort to the same tactics (doubling Finley) employed by the rest of the Packers' opponents.
"They're so good at throwing the football. Their routes are tough," Urlacher said. "They have the [Cover 2] beaters, the man [coverage] beaters. They have everything. They have a lot of personnel groups, too. They change personnel like crazy. It keeps you on your toes."
BEARS BY THE NUMBERS
6: Takeaways forced by the Bears so far this season.
86: Victories by the Monsters of the Midway Bears teams in the 1940s. The Bears will pay homage to that era in Bears history against the Packers when they wear throwback uniforms.
8: Passes of 20 yards or more this season, which ties for first in the NFL. The club also has three touchdown passes this season of 20 yards or more.
771: Yards gained by the Bears offense through the first two games, which ranks second in franchise history (since at least 1960) behind the 805 yards put up by the 1985 Bears through the first two games.
10.14: Yards per pass play for the Bears, which ranks as tops in the league.
We took a look at the Vikings on Tuesday with Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Judd Zulgad.
We move onto Green Bay today with Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Packers reporter Greg Bedard.
Five things the Packers need to worry about
1. Special teams: The Packers claim they will improve on special teams this season, and that should happen almost by default. But will this group improve simply through better coaching (with the same staff)? The unit needs to cut down on penalties. The Packers continue to go the cheap route at punter, and neither option has kicked in so much as an exhibition game. Indications are that Mason Crosby is still suffering a confidence problem.
2. Depth at outside linebacker: The Packers should be fine with Brad Jones at left outside linebacker, although he needs to show enough to keep double teams off Clay Matthews. The real worry is behind them. If Jones or Matthews is injured, the Packers have zero depth. That’s not a good thing at a crucial position in the 3-4.
4. Offensive line slow out of the gates: The Packers are notorious for getting off to slow and sloppy starts on the offensive line under coach James Campen. That can’t happen anymore. If it does, it could torpedo the season, like it nearly did last season.
5. Overall team mindset: For whatever reason, the 2009 Packers got full of themselves, and their performances suffered. Just ask Woodson about the mindset going into the Cardinals playoff game. This team plays better with an edge and its backs against the wall. The Packers have to find a way to handle all the Super Bowl hype better. On the flip side, the Packers, starting with general manager Ted Thompson, look like they’re getting a bit tight [due to the Super Bowl hype]. That stance has a tendency to filter down to the players, and negatively affect the on-field product. The Packers need to find a way to strike the right balance.
Five things not to worry about
1. Donald Driver’s age: Driver’s play tailed off toward the end of last season, but offseason scopes on his knees should help immensely. The Packers are a better offense with Driver, 35, in the mix. Nobody else can do the dirty work he does.
2. Left guard: Incumbent Daryn Colledge is a lot better than Packers fans (and some of the coaches) want to give him credit for. Does he need to be more consistent? Yes. But he might be the best left guard in the division. Jason Spitz should be ready to compete for the job as well.
3. Whether Bryan Bulaga plays:The Packers drafted Bulaga in the first round with a year down the road in mind. He’s not ready to unseat Chad Clifton, and Bulaga has never played guard before. Bulaga needs to just concentrate on learning left tackle because at some point Clifton won’t be able to answer the bell.
4. Defensive line depth: Whether the troubled Johnny Jolly is on the Packers’ roster at the start of training camp, the club still has more than enough depth between Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, and, perhaps, Justin Harrell.
5. Charles Woodson slowing down: The reigning NFL defensive player of the year, Woodson looks like he’s ready for a repeat after taking part in an offseason routine for the first time that used boxing. The leader of the Packers' defense, Woodson should make even more plays this season with a healthy supporting cast around him.