Chicago Bears: Clay Matthews

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
12:00
PM ET
On the day former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith got the job, he said that one of his priorities was to beat the Green Bay Packers.

First-year Bears coach Marc Trestman made no such promises about this rivalry, but it goes without saying that he's eager to end Chicago's six-game losing streak to the Packers.

The last time Chicago beat Green Bay was on Sept. 27, 2010, on "Monday Night Football." The teams meet again in prime time Monday night at Lambeau Field.

ESPN.com's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Rob Demovsky: We all know how much Smith wanted to beat the Packers. He stated as much the day he got the head coaching job. What has Trestman's approach to this rivalry been like?

Wright: Rob, my man, you know that rivalries have to cut both ways in terms of wins and losses for it to be truly considered a rivalry. Counting the postseason, the Bears have lost six in a row and nine of the last 11. So, if anything, this is more Green Bay dominance than a rivalry. But the interesting thing about Trestman is he's a guy who likes to compartmentalize everything. He looks at today rather than the past or the future. So while it sounds cliché, Trestman is looking at the Packers as just another opponent on the schedule. That's just the way Trestman likes to operate, and I think for him it sort of makes things easier.

I keep looking at Green Bay's sack numbers, and I'm a little surprised the club is still in the top 10 in sacks with Clay Matthews out the last three games and other key members of the defense missing time. What is Dom Capers doing over there schematically to keep up the production?

Demovsky: I figured when Matthews broke his thumb, Capers would have to blitz like crazy. Now, he's picked his spots, but he hasn't gone blitz-happy like I thought he might. However, he has been sending different pass-rushers to keep offenses off guard. One game, against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker A.J. Hawk came a bunch and sacked Joe Flacco three times. Also, they've finally found a defensive lineman with some rush ability in second-year pro Mike Daniels. Three of his team-leading four sacks have come in the past two games.

As long as we're on the topic of quarterbacks, in 2011, backup Josh McCown played a halfway decent game against the Packers on Christmas at Lambeau Field, but he threw a couple of interceptions. What do you expect from him this time around as he starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have limited Brandon Marshall to 8 catches for 80 yards in their past two meetings.
Wright: Believe it or not, I expect little to no drop-off from McCown in this game. The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2011, McCown joined the team in November, fresh from a stint as a high school football coach in North Carolina, and four weeks later became the starter. So he basically came in cold and still played relatively well. This time around, McCown has become immersed in the offense from the ground level, when Trestman first came on board, and even had some input as the team constructed the scheme. In fact, during the offseason, McCown was holding film sessions with all the club's new additions to teach everyone the new offense. So he's got complete mastery of the offense just like Cutler, which is why McCown came in against the Redskins and the offense didn't miss a beat. Obviously, McCown doesn't possess Cutler's arm strength. But he'll make up for that deficiency with anticipation. I'm quite sure the Bears won't scale down the offense to accommodate McCown at all, because they don't need to. So I expect McCown to play well. I'm just not sure Chicago's offense can keep up with Green Bay's in what I expect to be a high-scoring game.

Speaking of high scoring, the Packers put up 44 points on the Minnesota Vikings. How is Green Bay handling the preparation process for the Bears?

Demovsky: Well, they certainly don't have as much time as the Bears do, considering the Bears are coming off their bye week. But the Packers have gotten themselves into a rhythm. They've won four in a row after their 1-2 start and look like a different team than they did the first three weeks of the season. Mike McCarthy probably doesn't get enough credit nationally, but show me another coach who has stared injuries in the face and hasn't blinked. What other team could lose playmakers like Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Matthews and still keep winning? That's a testament to the program he has established here. You can argue with some of his in-game coaching decisions, but you can do that with every coach. What you can't question, though, is the team's preparation.

The Bears, obviously, have had their share of injuries, too, losing Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. What's a bigger loss -- Cutler to the offense or Briggs to the defense?

Wright: Well, Cutler's replacement is a veteran in McCown who has plenty of experience and a ton of weapons surrounding him on offense, while rookie Khaseem Greene will likely fill in for Briggs on a bad defense that will also feature rookie Jon Bostic in the middle. From my vantage point, losing Briggs is much more significant. The Bears have already proved to be horrible against the run (ranked 25th), and that issue certainly won't improve with two rookies at linebacker and a defensive line decimated by injury. It's also worth noting that Briggs made all the defensive calls and served as somewhat of a coach on the field for Bostic. Given that Green Bay seems to be running the ball so well, the current situation with Chicago's front seven could be devastating.

Now that the Packers are running the ball so well, how has that changed the way the offense is called? It seems Green Bay runs well regardless of which running back they line up in the backfield.

Demovsky: It's remarkable -- and even a bit stunning -- to see Aaron Rodgers check out of a pass play and in to a run play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of thing hasn't happened around here in a long, long time -- probably not since Ahman Green was piling up 1,000-yard seasons nearly a decade ago. Teams no longer can sit back in a Cover-2 look and dare the Packers to run. Because guess what? The Packers can finally do it. It also has given the receivers more one-on-one opportunities, so it's helped the passing game, too. Right now, this offense almost looks unstoppable.

If the Packers keep playing like this, they might be tough to catch in the NFC North. What are the Bears' prospects for staying in the NFC North race until Cutler and Briggs return?

Wright: To me, this game is the measuring stick for making that determination. But I'm not really confident about Chicago's chances, and that has more to do with the team's struggling defense than Cutler's absence. There have been conflicting statements made about Cutler's recovery time frame. Some teammates think he'll be ready to return by the time the Bears face Detroit on Nov. 4, while Trestman said the plan is to stick to the minimum four-week time frame prescribed by the doctors. Either way, if the Bears lose to the Lions you can kiss their prospects for the playoffs goodbye. The Bears might be able to afford a loss to the Packers because they'll face them again on Dec. 29. But a sweep by the Lions kills Chicago's chances to me because just from what we've seen so far, it appears one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC North with the other coming from the NFC West. Obviously it's too early to predict that, but that's the way things seem to be shaking out.

Without two of his top receivers and tight end Finley, Rogers still hit 83 percent of his passes against the Vikings. Is that success a product of the system, a bad Minnesota defense, or is Rodgers just that good at this point?

Demovsky: The more I see other quarterbacks play, the more I'm convinced it's Rodgers. For example, seldom-used receiver Jarrett Boykin makes his first NFL start two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and he ends up with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. How many catches do you think he would have had if he were playing for the Browns that day? Their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, completed only 17-of-42 passes. That's not to minimize what Boykin did or what players like Jordy Nelson do week in and week out, but Rodgers is special, and special players elevate the play of those around them. Look at what Greg Jennings has done since he left for the Vikings. Now tell me the quarterback doesn't make the receiver, not vice versa.

Speaking of receivers, other than Anquan Boldin, who lit up the Packers in the opener at San Francisco, they've done a solid job shutting down other team's No. 1 receivers -- most recently Jennings and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. How do you think the Bears will try to get Brandon Marshall involved against what has been a pretty good Packers secondary?

Wright: This question brings me back to the 2012 massacre at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. The Packers bracketed Marshall with two-man coverage, and the Bears struggled tremendously. Shoot, cornerback Tramon Williams caught as many of Cutler's passes as Marshall, who finished the game with two grabs for 24 yards. Obviously, this offensive coaching staff is a lot different than last year's group. So the Bears will go into this game with a lot more answers for that coverage. I definitely see McCown leaning on Marshall and trying to get him involved as early as possible, but the only way he'll be able to do that is for the Bears to establish the rushing attack with Matt Forte so the quarterback can operate off play action. When the Bears go to Marshall early, expect to see a lot of short passes that will enable the receiver to gain some yardage after the catch.

Over the years, Green Bay has been pretty successful at limiting the impact of return man Devin Hester. So I was a little shocked to see the Packers give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson. As you probably know, Hester is coming off a pretty strong return game against the Redskins. Do you think the Packers fix the problems they encountered last week, and minimize Hester's impact?

Demovsky: Part of the Packers' problem on special teams has been that all the injuries have created a trickle-down effect. Here's what I mean: On the kickoff coverage until they gave up the 109-yard return to Patterson, they lined up six rookies, two of whom weren't even on the opening day roster. The Packers always have feared Hester, as they should, and in various games in recent years have shown they'd almost rather kick the ball out of bounds than give him any return opportunities. He's one of those special players who make rivalry games so entertaining.

Eight in the Box: FA winners or losers?

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
10:42
PM ET
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Chicago Bears: A hot start in free agency netted left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. The Bears had been trying for five years to find a genuine left tackle, and Bushrod's arrival should boost the faith of quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett, meanwhile, gives the Bears the kind of pass-catching tight end they once had in Greg Olsen. But Bushrod and Bennett accounted for most of the salary-cap space the Bears had budgeted to use, and now they are nibbling the edges. Overall, however, the Bears improved two important positions, making them winners in free agency.

Detroit Lions: The NFC North's most active offseason team has added three new starters in running back Reggie Bush, defensive end Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. Bush will have a big impact on balancing the explosiveness in the Lions' offense, and Quin will pair with the returning Louis Delmas to give the Lions their best safety duo in recent memory. The Lions have improved as many positions as they could have given their tight salary-cap situation.

Green Bay Packers: It's difficult to win when you don't play, and general manager Ted Thompson is notoriously reluctant to compete financially in the market. He allowed receiver Greg Jennings to sign with the Minnesota Vikings and didn't make a good enough offer on running back Steven Jackson. But the Packers have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons by following a similar approach. These days, their focus is on saving enough salary-cap space to re-sign quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers won't find two players better than that on the free-agent market.

Minnesota Vikings: In essence, the Vikings traded receiver Percy Harvin for Jennings, along with a first-, third- and seventh-round draft pick. They won't replace Harvin's unique skill set, but that's not a bad recovery. The Vikings are also in a better spot at backup quarterback with Matt Cassel rather than Joe Webb. But they don't have a middle linebacker after bidding farewell to Jasper Brinkley, and they remain thin at cornerback after releasing Antoine Winfield. The Vikings remain a work in progress this offseason. They haven't won or lost yet.

Four Downs: Can Marshall back it up?

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
5:01
PM ET
Brandon MarshallJake Roth/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Marshall was held in check by the Packers in their first meeting with two catches for 24 yards.
So much for a nice, quiet Bears-Packers week.

Brandon Marshall started the fireworks on Wednesday, saying this matchup is "personal" after he claims Packers defensive backs took too much credit for Marshall's quiet performance in their Week 2 game.

But now Marshall has raised the stakes with his comments. Will he come to regret them on Sunday? Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall will regret calling out the Packers secondary.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. What does Marshall have to lose? The Bears will no doubt be the underdogs on Sunday, partly because their season is slipping away with four losses in their last five games, but mainly due to the fact Green Bay has won seven of the past eight games in the series. If the Bears fall short on Sunday, well, it was bound to happen anyways. But imagine if the Bears win. Marshall will be praised for setting the tone during the week and taking all the pressure off his teammates so they could focus on the task at hand. It's really a no-lose situation for Marshall. It's not like the Green Bay secondary is going to play any harder because of what Marshall said.

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellTramon Williams and the rest of the Green Bay secondary figures to be fired up for a matchup against Brandon Marshall.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Marshall plays a very emotional brand of football, and he's the type of guy that isn't shy about expressing how he feels. So regardless of how this one pans out, Marshall won't regret anything he said. The Packers pretty much bottled up Marshall in the first game, holding him to just two catches for 24 yards by utilizing quite a bit of two-man coverage, which the Bears struggled to adjust to. Marshall wasn't happy about his performance, and the Packers made the receiver even more mad by their remarks after the game. Obviously, the Bears will go into this one with an answer for the wrinkle the Packers used last time. But surely Green Bay will throw something new Sunday at Marshall and the Bears. Marshall has gained 150-plus yards receiving in each of his past two outings, so naturally he comes into this game confident. The back-and-forth between the players this week is just typical of what takes place in a rivalry like this. Marshall won't regret a word he said, whether he catches one pass or 10.

Scott Powers: Fiction. Marshall is going to get his whether he runs his mouth or not. He's just too good. He's proven that all season. If the Packers are smart, they'll brush off Marshall's comments and just play. They probably won't though, and will likely pick up some stupid pass interference calls and try to overplay him. In the end, it may work to Marshall's advantage and get him a few added yards. Either way, I see another big day for Marshall, but another Bears' loss.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Marshall has nothing to lose starting a war of words. He's, hands-down, the team MVP this year. Marshall has caught 20 passes for 325 yards over the last two games, both losses. He's on pace to break the three main single-season records for a Bears receiver. Whether or not he has an impact game is on Jay Cutler, Mike Tice and the offensive line. Marshall likely will drop a pass, but he will also get targeted 15-plus times if Cutler can perform as expected. One thing people tend to forget is that this is entertainment, not war. We need more guys willing to spice it up with some passion.

(Read full post)

Packers-Bears II: JWebb Nation, stand up

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
4:30
PM ET
The Chicago Bears didn't practice Wednesday because their beat-up roster needed an additional day of recovery. Clearly, however, their players' mouths -- literal and virtual -- are unaffected.

We've already discussed receiver Brandon Marshall's challenge of the Green Bay Packers in advance of Sunday's game. Let's also note that Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who like Marshall had a rough game in the teams' Week 2 meeting, is promising a big performance Sunday.

Via Twitter, Webb said:

You'll recall that Webb was part of a Bears offense that allowed seven sacks in that Sept. 13 game. Webb was responsible for two of them, according to Pro Football Focus, and played poorly enough that quarterback Jay Cutler bumped and yelled at him in frustration on the sideline.

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who had 3.5 sacks in that game, practiced Wednesday and could be in line to play for the first time in more than a month after straining a hamstring. The JWebb Nation could have its collective hands full.

Woodson out; Clay expected to face Bears

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
2:18
PM ET
Green Bay Packers safety Charles Woodson will remain sidelined for this week's showdown against the rival Chicago Bears, coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday.

Woodson has missed Green Bay's last six games due to a broken collarbone. The eight-time Pro Bowler had hoped to return for this Sunday's game, but McCarthy admitted that Green Bay's medical staff felt it would be better for Woodson to sit.

Read the entire story.

NFC North third quarter Stock Watch

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
11:45
AM ET
We've posted quarterly Stock Watches in October and November, and now it's time for the third installment of a once-weekly feature.

FALLING

1. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Ponder has brought the franchise to a crossroads as it nears the end of his second season. The hope was that Ponder would demonstrate steady improvement and establish himself as a long-term starter by the end of the season. Instead, he is still turning in clunkers that are every bit as bad as his worst games as a rookie. Among many abominable numbers, here is perhaps the most eye-popping: Ponder has completed only four passes this season that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There are extenuating factors involved, including a weak group of wide receivers, but Ponder is also facing defenses that are aligned more often in run-stopping schemes than any quarterback in the NFL. In short, Ponder has offered no indication through 22 career starts that he can be a long-term starter. Barring an immediate turnaround, the Vikings will have a much tougher decision this offseason than they could have possibly hoped.

2. Detroit Lions drafting philosophy: The apparent end of receiver Titus Young's short tenure has intensified scrutiny on the Lions' four drafts under general manager Martin Mayhew. Of the 29 players selected over that time, seven are currently starters and three more are valuable backups or special-teams players. That's not a horrendous ratio, but what stands out is that Mayhew has taken some risks that have not panned out. Young's character issues were well-known in college. The same goes for the concussion history of tailback Jahvid Best. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley is emerging as a playmaker, but not after experiencing some of the maturity issues he displayed in college. Injuries have stunted the growth of safety Louis Delmas, receiver Ryan Broyles and cornerback Dwight Bentley, and Mayhew can't be blamed for those. It should also be noted that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff appears ready to step in as a starter. But it's clear that after four years of drafting, Mayhew's roster still has some notable holes.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesVikings running back Adrian Peterson is on pace for 1,928 yards this season.
3. Defensive nucleus, Chicago Bears: The Bears laughed off preseason concerns that their best defensive players were too old in a collective sense, and during a 7-1 start, their defensive veterans -- most notably cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs -- were the talk of the league. The Bears were also emboldened by the emergence of two younger players, defensive tackle Henry Melton (six sacks) and cornerback Tim Jennings (eight interceptions). But their core has started to break down during a 1-3 stretch. Linebacker Brian Urlacher might miss the rest of the season because of a hamstring injury. Tillman has been dealing with a foot injury and has managed just one forced fumble, his specialty, in that stretch. Briggs has an ankle injury and hasn't caused a turnover in six weeks. Defensive end Julius Peppers, meanwhile, has two sacks in his past five games. The Bears will need to accelerate their restocking efforts this offseason.

RISING

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings tailback: Quite simply, Peterson is having the best season of his Hall of Fame career -- and he still hasn't reached the one-year anniversary of knee reconstruction surgery. He is on pace for 1,928 yards, a total that would put him among the seven-best seasons for a running back in NFL history. Given Peterson's competitiveness, you know he is gunning for a 2,000-yard season and hasn't ruled out the possibility that he could break Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards in 16 games. To do so, he'll need to average 165 yards per game over the Vikings' final four. It sounds impossible, but what about this season has seemed probable for Peterson? He continues to run with power, averaging an NFL-high 3.2 yards per carry after first contact, which is twice the NFL average. Speed? Peterson has a league-leading 17 rushes of more than 20 yards. Only one other NFL player has double-digit runs of that length (C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills).

2. Calvin Johnson, Lions receiver: Somehow, Johnson is on pace to set an NFL record for receiving yards in a season despite playing on an offense where most of the other pass-catching threats have been injured -- and with a running game that hasn't made teams pay for ignoring it. The Lions lead the NFL with 547 passing attempts and rank No. 25 with 295 rushing attempts, and yet Johnson has caught 86 passes for 1,428 yards with four games left to play. It's true that some of those yards have come late in losses, most notably a 207-yard effort in Week 10 against the Vikings. He also has managed only five touchdowns after catching 28 in his previous two seasons combined. But for the most part, Johnson is one of the few Lions players who has maintained his performance level from last year's 10-6 team.

3. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers linebacker: Yes, I know Matthews has missed the Packers' last three games because of a hamstring injury. But hopefully those three games have generated a better appreciation for his impact on the defense. The obvious concern was making up for his pass rush, but I think you've seen how important Matthews' tackling in the run game and overall playmaking is. At the time he was injured, opponents were converting 34.9 percent of third-down opportunities. Since then, they are 46.1 percent. It's also worth noting that the Packers have given up two of their three biggest games against the run with Matthews sidelined. Overall, opponents have racked up 457 rushing yards in those three games -- at 5.5 yards per rush. If you didn't know it before, you should agree that Matthews is more than a pass-rusher.

All-NFC North midseason team

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
11:23
AM ET
» NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

We've posted an All-NFC North team after every season since we started this blog five seasons ago. (Links: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)

Below, you'll find our first attempt at a midseason division team. As always, its composition is a blend of advice I've received from football professionals, my own eyes and consultations with some media services I respect. (For those interested, here is Pro Football Focus' All-NFC North team from last week.)

As we've learned in past years, there isn't always a direct correlation between individual frequency and team success. If there were, the Minnesota Vikings -- who sit in third place here in Week 10 -- wouldn't have a division-high eight players on this team.

Many of the choices are obvious and/or self-explanatory. Here are some thoughts on the more difficult decisions:
  • Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones has caught a career-high eight touchdown receptions, tying him for first among all NFL pass-catchers. But who would you remove from the three receivers I included to make room for Jones on this team? The Vikings' Percy Harvin leads the NFL with 62 receptions. The Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall ranks second with 797 receiving yards and fourth with 59 receptions. And the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson ranks third with 767 yards and 10th with 48 receptions. Yeah, I know.
  • I realize that Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has more sacks (five) in eight games than the Vikings' Brian Robison has in nine (4.5). But I also think Robison has made an impact in many other ways, most notably by batting down six passes at the line of scrimmage. He's also forced a fumble, by the Arizona Cardinals' John Skelton, on one of his sacks. Finally, Robison has been around the ball much more, contributing on 26 tackles to Peppers' 14. Close call here, but that's why I picked Robison.
  • I struggled at tight end between the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph. Pettigrew had some early struggles with drops, and Rudolph caught five touchdowns in the Vikings' first six games. But Rudolph has disappeared over the past three games, while Pettigrew has continued to play a role in the Lions' offense. He has 39 receptions, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL for tight ends. Coaches have also lauded his run blocking.
  • If the left guard position were judged on versatility, the Packers' T.J. Lang would have won out over the Lions' Rob Sims. Lang is now the Packers' right tackle after Bryan Bulaga's injury. But Sims has been much steadier this season at left guard. PFF hasn't debited him with a sack allowed, while Lang has been beat for four.
  • There's no doubt that Bulaga struggled in Week 3 at the Seattle Seahawks. Football people, however, think that has been his only bad game and that he has been the Packers' best lineman in the rest of their games.
  • I picked what I thought was the NFC North's three best linebackers, regardless of what position they play. That's why the Lions' DeAndre Levy is listed as a middle linebacker even though he plays on the outside in Detroit. By most accounts, Levy is having his best NFL season. Clay Matthews (nine sacks) and Lance Briggs (two interceptions, two touchdowns, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed) were obvious choices.
  • There are four really good place-kickers in the NFC North, though the Packers' Mason Crosby is in a bit of a slump. But how do you pick against a place-kicker who has converted 19 of 20 attempts -- including a league-high five from at least 50 yards -- while also securing an NFL-high 31 touchbacks on kickoffs? The Vikings' Blair Walsh has had a stunning first 10 games of his professional career.

NFC North second quarter Stock Watch

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
11:00
AM ET
As we noted last month, we've done away with the weekly Stock Watch post and instead will hit it after every quarter of the season. Here's what we posted after every NFC North team had played four games, and below is our assessment now that everyone has played at least half of the games on their 2012 schedule. I'm such a happy guy that I went crazy and shifted a slot from our "Falling" category to "Rising" to reflect the fact that all four of our teams are at least .500 at the moment. The glass is half-full up in here.

FALLING

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Stephen Brashear/Getty ImagesChristian Ponder has thrown six interceptions in the past four games, three of them losses.
1. Minnesota Vikings' vision: The most important task facing the Vikings this season was not challenging for a postseason spot, something a 5-3 record through eight games put them in position to do. Instead, it was developing and cementing quarterback Christian Ponder as their long-term answer at the position. Ponder made clear progress during training camp and played efficiently in the Vikings' conservative structure early this season. But a slump has now extended to five games, lowlighted by a pair of sub-70 yard efforts, and raised an uncomfortable specter. If Ponder can't straighten himself out, his second NFL season will be a failure. The Vikings' long-term plan centers around his successful development. Would they give him an unchallenged third season to prove himself? Or would they need to start considering contingency plans? NFL franchises are lost without a quarterback, putting the Vikings at a critical point under their current leadership.

2. Health in Green Bay: Nearly half of the Green Bay Packers' Week 1 lineup has missed at least one game because of injuries. All told, the Packers have lost 40 starts from players who were either listed as the starters on the team's opening depth chart or moved into that role as a result of other injuries. They face a post-bye landscape without receiver Greg Jennings, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back Cedric Benson, linebackers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, and cornerback Charles Woodson, for various periods of time. Receiver Jordy Nelson's status is uncertain. Optimists recall the Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago with 15 players on injured reserve. A realist would wonder how likely it is to repeat that feat under such circumstances.

RISING

1. Cornerbacks in Chicago: Even in a passing league, NFL teams have devalued the cornerback position in favor of pass rushers in recent years. Conventional wisdom has suggested that rules inhibiting aggressive coverage made pressure a better defensive weapon. But the Chicago Bears have proved otherwise this season, getting dominant performances from cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings both in coverage and playmaking. Their coverage has helped the Bears' pass rush compile an NFL-high 21 sacks from a standard four-man alignment, and as playmakers they've contributed a combined eight interceptions, three touchdowns, 21 defensed passes and seven forced fumbles. Oh, and they're combining to earn $6.55 million this season. That might have to change between now and the start of the 2013 season.

2. Scott Linehan, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator: The Lions have faced considerable criticism for not forcing more downfield passes against defenses who are blatantly aligned to stop those plays. That strength-on-strength argument sounds good around the water cooler, but it's a suicidal long-term approach. Linehan and coach Jim Schwartz understood that and, from the beginning, have insisted on a traditional antidote: The running game. Personnel shortages made that difficult earlier this season, but the emergence of Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell provide hope for the second half of the season. The two combined for 149 yards on 29 carries last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Leshoure scored three touchdowns. Linehan deserves credit for maintaining a sane thought process amid early season panic around the team. A successful running game might not force radical defensive changes, but it will give the Lions a reliable way to move the ball and score if they don't.

3. Adrian Peterson, Vikings running back: Exactly 315 days ago, Peterson's left knee was a mangled mess. We've already noted his stunning comeback, but it's worth updating after his 182-yard performance last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. In his past three games alone, Peterson has amassed 458 yards and four touchdowns, including breakaway runs of 74 and 64 yards. He leads the NFL in rushing yards (his total of 957 this season is 163 more than the NFL's next-most productive running back), yards from scrimmage (1,107), yards per carry (5.7), yards after contact (515) and runs of at least 20 yards (11). His comeback has been no less impressive than that of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and his recovery came in less than half the time.

4. Jay Cutler, Bears quarterback: From this vantage point, Cutler made substantial progress on multiple fronts over the past month. We got to the point where Cutler's quirks and sideline exchanges became a matter of course rather than cause for personality debates. We acknowledged how good he has been in clutch situations. And now we should note that the Bears are 12-1 in Cutler's past 13 starts dating to last season. Since the start of the 2010 season, in fact, the Bears have a .750 winning percentage in his starts (24-9). For reference, the Packers have a .769 winning percentage under quarterback Aaron Rodgers in that same span.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
1:00
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers' 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Packers' first touchdown came on a fake field goal that got lost in the postgame shuffle Thursday night, at least on this blog. So let's first note how gutsy the call was considering it came on fourth-and-26 from the Bears' 27-yard line. The play essentially had to score to work; the Bears would have taken over if reserve tight end Tom Crabtree had been stopped outside of the 1-yard line. "That's like the call of the year," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Fourth-and-26? You would never think anyone would go for that. You've got Tom Crabtree and you give the ball to him to get 26 yards? You never think that would happen again." Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers have been waiting "two or three years" for the Bears to give them an alignment that would make the play work. To me, the first key was that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman -- aligned over Crabtree on the left side of the Packers' formation -- chased place-kicker Mason Crosby away from the play for several steps. That gave Crabtree some separation to catch holder Tim Masthay's pitch and get a head of steam.
  2. There are many ways to determine the motivation for a fake field goal. Did the Bears simply provide a once-in-a-lifetime look the Packers knew they could capitalize on? Was McCarthy pulling out all the proverbial stops to avoid going 0-2? Or was it, at least in part, an acknowledgment that the Packers' offense left them needing to find alternative ways to score touchdowns? I think an argument could be made for the latter motivation. We noted last week the sharp decrease in the Packers' explosiveness and wondered what adjustment they would make. We got at least a one-game answer Thursday night: With Greg Jennings (groin) sidelined and the Bears aligned to take away the deep pass, the Packers powered down and emphasized their running game along with their short(er) passing game. They ran 25 running plays, nearly tripling their Week 1 attempts, and were rewarded when tailback Cedric Benson (81 yards on 20 carries) got warmed up and began churning up yardage. The longest pass quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed was a 26-yard touchdown to receiver Donald Driver, and their longest play overall was Randall Cobb's 28-yard run off a pitch play. Overall, the Packers averaged 4.9 yards on 66 plays, holding the ball for 32 minutes, 11 seconds. It was a very Black and Blue approach in what we once thought was the Air and Space division.
  3. As we discussed Thursday afternoon, the Packers weren't dumb enough to take up quarterback Jay Cutler on his offer to press receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Instead, they played man-to-man coverage with Williams, Sam Shields, Charles Woodson and rookie Casey Hayward with two safeties -- Morgan Burnett and another rookie, Jerron McMillian -- stationed deep. Williams turned in an awesome performance on Marshall, and afterwards reiterated his approach to playing big receivers. "With a guy that size," Williams said, "you can't be too physical on him. That's what he wants. He'll beat you most of the time. I didn't give him that."
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did the Packers settle their defensive rotation Thursday night or add a level of intrigue? Shields (60 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus) and Hayward (24) appeared to leapfrog Jarrett Bush on the cornerback depth chart. And McMillian (44 snaps) has jumped ahead of M.D. Jennings at safety. On the other hand, the Packers rotated veteran linebacker Erik Walden (36 snaps) with rookie Nick Perry (20), and Walden's active (half sack, two quarterback hits) probably played a role in Clay Matthews' 3.5-sack outburst. Rookie Dezman Moses also got 19 snaps. My guess is the Packers would like to establish some consistency at defensive back but could use their linebackers more to match with specific aspects of opponents. In all, it should be noted that the Packers got substantive contributions from five defensive rookies Thursday night: Perry (three hurries, via PFF), Hayward, McMillian, Moses (two hurries) and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (sack, two quarterback hits). "We've got a good group of young talent," Matthews said.

W2W4: Bears at Packers

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
10:54
AM ET


CHICAGO BEARS (1-0) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (0-1)

7:20, Thursday at Lambeau Field on the NFL Network

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
5:48
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Results were inconclusive, at best, on the Packers' primary offseason thrust. On the positive side, press box statistics show their pass rush got to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith for four sacks and two other post-throw hits. Linebacker Clay Matthews was credited with 2.5 sacks and defensive back Charles Woodson got the other 1.5. And two of Smith's biggest throws -- 29 yards to tight end Vernon Davis and 14 yards for a touchdown to Randy Moss -- were the fault of busted coverages. Smith threw plenty of quick-release passes, but in the end he had enough time to connect on nearly three-quarters of his throws. So to me it was a mixed bag. And for what it's worth, the Packers were blitzing heavily for a good portion of the game to ratchet up their pressure. They sent at least one extra rusher on 10 of Smith's first 21 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Woodson insisted the Packers' pass defense is "nowhere close to where it was last year" and said he liked the energy he saw. We'll see.
  2. Tight end Jermichael Finley was targeted a team-high 11 times and caught seven passes for 47 yards and a score. He also had one clear drop, another that could have been called one if you're a tough grader and a third play where he had enough trouble controlling the ball that the 49ers challenged the ruling of a completion. Afterwards, it was interesting to note how Finley responded when asked about the Packers "dropping" their first game. He misunderstood the question and belied his insistence that he isn't going to mourn drops this season. Here's what he said: "I thought about it all last year. I let it stress me. But this year, a drop is a drop. An interception is an interception, and we've got to move on from it. And go to the next play."
  3. If there was any doubt before, it's clear now: Veteran Donald Driver ranks no better than fifth on the Packers' receiver depth chart. He doesn't play on special teams, so the blunt truth was that he was active Sunday for insurance purposes. He didn't play until the final three snaps of the game, when starter Greg Jennings waved himself off the field. Before that, Driver did not get a snap. As we noted Sunday, second-year receiver Randall Cobb was a key part of the primary set the Packers used Sunday: Four receivers with Cobb lined up, initially, in the backfield. They used a variation of that formation on 31 of their 61 plays. Still, I actually think it makes sense to keep Driver on the roster as injury protection. If the Packers lose Jennings, Cobb, Jordy Nelson or James Jones, they could plug in Driver and not lose any formational versatility. Without him, they would be limited to three-receiver sets if someone were injured. It's worth a September roster spot.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Who did officials initially believe had committed an illegal block on Cobb's 75-yard punt return? I hope it was linebacker Brad Jones, whose block seemed questionable at best, and not linebacker Terrell Manning -- who blatantly hit Anthony Dixon in the back. The officials eventually picked up the flag, allowing the touchdown to stand. Such plays aren't reviewable, but Manning's illegal block was clear and undeniable. For the sake of the integrity of this replacement experiment, I hope they simply missed it altogether and didn't actually judge Manning's block to be legal upon further consideration.

Football Outsiders: NFC North needs

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
12:56
PM ET
Our friends at Football Outsiders have put together a series previewing each NFL team's offseason needs, using their unique statistical analysis to support their assertions. Football Outsiders' work Insider requires an Insiders subscription to view in full, a contradiction that always elicits a giggle from NFC East colleague Dan Graziano. But I'm authorized to provide you a snippet from each of our teams. Herewith:

Chicago Bears: Most everyone has the Bears pegged to pursue wide receivers in free agency and/or the draft, and Outsiders doesn't discount that possibility. But based on its analysis of the Bears' 2011 season, offensive tackle should be the Bears' top priority. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb allowed 10 sacks and was "among the worst [left tackles] in the league." The Bears' running game, meanwhile, was stuffed for a loss or no gain on 24.1 percent of its runs, a "catastrophic" figure blamed mostly on poor run blocking.

Detroit Lions: Like the Bears, Outsiders thinks the Lions need to upgrade their offensive line more than anything else. Based on Outsiders statistics, the Lions had the second-worst run-blocking offensive line in the NFL in 2011. Center Dominic Raiola and right guard Stephen Peterman were particularly to blame. Outsiders' analysis suggested that running backs Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith actually had above-average seasons based on the yardage available to them.

Green Bay Packers: We all know the Packers need more pass rush; Outsiders ranked them last in the NFL in its adjusted sack rate (ASR) in 2011. Outsiders' analysis suggests the pass rush would improve if the Packers focus their upgrade efforts along the defensive line, giving it better push up front but also opening up lanes for linebacker Clay Matthews.

Minnesota Vikings: Perhaps "the worst secondary in the league." That should tell you all you need to know. Here's one of many sobering statistics from 2011: Cornerback Cedric Griffin allowed an average of 10.5 yards on every pass thrown in his direction, and teams had a 38 percent success rate against him. Both totals were among the bottom five of all cornerbacks in Outsiders' statistical study.

Cutler aware of Packers' secondary

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
9:24
AM ET
Hair flowing in the freezing air, Clay Matthews screaming off the flanks poses a frightening threat in pass protection for the Chicago Bears' offensive line.

Read the entire story.

Nuts & Bolts: Bears vs. Packers

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
12:22
PM ET
Three keys for the Bears

Leave with no injuries:
Bears coach Lovie Smith continues to say the team will play to win, but remaining healthy is ultimately more important than sweeping the NFC North and gaining momentum for the playoffs. Capturing a victory without putting key players in harm’s way is ideal, but probably unrealistic. So the Bears will likely rest some of the frontline contributors in the second half. Walking out of a Lambeau Field with a loss, and a roster full of healthy players is a better situation for the postseason than winning and leaving with injuries. Smith knows that, and will act accordingly.

Progress on defense: The Bears rank third in opponent passer rating (73.2) when they rush four or fewer, and rank in the top five in forcing interceptions with a four-man pass rush. So the Bears won’t show Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers many exotic looks, but the club needs to apply pressure out of their base 4-3. That’s been a hallmark of the defense this season and needs to continue into the postseason. Chicago finished last week without any sacks, and was torched for 393 yards of offense; a direct result of the lack of pressure. Rodgers isn’t Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Give him time, and he’ll pick a defense apart.

Good decisions from Cutler: The Packers typically trick opponents when they go outside their base defense, and go to looks with five or more defensive backs. It happened last week to Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw four interceptions against those looks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. So Cutler needs to diagnose the wrinkles, read the coverage and make the appropriate throws. Cutler has generated passer ratings of 104.2 or better in four of his last five games, and needs to take that efficiency into the postseason.

Three keys for the Packers

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDevin Hester has been red hot on kick returns. Will the Packers stay away from him?
Kick it away from Hester:
Packers coach Mike McCartney hasn’t divulged the team’s plans on special teams, but it would be a good idea to keep the ball away from Devin Hester, who is scorching hot right now. Hester caught three punts the first time these teams met, returning one for a 62-yard touchdown. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Bears to decide to rest Hester at some point. But while he’s in there, the Packers need to kick it away from him at all costs.

Protect Rodgers: The Bears didn’t sack Rodgers in the first game between these teams, but they kept him under constant duress, which resulted in plenty of holding penalties, including one that negated a Packers’ touchdown. The key to keeping Rodgers upright lies in neutralizing Julius Peppers, who dominated in the first meeting. By deploying plenty of double tight end formations, the Jets might have provided the blueprint for slowing down the defensive end last week.

Diagnose disguised coverages: The Bears show the Cover 2 shell look most of the time, but that’s merely a disguise because they’ve played quite a bit of single-high safety lately to stop the run. Rodgers needs to recognize that and make the correct throws. When the Bears go into a single-high look, the quarterback can take shots down the field. But when they’re in Cover 2, Rodgers has to be patient and work the ball down the field with crossing routes, slants and outs, and the rest of the offense can’t commit silly penalties like they did in Week 3 when the club was flagged a franchise-record 18 times.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: WEBB VS. MATTHEWS

J’Marcus Webb has struggled some this season, but his problems have been more a result of mental breakdowns and lapses in fundamentals, which can’t occur against Clay Matthews, who leads the Packers with 12 1/2 sacks.

The Packers will look to get Matthews matched up on Webb as often as possible, and Webb needs to rise to the challenge, which would go a long way in keeping Jay Cutler healthy for the playoff run.

Webb appears to be a better pass protector than run blocker at this point in his career. Given his size and athleticism, Webb can become a dominating player if he continues to develop.

BY THE NUMBERS

5: Consecutive seasons in which Robbie Gould has scored 100 points or more, which ties Kevin Butler for the most points in team history. Gould currently has 107 points.

4,580: Yards from scrimmage for Matt Forte since 2008, which ranks as fifth best in the NFL behind Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson. Forte needs 22 yards rushing against the Packers to reach 1,000 for the second time in his three-year career.

3: Eleven-win seasons for the Bears since 2005, which ties for fifth-best in the NFL in that span.

12,165: Yards passing for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is one of just three players in NFL history to throw for at least 12,000 yards in their first three seasons as a starting quarterback.

Chat wrap: Jurko and JD

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
11:34
AM ET
Jurko and Jeff Dickerson answered all of your questions in the chat room. Check it out here, and come back Thursday for another chat block with Jurko and Michael Wright.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider