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NFC title game: Five things to watch

1/22/2011
Bears receiver Johnny Knox finished the regular-season finale against the Packers without a catch. Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

Offensive line against Packers blitz: The Bears showed progress along the offensive line during their win over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, but that defensive front seven wasn’t nearly as disruptive as what they’ll face against the Green Bay Packers. The Packers sacked quarterback Jay Cutler six times in the regular-season finale by bringing defensive backs off the edge 19 times (16 times in the second half). So in addition to the already tough task of contending with linebacker Clay Matthews -- who will be matched against rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb -- the offensive line has to find a way to neutralize blitzing nickel corner Charles Woodson.

Bears screen passes: One of the best ways to slow down a formidable blitz is to hit it with screen passes, which the Bears have done with some success against the Packers. Look for Chicago to take advantage of the athleticism of linemen such as Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and Webb by getting them out ahead of running back Matt Forte as lead blockers on screen passes. Forte has done a masterful job of finding his blocks out in the open field, and making smart cuts off them to gain extra yardage. That needs to continue for the Bears to successfully counter Green Bay’s rush.

Jay Cutler and his top targets: Green Bay shut down Chicago’s most dangerous offensive weapons -- Devin Hester and Johnny Knox -- when the teams met in Week 17, and by doing so, significantly disrupted the flow of the Bears’ passing game. Cutler threw 13 passes in the direction of Hester and Knox when the teams last played, with the duo coming up with only one catch for 16 yards. That’s too small of a contribution for the team’s fastest offensive players, who excel at gaining yardage after the catch. So this time around, the Bears need to find a way to get the Hester and Knox involved early, whether it’s through screen passes or reverses. The Bears can’t afford to play another game of 9-on-11 against the Packers defense.

Pressure on Aaron Rodgers: There’s no denying the hot streak Rodgers is on, but the simple fact is he hasn’t fared as well in two outings against Chicago. Rodgers has thrown for a touchdown and an interception in each of his games against the Bears. To continue their success against the Packers quarterback, the Bears need to find a way to pressure him with the front four of Julius Peppers, Tommie Harris, Israel Idonije and Anthony Adams. Peppers hasn’t sacked Rodgers in two games against the Packers, but the defensive end was disruptive enough in Week 3 that he drew a few holding penalties. Although the Bears plan to pressure Rodgers, they’re mindful of the need to keep him pinned in the pocket to prevent him from buying time with his feet, which usually breaks down coverage on the back end, making opponents susceptible to big plays in the passing game.

Bears against the run: Green Bay feels like it’s finally found a legitimate runner in James Starks to take some of the pressure off Rodgers and the passing game. So look for the Packers to give the Bears a heavy dose of Starks early on. By stuffing the rushing attack early, the Bears could force Green Bay to become one-dimensional and lean heavily on the passing game. If that happens, the Bears can pretty much morph into pass-rush mode, which -- in conjunction with what’s expected to be a raucous crowd at Soldier Field -- should cause a few drive-killing false-start and holding penalties.