Chicago Bears: Charles Woodson
What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?
Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.
Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.
Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.
Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.
Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.
Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.
Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.
Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.
Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.
Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.
Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.
- Defensive back Charles Woodson, 36, was set to earn $10 million this season from the Green Bay Packers. He was released and eventually signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders worth $1.8 million.
- Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who earned $8 million last season, rejected the Chicago Bears' offer of $2 million for 2013 and ultimately retired at 35.
- The Minnesota Vikings cut cornerback Antoine Winfield, 35, rather than pay him $7.25 million in 2013. He signed a one-year contract worth $2 million with the Seattle Seahawks.
(Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch doesn't appear to have received any offers after the Detroit Lions released him -- and his $7 million salary -- in February. But the presumption for months has been that Vanden Bosch, 34, will retire.)
So were Woodson, Urlacher and Winfield victimized by collusion? Or were they just valued harshly in a league that prefers younger players?
ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt, whose column now appears on SportsIllustrated.com, addressed the topic this week. Brandt noted that "far more money has been shed from veteran contracts than spent on them" but attributed it to factors other than collusion.
Brandt explained the spread of "draft and develop" franchises who prefer to use younger, less-injury prone and cheaper players rather than veterans who are past their prime. The "Moneyball" approach, placing numerical values on players, is also gaining traction, Brandt notes. Teams have also grown to appreciate the flexibility of a roster populated by young players on their first contracts.
In the end, there is a fine line: Are owners conspiring to keep costs down as a matter of course or because they think spending less on free agents is a better way to build a team? Could it be both?
- Everyone wants to know what will happen to coach Lovie Smith after the season. The truth is there are too many possibilities remaining to make an accurate judgment. General manager Phil Emery was noticeably vague when discussing Smith's future with the team's flagship radio station, but that's because the Bears could finish anywhere between 8-8 and 10-6. They could miss the playoffs or they could conceivably make a deep playoff run. Despite the current despair surrounding the franchise, to me it's fair to make Smith's continued employment contingent on a playoff berth. If he makes the playoffs, a firing would be an awfully harsh verdict. But if the Bears miss the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years, that's a sufficient timeframe to expect better results. Based on what we've seen over the past month, it's hard to envision the Bears winning out and making a deep playoff run. But we have to leave open that possibility before making any grand guesses about Smith's future.ESPN.com
- Offensive pass interference calls aren't as rare as you might think. Through Week 14, officials had called a total of 72. Still, that's an avearge of about one for every three games this season. So Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery certainly set a new bar by getting three on his own Sunday -- only Kenny Britt of the Tennessee Titans had that many all season entering the week. Packers defenders made clear they thought Bears receivers routinely get away with illegal contact. Charles Woodson said he was "very, very surprised but also very happy" to see the calls made because of "blatant push-offs" Bears receivers usually employ. Cornerback Tramon Williams said he was "pleasantly surprised" to see the calls. My sense is that Jeffery will learn how to create separation more subtly as he becomes a savvier player. It's absolutely part of the game, but there are ways to accomplish the goal without getting called. He might want to start by watching the tape of Packers receiver James Jones' 29-yard touchdown reception. Jones did just enough with his left hand to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden away from him, but not enough to merit a penalty.
- I don't blame players for struggling with the constant scrutiny they face from fans and media. It's no doubt part of the gig, but that doesn't make it easy. So I'll give injured linebacker Brian Urlacher a pass on his televised statement that "two of the people I don't care about" are "fans or the media." The only way to live with the scrutiny is to ignore it as best you can. But at least part of Urlacher's rant was factually inaccurate. The Bears are most definitely not the only team in the NFC North who get booed by their home fans, despite what Urlacher suggested. I've spent the past five seasons covering games at the Soldier Field, Ford Field, Lambeau Field and the Metrodome. I've heard the boos first-hand in each locale. (I guess I never considered whether they were booing the NFC North blog. Probably not, though.) I'm sure Urlacher is frustrated and perhaps he can see the end of a long run for the nucleus of players and coaches he's spent the past decade working with. But I really doubt he has made it this long in the NFL while holding on to the notion that most local fans treat their teams with kid gloves.
What is it about the Packers that has so befuddled quarterback Jay Cutler? Since arriving in 2009, Cutler is 1-6 against the Packers and 11-3 against the rest of the NFC North. And to be clear, his performance in most of those games has been terrible. His Total Quarterback Rating was 6.9 (out of 100) Sunday and 4.7 (still out of 100) in Week 2 against the Packers. In fact, four of the six lowest QBRs in Cutler's career have come against the Packers. His frustration ran sky high Sunday, at least based on his reaction to a huge second-quarter interception. I don't blame him. It has been four years of this now.
Read the entire story.
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.
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.
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.
- The Bears' schedule is about to get much more difficult, with consecutive games against the 7-1 Houston Texans and the 6-2 San Francisco 49ers. But while we have a moment, we should note how well the Bears have eaten through the softer part of their season. Through nine weeks of the season, during which they've played one less game than some teams because of an early bye, the Bears have the highest point differential (116 points) in the NFL. That means they've outscored their opponents by a larger sum of points than any other team. The Texans are next at 100, followed by the New England Patriots at 92. Margin of victory is a mostly meaningless statistic in the NFL, unless the league needs to use its seventh or eighth tiebreaker to determine playoff inclusion or seeding. But it speaks to the Bears doing what good teams do: Beat up on lesser opponents.ESPN.com
- What more can we say about Charles Tillman's season that we haven't already? He forced another four fumbles Sunday, bringing his season total to seven and allowing him to pass Charles Woodson on the NFL's all-time list for forced fumbles by a defensive back. Tillman has 34 in his career, second only to Brian Dawkins' 36. Keep in mind Dawkins played 16 years and Woodson is in his 15th season. Tillman's patented ability to punch the ball out of an opponent's hands has put him in the record books. We've mentioned him in the MVP discussion already. It's an unlikely scenario given the recent history of the award, but Tillman should be in the realistic conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The NFL record for most forced fumbles in a season is 10, according to pro-football-reference.com.
- We've spent some time discussing why the Bears have favored Michael Bush over Matt Forte near the goal line. So it's worth noting that when Forte scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter, it was his first goal-to-go carry of the season. Bush had taken each of the six such plays the Bears had run on this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and scored on three of them. Entering the season, Forte had the fourth-most goal-to-go rushes in his career and the lowest number of touchdowns among qualified runners. He now has 10 touchdowns on 87 goal-to-goal carries over five seasons.
Receiver Brandon Marshall's three touchdown receptions brought his total to seven this season. Five of them have come with the Bears holding at least a 17-point lead. Quarterback Jay Cutler acknowledged that early leads have created more favorable one-high safety looks from opposing defenses, which apparently are assuming the Bears will run the ball with a lead. That's not to diminish anything Marshall has done this season. He has provided a play-making element the Bears haven't had in perhaps their history. But the real test for Marshall and the Bears will be whether he can help them build leads against the likes of the Texans, 49ers and Green Bay Packers. He's done it twice, against the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions. It's much more difficult to operate against an opponent that is close behind than in a game that is a blowout. Can Marshall and Cutler do it? Let's see.
- 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.ESPN.com
- 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.
- 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."
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.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw four interceptions, took seven sacks and recorded the second-worst passer rating (28.2) of his career Thursday night at Lambeau Field. He screamed frequently at teammates, especially at left tackle J'Marcus Webb. He kicked Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson and was as defiant as ever after a 23-10 defeat.
"I care about this," Cutler told reporters. "This isn't just a hobby. I'm not doing this for my health. I'm trying to win football games. When we're not doing the little things or things the right way consistently, I'm going to say something. If they want a quarterback that doesn't care they can get someone else."
To me, there is a difference between caring deeply about the outcome of a game and growing so frustrated that you can't think straight. That's where Cutler appeared to be as he threw passes up for grabs and pinballed wildly inside the pocket in the latter stages of the game.
Woodson wouldn't discuss the fourth-quarter play when, on a blitz, he landed at Cutler's feet after a completion to Earl Bennett. Cutler appeared to kick Woodson after throwing the ball.
Woodson, however, made clear the Packers fully expected Cutler to crack at some point in the game.
"Well, Jay is a guy, he'll give you a chance," Woodson said. "You just have to be in position."
It's worth noting Cutler produced one of the worst games of his career in the second game of a season he has been given everything he could have ever hoped for. The Packers took away receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught two harmless passes, and their pass rush overwhelmed the one area the Bears didn't address this offseason: Their offensive line. The Packers blitzed on 13 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They sacked Cutler on four of them and intercepting him on two others.
The only time Cutler has finished a game with a lower passer rating, according to pro-football-reference.com, was a 2009 game against the Baltimore Ravens.
More to come in a bit.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Yes, the Green Bay Packers were miffed in the days and hours leading up to Thursday night's divisional showdown with the Chicago Bears. No, it had little to do with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's challenge to their defensive backs. The issue was much larger than that, and it goes all the way back to March 13 -- the day the Bears made their surprise trade for receiver Brandon Marshall.
"We thought it was kind of funny," cornerback Charles Woodson said, "that all of a sudden they were the team to beat because they got a couple new guys."
So it was with great delight that Woodson and his defensive teammates tore up the Bears' offense in a 23-10 victory at Lambeau Field. It wasn't because Cutler had wished them "good luck" this week if they tried to play press coverage against Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery. It was the larger notion that Marshall's arrival had elevated the Bears to a level where they would challenge the Packers' supremacy in this division.
As a result, this game had an edge rarely seen in what is normally a friendly rivalry. The Packers got under Cutler's skin early, sacking him on the Bears' first play from scrimmage and ultimately forcing him into one of the worst games of his career. They sacked Cutler seven times, including 3.5 by linebacker Clay Matthews, and intercepted him four times. Cornerback Tramon Williams grabbed two of those interceptions, but even more notably, he blanketed Marshall for almost the entire game.
The Packers left the Bears' hype in ruins, limiting them to 168 total yards and 11 first downs in 57 plays. Woodson, for one, appeared quite satisfied afterward to have challenged the Bears' narrative.
"Their offense didn't look any different to me," he said. "We know those guys. We've played them a lot. They didn't look much different. They just have some new players."
The primary newcomer, Marshall, didn't see a single pass thrown his way until Williams slipped in coverage with 8 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Wide open for a touchdown, Marshall dropped the ball in the end zone.
Williams said Cutler's words this week didn't get him "out of whack" but made clear that "guys wanted to come out and put on a good performance, and we did that."
Indeed, Bears coach Lovie Smith said there were plays called throughout the game for Marshall "that we couldn't get off."
This was as complete of a defensive game as I've seen the Packers play in some time, even dating back to the elite level they played during portions of their 2010 Super Bowl season. They limited tailbacks Matt Forte and Michael Bush to 85 yards on 21 carries, putting the Bears' offensive line in the unenviable position of pass-blocking against rushers highly motivated to reach Cutler. As a result, the Packers' blitz was highly effective. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers sent an extra rusher on 13 of Cutler's 35 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They sacked him on four of those blitzes and recorded interceptions on two others.
Most importantly, I thought, the Packers' defense got after it in a way that permeated the entire game. Cutler was hit a total of 12 times, frustrating him to the point that he was screaming at his offensive linemen and even kicked Woodson after a third-quarter blitz. Bears left tackle Gabe Carimi was penalized 15 yards in the second quarter after retaliating to a shove from Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, and Bears players protested loudly when Packers cover man Rob Francois roughly shoved returner Devin Hester out of bounds.
You could see the tension on both sides of the ball, and even Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gestured angrily and screamed at receiver James Jones after a fourth-quarter interception put the Bears in position for their only touchdown. (Rodgers said afterward he and James were "not on the same page" on the play call.) The Packers' best offensive player Thursday night might have been tailback Cedric Benson, who helped set the physical tone by grinding out 81 tough rushing yards.
"There was definitely words out there," Packers cornerback Sam Shields said. "You could tell Cutler was getting frustrated. We know what Cutler does. We were just out there as a defense trying to take advantage."
Matthews, meanwhile, now has six sacks in two games this season after abusing Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb all night. Matthews said he hopes the performance "becomes our theme for this defense and this team."
Yes, the Packers revealed Thursday night how amused they were by the Bears' new status as media darlings. But were you expecting their defense to be the group that realigned our thoughts on that? I'm not sure I was. So it goes. That's, as they say, why they play the games.
- 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.ESPN.com
- 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."
- 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.
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.
| When: 7:20, Sunday | TV: NBC | RADIO: 780 AM, WBBM & 105.9 FM
Coach: Lovie Smith | Record including playoffs: 73-59
Career head-to-head record (including playoffs) vs. Mike McCarthy: 5-7
Career record (including playoffs) against Packers: 8-8
Last week: Lost to Seahawks 38-14.
Key stat: The Bears are 11 of 50 on third-down conversions over the past four games. Since losing Jay Cutler to injury, the Bears offense ranks among the NFL’s worst in scoring (31st), passing yards per game (32nd), turnovers (31st) and first downs (31st).
Offense rank: 24th (312.6 ypg)| Defense rank: 17th (353.1 ypg)
Offensive leader: Running back Kahlil Bell makes his second start of the season, a week removed from scoring his first career touchdown -- a 25-yard reception in the loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Bell is averaging 4.2 yards on 39 attempts, and will see his workload increase with Marion Barber out because of a calf injury.
Defensive leader: Linebacker Lance Briggs leads the Bears in “stuffs” (tackling of a rusher for negative yardage) with 65.6 for 152.5 negative yards since 2003, according to STATS LLC. Seeking a new contract, Briggs has been on somewhat of a tear recently; recording double-digit tackles in six games, including 15 stops on Dec. 11 at Denver.
• A loss would put the Bears out of the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.
• After winning five in a row, the Bears are in a midst of a four-game skid. Until now, the Bears hadn’t lost four consecutive games since 2009.
• The Bears haven’t won a game in which they trailed after the first quarter or halftime.
• Devin Hester hasn’t made a catch in two consecutive games. Before Week 4, Hester had caught at least one pass in 48 consecutive games, which ranked as the fourth-longest streak in franchise history.
Coach: Mike McCarthy | Record: 66-35| Last week: Lost to Chiefs 19-14.
Career head-to-head record vs. Smith: 7-5 | Career record vs. Bears: 7-5
Key stat: A Green Bay victory would give it the distinction of becoming the second team in NFL history to defeat a team four times in the same year. Going back to Week 17 of last season, the Packers have already defeated the Bears three times in 2011.
Offense rank: 4th (397.8 ypg) | Defense rank: 31st (397.8 ypg)
Offensive leader: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers needs just 99 yards through the air to break the franchise’s single-season passing record of 4,458 yards set in 1983. Rodgers tossed his 40th touchdown pass against the Kansas City Chiefs. Interestingly, Rodgers has put together only one 300-yard passing performance against the Bears.
• The Packers have won 11 in a row at Lambeau Field and 17 of the last 18. The streak marks the longest regular-season home winning streak by the team since 2001-02 and is currently the longest home winning streak in the league.
• Counting the playoffs, Rodgers has generated passer ratings of 110 or better in 19 of his last 25 starts.
• The Packers have put points on the board on 55 of 59 trips to the red zone this season, which ranks second in the NFL behind the Detroit Lions.
Defensive leader:Cornerback Charles Woodson is tied for first in the NFL with seven interceptions, and 2011 marks the veteran’s fourth season as a Packer in which he’s tallied seven interceptions or more. Woodson is also the only NFL player to put together four seasons of seven interceptions or more since 2006.
Read the entire Green Bay Press Gazette story.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy calls cornerback Charles Woodson his "best player" on defense.
And for good reason,
The 12-year veteran out of Michigan is having maybe the finest season of his illustrious career. Through 12 games, Woodson has seven interceptions (his career high is eight picks back in 2006), and is third on the Packers with 63 tackles.
The defensive back's biggest contribution in Green Bay's Week 1 victory over the Bears was taking tight end Greg Olsen out of the picture. Olsen, who was coming off an excellent preseason, was held to just one catch for 8 yards, mainly because of the coverage applied by Woodson.
"Greg is a good tight end who has a great deal of size," Woodson said Wednesday during a conference call with Chicago media members. "Of course, I'm much quicker. I just change up my approach on him every other down. You know, sometimes get my hand on him, sometimes just feather him. I just try to mix it up a little bit on him."