5 things to watch: Packers at Bears

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
8:00
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Here’s a look at five things to keep an eye on for Sunday’s regular-season finale between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers:

Rush defense: This team has given up 80 runs for gains of 10 yards or more, including 18 for 20-plus yards and the Bears haven’t shown any sign of things changing for the better. So what do they do?

“It’s not so much now knowing where to fit. It’s when you get there, are you able to shed the block? Are you able to finish on the ball? Are you able to make the tackle? Are you able to get there quickly enough? That’s also part of it, too," defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "So, we have to play faster. We have to eliminate the hesitation, and continue to coach through and work through that as players. That’s pretty much what it is.”

If the Bears find a way to shut down the run, they can limit Aaron Rodgers’ effectiveness by making the Packers more of a one-dimensional team. But if Green Bay is allowed to run at will, look for Rodgers to be deadly with the play-action passing game.

Protection: The early deficit the Bears faced against the Philadelphia Eagles caused undue stress on the offensive line because they were forced to pass almost exclusively in an attempt to mount a comeback. So the Bears' defense can definitely help out the offense by not letting the Packers seize a big lead early. But for the offense to produce at the level the team needs for a victory, the offensive line needs to protect quarterback Jay Cutler much better than it did against the Eagles.

“Anytime things don’t happen right, it’s one guy on each play,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer explained. “So if four guys do it right and one guy doesn’t, then the play doesn’t work and you have to be at least sufficient on the play. You don’t have to be great on every play, but you have to be at least sufficient, and that wasn’t happening. There was a poor performance by one guy on each play, and early on, that’s going to kill you. After that, it settled down a little bit, but it can’t settle down when you’re throwing the ball 20 straight times. It’s tough on them.”

The Packers will bring plenty of exotic pressure packages to confuse Chicago’s offensive line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have rushed five defenders or more 43 percent of the time on first down against Cutler. Interestingly, the rest of the NFL has brought five on first down just 29 percent of the time on Cutler.

Cutler: The quarterback obviously needs to do his part, too. The fact remains that Cutler has been horrible in games against the Packers. Including the NFC Championship Game after the 2010 regular season, Cutler has thrown eight touchdowns and 17 interceptions against the Packers, while throwing for 33 TDs and 16 INTs against the rest of the NFC North, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But in a game like this with everything on the line, Cutler needs to forget about past futility and focus on the present, which he appears to be doing.

“We can’t make this game more than it is,” Cutler said. “Every game is a different story. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. We could go out there and have to punt the first couple drives and then get it going. We could start out hot. We’ve just got to stay in it for all four quarters: offense, defense, special teams all doing their jobs.”

Cutler needs to do his better than everybody else on offense for the Bears to come out of this one on top.

Rushing attack: After three consecutive 100-yard outings, Forte rushed for just 29 yards last week against the Eagles because the Bears handed off to him just nine times. It’s important in this game to establish the ground game early because that chews up clock and keeps Green Bay’s offense off the field. Besides that, the Packers enter the contest ranked 26th against the run. That means Forte has a good chance on Sunday to carry the offense.

“Yeah, when we got down 21-0 [against Philadelphia], obviously we had to do everything we could to score quickly and try to get the ball downfield,” Kromer said. “So he was eliminated a little bit.”

Forte can be the eliminator this week, in that he can take away some Green Bay possessions if the Bears focus on running the offense through the running back. The last time the teams met, Forte rushed for 125 yards on 24 attempts.

It’s no coincidence the Bears held time of possession for 6 minutes and 18 seconds longer than Green Bay.

How the defense handles Aaron Rodgers: Sitting back and playing coverage against Rodgers is a recipe for disaster because the quarterback is adept at taking what the defense gives. So the Bears need to come up with a mix of pressures and coverages to keep Rodgers off rhythm.

The Bears found a way to get to Rodgers in the first game between the teams with defensive end Shea McClellin knocking the quarterback out with a broken collarbone. Chicago needs to find a way to get to him again. With that injury, it’s likely Rodgers will be worried enough about suffering re-injury that it could affect the way he plays if the Bears dial up some pressure.

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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