Over a span of 15 months and 13 games that begun in Oct. of 2010 and ended in January of 2012, the Green Bay Packers went without a loss at the friendly confines of Lambeau Field. They’ve now lost two in a row after the San Francisco 49ers man-handled them Sunday to kick off the 2012 season.
Green Bay stays at home Thursday night for its rivalry renewal with the Chicago Bears in Week 2.
To lose three in a row at Lambeau Field now, after posting an average win margin of almost 19 points in 13 straight home wins, is almost unthinkable. But that possibility looms large, even with the Packers as a six-point home favorite.
The Bears head to Green Bay filled to the brim with confidence, which stems from both a 41-21 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1 but also the early returns of a rebuilt offense that no longer looks like the ugly step brother of its rival to the north.
If the Bears can beat Green Bay Thursday night, it will both snap a four-game losing streak to the Packers away from Chicago and give quarterback Jay Cutler just his second career win in the NFL’s greatest rivalry.
Much is at stake, even for a Week 2 contest.
Here are five things you could watch in Thursday’s important NFC North clash:
One-man wrecking crew
There were stretches Sunday where Clay Matthews’ pressure was the only thing holding the Packers defense together. Whether it was Nick Perry’s presence on the opposite side or a bad matchup for 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, Matthews got more than a third of the way to his 2011 sack total during the Week 1′s loss.
Sad as it may be, the Packers defense probably needs another Herculean effort from Matthews Thursday night. While the 49ers were hesitant to double team Matthews, the Bears won’t wait for any mistakes before giving left tackle J’Marcus Webb help. In fact, Matthews was doubled on almost 50 percent of all pass-rushing snaps against Chicago in 2011.
Webb certainly had his hands full with Colts DE/OLB Dwight Freeney early on last Sunday, and the Bears offense really only got going once Freeney left with an ankle injury. That’s no coincidence. Cutler started 0-for-8 with a pick-six as the line continually collapsed around him. The Packers should have their Freeney in Matthews Thursday night.
Handling a similar defense
Some hate the word “blueprint,” but it’s painfully clear that there’s a way to slow down the Packers’ previously invincible passing offense. The very basic idea: Use your base front to create pressure, drop into deep coverage to take away the big play and then fly to the football underneath. The Chiefs pulled it off in Week 15. The Giants matched it in the playoffs. And then the 49ers perfected it last Sunday.
For better or worse, the Bears come into Lambeau Field Thursday night with the defensive personnel to match this blueprint.
If this offense is going to get out of its current “rut,” adjustments have to be made against defenses that can pull off the gameplan. It all starts at the top with Aaron Rodgers. In Green Bay’s last three losses, Rodgers has completed just 58.1 percent of his passes for 802 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating is a very un-Rodgers-like 84.15, with a yards-per-attempt average of just 6.42.
Rodgers has historically been very good against Chicago (69.7%, 15 TDs, five INTs, 102.9 rating), including a five-touchdown effort last Christmas. In that game, Rodgers only hit on a couple big plays downfield, instead staying patient and hitting everything the Bears gave him underneath. Once in the red zone, Chicago’s defense couldn’t handle the Packers passing game in tight windows.
Rodgers will have to stay that patient Thursday night, because big plays probably aren’t going to be available. The Bears’ defense No. 1 goal is to make every scoring drive a long one. Green Bay struggled putting long drives together Sunday.
Evening out the specialists
There was a time that the Bears held a distinct special teams advantage over the Packers. Games in this rivalry were won and lost because the advantage was so severe. That’s no longer the case.
The Packers’ specialists—kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and returner Randall Cobb—are as good or better as what the Bears will bring to Lambeau Field Thursday night. While there were glimpses of that argument last season, it’s a reality in 2012.
The ramifications are two-fold for both teams.
The Bears want to keep the Packers away from short fields, forcing them to drive the length of the field to score points. The Tampa Cover-2 is specifically designed to make offenses put together 10-plus play drives to score. Keeping Cobb away from big returns will play a role in making sure that plan stays on course.
The Packers similarly want Cutler and the Bears offense working on long fields, with the thinking that the more opportunities Cutler has to make a mistake, the better. That will fall mostly on Masthay, who quietly did a fantastic job punting in the Packers’ opener.
Like turnovers were the turning point in Week 1, special teams could be the X-factor Thursday night. The team that makes one or two big plays with their special teams might have the advantage.
Packers tight end Jermichael Finley has more catches, yards and touchdowns against the Bears than any other team in the NFL. He was especially effective in 2011, catching four of his eight touchdowns in two games against Chicago. Expect him to add to those totals Thursday night.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) remains hobbled, which could leave the middle of the field more exposed than usual when facing Chicago. It will be up to Finley to exploit that potential mismatch Thursday night.
Like many of the game’s athletic tight ends, Finley is versatile enough to line up all over the formation. Expect the Packers to go with a lot of “11″ personnel, which features one tight end and one running back. Finley and Rodgers need to find out early on if Urlacher is able to turn and run like he used to before the knee started giving him problems. The seam is the Tampa-2′s biggest weakness without a capable middle linebacker covering the deep middle.
Run to daylight
The Packers currently rank 26th in the NFL in rushing yards (45) and 31st in rushing yards allowed (186), which goes to show how dominant the 49ers were in the trenches Sunday. As much as the NFL has turned into a passing league, games can still be won by staying in control up front.
The Bears rushed for 114 against the Colts and allowed just 63. They’ll enter Thursday night’s game with an advantage in the trenches, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The big question here: Can the Packers get anything from their ground game, especially when Chicago puts seven or fewer defenders in the box? The 49ers dared the Packers to run the football, and they still couldn’t get anything going. Instead of banging their head on a brick wall, the Packers simply abandoned the run game, which allowed the 49ers to pin their ears back against the pass for the better part of three quarters.
On the other side, having Mike Tice as the new Bears offensive coordinator ensures Matt Forte and Michael Bush will stay involved. The Packers have contained Forte in recent games, but Mike Martz was always quick to pull the plug on the running game. That won’t be the case Thursday. If the Packers play as undisciplined in their gap control and holding the edge as last Sunday, Forte and Bush can take this game over. If I’m the Bears, I run down hill at this undermanned front seven until it proves it can stop anyone.
I really can’t think of a worse time for the Packers to welcome Chicago into Lambeau Field. Just days after getting pushed around by the 49ers, Green Bay now has to face the most physical team in the division on short rest. The young passing defense doesn’t get a cupcake matchup in the Bears anymore either. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey are capable of eating this pass defense alive. Double team Matthews on most snaps and Cutler should have enough time to get the ball down field. Add in the NFL’s most underrated running back in Forte, and there’s little reason why the Bears shouldn’t score points. The Bears defense isn’t on the 49ers’ level, but they’ll keep things in front of them and make the pocket uncomfortable for Rodgers.
Bears 34, Packers 31 (Prediction record: 0-1)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.