Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the Chicago Bears (2-0). Before the season started, I’m not sure if there was a team I was less sure about. Could Cutler adapt to a new scheme? Could Peppers be the key defensive ingredient? Or are Lovie Smith and the Bears just clinging desperately to unrealistic hopes of mediocrity? Heading into a game that decides the early lead in the divisional race, I’m still not sure I have any answers. What I do know, however, is that this game is going to be explosive.
Coming into this game, the Bears are… maybe as surprised as you are that they’re 2-0 heading into Monday night’s matchup. Their 27-20 win over Dallas in Week 2 looked far more convincing than the victory they stole from the Lions by virtue of that negated touchdown throw to Calvin Johnson late in the game. Against the Cowboys, the Bears run defense allowed only 36 yards on 20 carries, good for 1.8 ypc (this, mind you, against Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice, none of whom are slouches in the rungame). Faced with no give on the ground, Tony Romo threw the ball 51 times for 374 yards, producing only one touchdown and getting picked off twice in the first half by rookie corner DJ Moore. While Aaron Rodgers was throwing wobbly passes to James Jones against Buffalo, Cutler was throwing some of the most beautiful spirals to Johnny Knox (61 aerial yards!), Devin Hester, and even Greg Olsen. And, after the line settled in, Cutler was superb against Dallas’s rush, going 21 for 29 for 277 yards and 3 scores.
But let’s be honest --- No One Saw This Coming:
Why was everyone so virulently anti-Bears? It's not hard to figure out. We were blinded by a technicality-aided win over Detroit and most of us were still suffering an enduring sense of Lovie-lag. The negative groupthink was predicated on the sins of the past.
With everything going against the Bears, it's hard to imagine how we missed their instant success.
After all, we love the NFL for its anarchic unpredictability as much as for the carnal violence and ample opportunity to wear billowing jerseys.
There is a rational argument to be made that Dallas lost that game with poor playcalling by Jason Garrett and lackluster execution by the Cowboys than that the Bears “really earned” the win. SI.com’s Don Banks certainly has his tongue planted firmly in cheek:
Hail, hail the 2-0 Bears! It took a horrendous NFL rule and an imploding Cowboys team to help get Chicago to 2-0, but the Bears deserve credit for playing tough and smart in Dallas.
After all, the Bears were 1-11 on third downs, and were only marginally better than Dallas on the ground, with only 38 yards rushing on 19 carries. (Let's remember that the Bears were unable to punch in a touchdown against the Lions from inside the 1.) Given the high expectations of the Cowboys this season, that argument has some merit.
However, before you pass off the Bears as a team that got lucky, take heed – the numbers make the Bears look very solid coming into Week 3. Despite Peyton Manning’s near-perfect game against the Texans, Jay Cutler is the league’s highest-rated passer with a 121.2 rating and a 10.1 ypa average. [Bob McGinn urges you to “forgive the Packers if they have to see it to believe it.”] The Bears may have overpaid for Julius Peppers, but his presence on the field thus far has forced opposing offensive lines to pick their poison – when Peppers wasn’t getting pressure, linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher (aka “The Hurt ‘Lacher”) were. Even without the Packers’ gaudy sack totals, the Bears front seven have been getting pressure on the quarterback. And, even without what many experts would call “elite” players, the Bears receiving corps has flourished under Mike Martz’s new offensive scheme.
The fans at home are…encouraged by all the big hits they saw Bears players make against the Cowboys on Sunday. Even on the touchdown Romo threw to Chris Gronkowski, the guys that run Da Bear Cast were thrilled to see Julius Peppers blow up Dallas RB Marion Barber and get pressure on Romo:
I really like how the defense is bringing it to the other team. And that’s the way it’s gonna have to be against the Packers if we want to have success against them, because they have a really really potent offense.
I’m not really sure what to do with myself, because it’s so strange to have an offense that I have confidence in.
(What’s funniest about this podcast is that one of the hosts takes a look at the Bears’ schedule after Monday night --- @Giants, @Carolina, Seattle, Washington, Buffalo, Minnesota --- and doesn’t see a loss. That’s what two wins worth of confidence get you, people.)
Meanwhile, Larry Dyer III of the Chicago Bears Review, echoes the surreal emergence of the Bears offense after the first few series of the game in his recap of Week 2:
Every time Cutler went back to pass, there were four guys meeting him back there. You really thought, ‘Man, there’s a chance that Cutler might not be able to finish this one.’ Or, ‘any more pressure, and we’re gonna see Cutler get pissed and start throwing the football…wherever.’
But all the credit in the world to Jay. He’s really shown a lot of maturity in these first two games this year. … Maybe it has to do with having better decisions to make because of this offense, or maybe Jay Cutler really did sit down and watch those 26 interceptions…you don’t see him making those throws anymore.
If you can handle this guy calling the Bears “our beloved,” his recap is worth listening to. But, seriously, it’s Bears-Packers Week. Fans are excited. One blog even had a local beat writer on to ask questions about the match-up (where’ve we heard that before?). A bit of insight from John Mullin:
Q: Just how smart is Mike Martz? He was able to recognize what was NOT working and not only made changes, but made the right changes. I think a coach’s stubbornness prevents him from seeing his own mistakes and correcting them properly. Martz, Tice, and maybe even Lovie were able to recognize that things were not working early against Dallas and changed course. Which coach gets the bulk of the credit for that?
A: I just posted a blog on the Martz Factor at CSNChicago.com and the stubbornness you mention is part of what I was looking at as well. It was interesting this offseason to learn how much the players considered Turner the inflexible one and Martz, the do-it-MY-way guy, has been the paragon of perception and listening to his players. You have to give some shared credit here as in most things, Lovie for leaving the offense largely alone and Martz for listening to Tice as well as Kreutz et al and making the changes. Huge stuff.
Something to chew on… the Bears certainly appreciate the hold that Ryan Grant has had over their defense during his three years as a starter in Green Bay. In five games against Chicago, Grant had 100 carries for 504 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns (1 receiving score). The Bears have only allowed 100 yard games to 9 rushers since 2007, and Grant’s three games over 100 yards since 2007 is more than any rusher not named Adrian Peterson (who also has 3). They don’t give up chunks of yards easily, but Grant seemed to get through their line, most memorably on the first play from scrimmage in Soldier Field last season. Without him in the lineup, the Bears catch a huge break, and they expect to tee off against Jackson and Kuhn on Monday night.
Six sacks in two weeks is simply insane, albeit against two bad offensive lines. Sad part is we might have the weakest offensive line he'll have faced thus far.
What We’re Up Against: First of all, y’all know I’m a huge fan of statistics. Me and numbers go together like peas and carrots, but you’re not going to find detailed breakdowns of where Football Outsiders or Pro Football Focus put the Bears here. Yet. Check back in Week 5, when there’s a stronger sample size. Because, right now? FO puts Tampa Bay at #3 overall, and that’s just weird. [Update: Now that S Tanard Jackson has been suspended indefinitely for substance abuse, I’m wondering whether FO was onto something.]
Ahem. Back to the Bears.
From a defensive standpoint, obviously, Julius Peppers must be dealt with (even LeRoy Butler understands this). 2 years ago, Peppers harassed Rodgers and sacked him twice as the Panthers topped the Packers 35-31. When he’s motivated (and I hear that primetime lights do the trick), he’s relentless, and if Clay Matthews is watching film on this guy to get better, I’m pretty sure that whoever lines up at left tackle will have his hands full. And you gotta believe that Brian Urlacher, even if he weren’t already playing at Pro Bowl levels, is itching to play the team that ended his 2009 season after 35 snaps in Week 1 last year.
One thing that Lovie’s done right in Chicago has been to foster a culture of taking the ball away. In his seven years with the team, the Bears have forced a league-high 206 turnovers. Charles Tillman remains the strip king in the secondary. Zackary Bowman’s maturity as a #1 corner in his third year after 6 picks in 2009 (off Kurt Warner, Joe Flacco, and Donovan McNabb, no less) will be something to watch when he’s covering Greg Jennings. The Packers catch a break, not having to face Bears top draft pick Major Wright at safety -- his replacement, Chris Harris, hits hard but can be abused.
Jay Cutler bought into Martz’s timing and rhythm scheme from the get-go, and it seems to be paying off. In an offense that is “light” on the use of running backs and tight ends, Matt Forte and Greg Olsen appear to be thriving. Forte’s better catching passes out of the backfield anyway, and with Martz already lining him up outside in goal line situations, who cares that he’s averaging less than 40 rush yards per game?
Receiver Johnny Knox seems to have grown into his role as the downfield threat with big plays in each game, and his 80yd+ average against the Packers may give Dom Capers pause in deciding how to cover him when Cutler’s spreading the ball to seven receivers already. In fact, Olsen believes it’s to the Bears advantage to not have a firm #1 receiver going into the Green Bay game. I don’t believe that Martz’s benching of Devin Aromashodu against the Cowboys will last – Cutler likes him too much, and Aromashodu’s ceiling is too high. Only a few years removed from his “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!” antics in the return game, several experts are calling for Hester to be removed completely from special teams, saying that his transition to receiver has ruined him as a “get it and go” touchdown threat. The Packers secondary was tested a little against Philly and not at all against Buffalo. I guarantee that Monday night will show us just how good Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett are in coverage.
Where the Bears offense can be beat is up front. With many 5- and 7-step drops called (although the team did take a leaf from the Packers playbook last year and beat the Cowboys with the short passing game), that offensive line has to protect for more than a few precious seconds. If, hyperbaric chamber willing, Mike Neal can go on Monday night, the Packers front seven is in a strong position to attack that pocket and bring pressure in myriad ways. Johnny Jolly had a definite hand in the Packers’ five sacks on Cutler last year (and his 55.7 rating), but Neal’s strength, combined with the maturation of Raji and Matthews, could tip the scales.
The Fantasy Skinny has no faith that Jackson (or any GB running back) can gain yards on the Bears defense. In a more extreme fashion, the ESPN Scouts give the Packers the edge in all areas of the game except running back:
Matchup to watch: Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley vs. Urlacher: If the Bears play a lot of Cover 2, Rodgers will lure the safeties outside to free up the deep middle of the field. Then it's all Finley vs. Urlacher. Urlacher is still elite -- one of the best at covering TEs in the NFL -- but can he win this matchup consistently without help over the top?
Merril Hoge has the Bears winning 24-23. Sporting News takes the straightforward route and names Cutler-Peppers-Urlacher as the key Bears trifecta. Pete Dougherty does his due diligence, and agrees that these aren’t your 2009 Chicago Bears…the Packers must be ready. And Rob Reischel, when weighting the scales in each position group matchup, comes out remarkably even.
- If you can bear to think of Chicago players as good human beings outside of their uniforms, here’s something that’ll give you hope – the team’s recent efforts in the community include promoting literacy among Hispanic students, motivating public school kids to stay healthy and active, and donating computers to kids with critically ill kids.
- I know I posted this before last year’s game, but it warrants another go-round. If the Bears do nothing else, they sure can make a good video about the two teams’ storied rivalry.
- Safety Chris Harris loves Twitter and social media, and so he was reading all about how the Bears were 9-pt underdogs to the Cowboys. After the win, and all the real-time praise that followed, Harris proclaimed that he believes that this season, it’s the Bears Against The World. Just how he likes it.
Back in May, when I wrote about the Bears, I questioned about whether a team that seemed, on paper, to address each of their pressing needs with flashy offseason moves, would be able to instantly transform into a juggernaut. Two games into the season, there is growing rumbling that, yes, the front seven are back to their dominating “Monsters of the Midway” ways, that, yes, the new pass-heavy scheme is turning Jay Cutler into an All-Pro, and that, yes, the offensive line is improved enough to make Mike Martz’s system run like clockwork. The Bears’ win down in Dallas certainly raises the question of, “is this a great team that we all just…missed?”
And the answer is a resounding “maybe, maybe not.” In this week’s Packer Transplants, Bears beat writer Sean Jensen struck fear in the hearts of Packer fans by declaring the Bears a force to be reckoned with in all phases. By the same token, Alex Marvez at Fox Sports puts the Bears at the top of his list of 2-0 teams that are fake contenders. Are the Bears who we thought they were? (A third place team left on the wrong side of the playoff picture for the fourth straight year?) What does it mean?
But what does that annoying voice on the GPS say when you've veered from the suggested route?
That's what we're doing today.
In any Packers-Bears game, you already know to throw out the records. You know that the Bears are going to be hyped for this game, if only because it’s the Packers. Putting it on Monday night only adds fuel to the fire. It doesn’t really matter whether Sean Jensen or Alex Marvez think of the Bears --- it matters what the Bears think of themselves, and right now? They’re about as confident as it gets.
And that could be extremely dangerous for the Packers, who have spent the last several months telling people that they don’t hear the chorus that is calling for their coronation as the NFC heavyweight.
Frankly, I’m glad that the Bears beat Dallas last week. I’m thrilled that they’re now getting press for sending Tony Romo to 0-2 and that people are naming them as a dark horse to win the North and maybe a playoff or two. I say, keep the acclaim coming. I can’t wait to see all the NFL Network pieces asking, “Who are these Chicago Bears?” and shouting “Jay Cutler for MVP!” I want the Bears’ “statement win” to inspire players in Green Bay to be more focused in film study and in executing their game plan. I hope it makes them take Chicago seriously, because the Packers do have enough strength to beat this team. They just have to wield it properly for 60 full minutes. They can’t, as Coach Denny Green reminds us, let the Bears off the hook.
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