I sat down at my computer today ready to list all the reasons why I would be picking the Packers to defeat the Bears by more than a touchdown this coming Sunday. But, I decided to give that initial prediction some considerable thought in order to make absolutely sure I was not overreacting to the team’s loss to the Saints last week. By the end of that inner debate, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I was overreacting.
I have serious issues with this team moving forward, and they start with the ability—or lack thereof –to effectively draft for the future. Those concerns don’t end with personnel and coaching decisions, but there is a firm foundation there as well. That’s not to say I don’t think this team knows how to win. In fact, the Bears are the team that always seems to find a way, just when you think they shouldn’t.
I’ll start with what I know: The Chicago Bears are a very talented football team, led by a very talented coaching staff. They have their weakness, as does every team in the National Football League. And, one could make a pretty good case that their inability to fix those weaknesses in recent years has been the only thing holding them back from greatness. You want to know why the national media never seems to give them the benefit of the doubt? Well, that’s why.
Let’s face facts here; Defense and Special Teams have been consistently great year after year in Chicago. It’s the offense that has struggled. The all too simple answer for why that has been the case is failure to match player with coordinator. Why in the world you bring in a guy who has never submitted his quarterbacks to anything less than a 40 sacks in a season, with sub-par—at best—pass protection, is beyond me.
Mike Martz’s offenses have given up an average of 50 sacks on the quarterback each year through 10 seasons. That’s a decade, folks. Leopards don’t change their spots, and old dogs like Martz don’t learn new tricks. Consider also, that some of those successful seasons were spent with a Hall of Fame left tackle! The Bears’ offensive line is bad, but you can’t exactly expect them to execute this offense properly either.
For the sake of comparison, the last five Super Bowl Champions gave up an average of 31 sacks during their winning season. That’s nearly 40% less than what’s EXPECTED in a Martz’s system. And even that is with the 2009 Steelers thrown in, who defied the odds with their modern-era steel curtain defense, and won the Super Bowl after giving up 49 sacks that season. If you take them out of the mix, the average drops to 27 sacks, close to half that which is ‘standard procedure’ in a Martz offense. The bottom line is that, for all the criticisms Jay Cutler has earned, the Bears have not put him in a good position to succeed.
The 2011 Bears are already leading the NFL in sacks allowed after two weeks—go figure—with 11 (16 QB hits in total). Sure, it’s early, but that’s on pace for 88 sacks, which would blow the current regular season record of 76 out of the water. The Bears’ protections issues come primarily against the blitz and that blueprint is now on film through one season, and the start of another. The Packers will attack that weakness Sunday.
However, last season did teach us that the Bears are capable of correcting their mistakes and adjusting to that pressure. And, before you start throwing stats about Jay Cutler’s effectiveness against the blitz my way, please, save them for someone else. I’m not interested. The fact is that before Jay Cutler came to Chicago, and even during part of his first season with the Bears, he had a better completion percentage against the blitz than Tom Brady. The offensive line, offensive play call and tight end play are responsible for the Bears blitz woes, not Jay Cutler.
But I digress! Contrary to all the evidence above, I am actually more interested in talking actual football today, more so than I am my emotionally charged fan-flamed-feelings (fans, as in football fan, get it? Leave me alone, I live with five females. OK, two are dogs … but still!) I’m really excited to get into the X’s and O’s of why I’m shifting—not flip-flopping—and picking the Bears to defeat the Packers this Sunday. Here we go:
Before I get into my keys, it’s worth taking a second to talk about injuries and the impact they will have on this game, and also the way the team game-plans. Lovie Smith and crew is maybe the most stubborn bunch in the NFL. All this week they’ve talked about how they’re not changing what they do on either side of the ball. But, what I’ve learned over the years is that by definition that will ring true. They will run the schemes they run, but the game plan will change based on the personnel on the field. So, who will be out there?
As of Thursday, the Bears listed seven players on their injury report. WR Earl Bennett, RT Gabe Carimi and S Major Wright all did not participate in practice and will not see the field on Sunday. The only potential toss-up of that bunch is Major Wright, but it’s unlikely that he will go. RB Marion Barber, S Chris Harris and RG Lance Louis were all limited in practice. The feeling I get is that Chris Harris is further away than he’d like to be, but he may be a game time decision. Marion Barber seems to be in that same classification, and Lance Louis is a long-shot to play. Roy Williams was back to full participation. Barring any setbacks, he will play on Sunday.
In preparations for this week, the Bears have to game plan as if the only player of that bunch who will be ready to go is Roy Williams. And so, that is how I will construct my mock game plan. But, to tack onto that thought, the Packers will also be without at least one key player of note: Stud safety Nick Collins is out with a neck injury, a big blow to the Packers secondary.
Backup LB Frank Zombo and backup DE Mike Neal are also out. Both LB Clay Matthews and CB Charles Woodson missed their second straight practice today, but, for reasons known only to head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers remain confident that both will be ready to go on Sunday. Who knows, maybe the Bears conjure up some of that luck from last season and direct it at the two multiple selection Pro Bowl defenders…
Having now set the stage, here’s what the Bears need to do to upset the defending Super Bowl Champs and earn their first 2011 Division victory:
Keys to a Bears victory
Don’t play stubborn defense in the redzone: The Bears base defense in the redzone is the Cover-2. Sure, it obviously looks significantly different in such a shortened playing field, but that’s what it is. Aaron Rodgers is well aware of that, and he knows exactly how to beat it. If the Bears don’t adjust there, he will score. The Packers will line up in a three WR set; the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers running post routes, with the No. 2 receiver running a five-yard in-route. Aaron Rodgers can hit that every single time against the Cover-2. The Bears have to recognize this and get creative. Status quo isn’t going to cut it just because you’re stubborn about your scheme. Don’t give up a TD based on principle. The defense has to recognize this formation in the huddle, play tight coverage and force the QB to check down.
Cover (pickup) the blitz: With all the blitz packages that Dom Capers will run on Sunday, it becomes very tough to count every player into your protection schemes from an offensive perspective. And that will lead to unblocked defensive backs; I promise you that. If Martz starts throwing out the seven-step drop routine, you’ll see guys line up ten feet wide of the nearest defensive lineman and come off the line with a clear shot at Cutler. His only shot will be to step up in the pocket and release the ball … um, NOW. Cutler needs to know and use his check-downs in that situation. Heck, just get rid of the football for the sake of your health. The Bears have to game-plan and package in the tight ends for those situations, and I suspect you will see more Matt Spaeth and Tyler Clutts (the fullback) on Sunday.
Establish the run game, be creative and quiet the blitz: Hopefully, Lovie has informed Martz that there will be serious repercussions should he choose to consistently drop-back from his confines in the booth on Sunday. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see Martz back on the sideline this week. The Bears have to establish the run early, opening up the play-action and screen game, thus forcing the packers to quiet the blitz and cover the middle of the field. Matt Forte will have to, once again, be a key part to the game plan. Jay Cutler cannot survive another drop back-happy game like the one we saw last week.
Pressure Aaron Rodgers; but do it this way: It’s not a matter of scheme vs. Aaron Rodgers, the Bears have to get pressure with their front four. They need their defensive ends and linebackers to protect against the three-step slant the Packers are so good at. Rodgers can get the ball out before you even know what is happening. The cornerback is going to have a tough time making a play on that route, which is why the linebackers will be so key in this game. If the front four can get pressure on Rodgers, he will throw it away before throwing the turnover in the middle of the field.
If Chris Harris doesn’t play, zone blitz: The basic idea behind the zone blitz, which the Bears do run, is to confuse the offensive line so that the defense can hopefully get the best of both worlds. Essentially, the Bears would rush five, while dropping six into coverage. But, the key is to shift at the last second—or even after the ball is snapped—giving the illusion of a more traditional blitz, thus confusing the line. This allows the front five to get after the QB and, hopefully, pressure him into throwing a ball he normally wouldn’t. If that happens, the middle of the field is crowded with defensive backs, already used to pulling down turnovers. Of course, every scheme has its weakness, and this one’s is the outside edges of the field. But, if the Bears are working with Craig Steltz and Brandon Meriweather at the safety positions, I’d rather put Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman in charge of making a play. Both guys have played well to start the season.
Hester is due a special return, is he not? This one is not so much game planned as it should be in the heart of the Special Teams unit on Sunday. Green Bay’s punt and kickoff coverage unit was leaky in game one and lucky in game two. This week, they face the best return-man the game has ever seen. Good luck, losers.
Do that, Bears, and you’re on your way to righting this ship. Oh yeah, so where does that leave my prediction? Bears: 26, Packers: 23