Four Downs: Packers-Bears Monday Night Football preview
This week, Four Downs has an extra day’s rest and is a little sad Jay Cutler isn’t healthy for the proceedings on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. But anyway, it’s Packers-Bears in primetime, and that’s not a bad way to start (or end, we guess) the week. If you want, comment here, or Like us on Facebook and comment there. Also: for news on gameday events around Lambeau Field and the surrounding area, click here.
1. Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt put it to the team’s rookie rusher, Eddie Lacy, this way: “My coach said, ‘Treat this game like Alabama and Auburn,’” Lacy said in a report from ESPN’s Rob Demovsky on Thursday. “So I guess it’s pretty serious.”
The Packers-Bears rivalry may not have the same chemical instabilities that can veer the state of Alabama’s Iron Bowl showdown into seemingly uninhabitable levels of real and raw insanity, but missing this particular chromosome isn’t exactly the worst thing, either. Win or lose, we’re not sure we’d actually fear Bears fans. We’ll leave it to you to decide which fanbase we might be referring to, here, but while the Packers and Bears share a bond loaded with disdain curated over generations – how you grow up simply knowing you don’t like the Bears – there’s also a fairly healthy dose of respect because of all those past meetings.
This long-running feud is soaked in historical context, of course, every game being the next chapter of a great and long novel that in total expands beyond any one era or season. It matters because nothing gets forgotten, and the way each player either already knows or quickly learns the stakes signals Bears Week as a different sort of beast from any other on the calendar. Where losing to the Vikings feels like contracting a rare disease for a day, Bears-Packers games usually come with a tinge of irregularity at the outset, a weird atmosphere that ignores the rest of the season and opens a new cavity in the world strictly for these two games to stand by themselves. For this week’s purposes, the 187th meeting is about either continuing to set the pace in the NFC North or trying to keep up with it.
Also, the merging of this great rivalry and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, then adding Monday Night Football’s recent slate to the mix, really has the feel of an oncoming hailstorm of Gruden superlatives for three hours. Imagine how hard he’ll sell a game’s importance when it’s, well, actually important? His enthusiasm on Monday could and should be bottled and sold as high-grade mace.
2. As the intro mentioned, the Bears will likely be without Cutler for a few more weeks. Backup Josh McCown is starting in Green Bay instead, just as he did for Cutler on Christmas night of 2011, when he threw one touchdown and two picks in a 35-21 Packers win. Aside from the memories of being at that game, we won’t pretend to know much about him.
So for our sake it did help when Bears tight end Martellus Bennett said, in a report this week from ESPN’s Michael C. Wright, of Cutler and McCown: “It’s just like eating Cheerios and having Corn Flakes. They’re pretty much the same … They both get the job done. You’ve got to add sugar to both though.”
We agree with this comparison to slightly bland but solid cereal options in one way but not the other. The Bears offense as a whole, we’d argue, is the steady cereal that’s never really a bad choice in the morning, but maybe leaving you to sometimes feel like you could go for something with a bit more flavor. In this case, Cutler, we’d argue, is the sugar that either complements the overall bowl with the right amount of zing, goes overboard and completely overwhelms the cereal entirely, or is added too lightly and doesn’t have enough of an impact to make a difference. After suffering through a few sugar-coated bites, you end up throwing the whole thing away, or into double coverage.
Bennett might be right as it relates to Monday night, though, in that the receivers and running back Matt Forte will have to provide some pop of their own when McCown gets them the ball. Chicago head coach Marc Trestman has said he doesn’t plan on altering the playbook much for McCown which, ultimately, means the same as it would for either Bears quarterback: get the ball to Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Bennett and Forte as simply as possible, then let them work from there.
For the Bears it needs to be about the plays they’re making after McCown gets rid of the ball. What happens before that needs to be bland and routine. Alternatively, the Packers will try to make McCown look more the way Chicago’s regular starting quarterback often does in Green Bay. We’re assuming Jay Cutler doesn’t enjoy the charms and energy of Lambeau Field like you and I, but we welcome both him and Josh McCown with open arms regardless.
3. The Bears feed on turnovers like you left them sitting out on the picnic table, and with Chicago’s injuries along the defensive line and to linebacker Lance Briggs – who won’t play Monday – it’s probably the most important thing the Packers can do or, you know, not do. Chicago has forced the most fumbles (15) in the league and are tied for sixth in interceptions (10).
Making not giving the ball away all the more imperative is the fact that Chicago’s defense has been pretty lacking in other areas that the Packers can exploit. The Bears are allowing 4.0 yards per rushing attempt and 117.3 yards on the ground per game, good for 25th in the NFL. Probably most surprising is that Chicago is allowing a league-worst 8.7 yards per pass attempt.
Now, perceived weakness could meet perceived weakness, here, in that Green Bay’s receiving corps are still banged up (though James Jones could be returning), but as we said a few weeks ago: Aaron Rodgers-plus-anyone typically equals something better than you can guard, which is why that yards per pass average looks so inviting at home.
But we’re saying: any secondary that has Charles Tillman (if he plays with an injured knee) back there punching at things will always be cause for concern. Get too comfortable around bears and they’re still bears, meaning they’re still gigantic, deadly mauling machines that need some level of respect.
4. It is unrealistic to expect the Packers to ravage third downs like they did last Sunday night in Minnesota, going 13-for-18, but again there’s a Bears soft spot here that could wear down an already-struggling defense. Chicago ranks 28th in the NFL in third down efficiency, allowing first downs 44.3 percent of the time so far.
Helping immensely towards manageable third downs is the blunt-force consistency of the Packers running game and Rodgers, who, while we really can’t do justice to how viciously surgical his knife-throws against the Vikings were, but the aura of general calm he emits and that we’d probably still feel if he were throwing to a traffic cone, this man and a German Shepherd is a strange and beautiful feeling. Because of this Rodgers absolutely must be an early frontrunner for Most Valuable Player. We don’t care much for awards talk, ever, but in this case his impact feels too glaring to ignore.
For at least two games a season, the Packers and Bears rent property on a world outside our own. We haven’t seen the topography up close yet, but even on whatever old and foreign planet this rivalry lives on we’d have to think the chasm between Rodgers-versus-the-Bears-defense and McCown-versus-the-Packers-defense is deep and vast.
(On the following scale: Ted Thompson is a tough guy to read. In an attempt to pay homage to his flat style of delivery, we will couple our pick with a 1-5 rating scale of our confidence translated into Thompson Confidence, which, we feel, is just as ultimately silly and tough to derive meaning from as choosing a score.)
Honorary Ted Thompson ‘I feel confident’ scale of confidence: 4.4 ‘I feel confident’-s out of 5.