3TFO: Packers @ Bears, Week 15
Ahh, so this is what the NFL had in mind this year when scheduling the bulk of divisional games toward the end of the season. The Vikings beat the Bears last week to stay in contention for the NFC North crown and more head-to-head matchups are on their way, starting with Sunday’s continuation of the oldest NFL rivalry. A Packers victory and they clinch the divisional title, while the Bears need a win to keep ahead of the Vikings and a surging NFC East for the final wild-card spot.
Clay Matthews vs. J’Marcus Webb
The Packers are desperate for the expected return of their only true pass-rushing threat, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has been out with a hamstring injury. Surprisingly, the Packers have managed to generate the exact same amount of pressure (29% of their opponents’ drop-backs) in the four games without Matthews, as they were before his absence. So what’s been the difference? In a word — violence. With Matthews in the mix, 44% of Green Bay’s pressures were either hits or sacks. When QBs are getting clobbered, bad things tend to happen for offenses. With Matthews on the sideline that rate has dropped to 24% as the Packers have settled for the less disruptive (and less painful) QB hurry.
Matthews’ profile is a nightmare for left tackles. Typical for an edge rusher, he gets most of his pressure (48%) beating a blocker to the outside. But not so typical is the success of his countermove to the inside (31%). Only 5% of his pressures come on bull rushes.
Without Matthews on the field, opposing tackles can relax a bit because his fellow OLBs are one-trick ponies. For Erik Walden, 57% of his pressures are either unblocked or come so late in the play that the initial move is no longer relevant. That’s probably the easiest explanation for why Walden is yet again one of our lowest-graded pass rushers. Rookie Dezman Moses still needs to develop a repertoire beyond the outside speed rush (79% of his pressures) as he has yet to notch a single pressure off an inside move or bull rush.
With Matthews likely back in the lineup, what will that mean for Bears left tackle J’Marcus Webb? In their Week 2 meeting, it meant two sacks, one hurry, a false start penalty and a scolding from quarterback Jay Cutler. Since then Webb has shown some improvement over his 2011 campaign with a higher cumulative grade in protection and an elevated Pass Blocking Efficiency rating. Webb’s protection profile seems to match up well against Matthews. Like most NFL tackles, he yields about half of his pressures to outside pass rushes, and that’s where he’ll be most susceptible to Matthews’ strengths. Matthews’ countermove, however, will likely be less of a factor, as Webb gets beat to the inside much less (only 14% of pressures yielded) than the league average (33%).
Brandon Marshall vs. Tramon Williams
Brandon Marshall was very vocal in his dislike for the Packers secondary this week. Rightfully so, if based on the near shutout they pitched him during the early-season duel. In his only negatively graded game of the season, Marshall was held to two receptions for 24 yards on five targets. The icing on the cake was a dropped pass in the end zone with the game on the line. Marshall has been fantastic ever since and is currently fifth in our receiver grading. Cutler has been bound and determined to get him the ball, with Marshall garnering more targets than all other Bears wideouts combined (147 to 118).
His dropped TD aside, Marshall has made significant strides in cutting down on his drops. His 11 drops are second only to Wes Welker (14), but you have to take into account all those targets. Fortunately, that’s exactly what our Drop Rate signature stat is for. Marshall is dropping 9.8% of his catchable targets, which is middle of the pack among wideouts, and a far cry from the 13.9% he averaged during his last two years in Miami.
Tramon Williams got the bulk of the duty on Marshall the first time, allowing zero receptions and snagging a pick on the two targets in his coverage. Williams has truly been tested this season, with the primary matchup on five of the NFL’s eight most-targeted wideouts. The plan seems to be accepting that these guys are going to get their catches, but limiting their impact. The Packers must be happy with results as Williams has held Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald to a combined total of just one touchdown and a passer rating of 81.0 when in his coverage.
Devin Hester vs. Tim Masthay
One of the more intriguing matchups over the past couple years in this rivalry has been return man extraordinaire Devin Hester versus Packers punter Tim Masthay. Many credit Masthay’s containment of Hester during the 2010 NFC Championship Game as one of the keys to the Packers’ victory. At the time, Hester was our top-graded punt returner (+7.7), averaging 17.1 yards per return. He relinquished that crown in 2011 with the emergence of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, but still graded well (+5.7) and averaged 16.2 YPR.
Hester has fallen off dramatically this year, barely making the Top 20 in our grades (+2.0) and slashing his return average in half. This isn’t the first time Hester has had seasons with a dramatic downswing in production, so Bears fans shouldn’t be growling about the ‘end of days’ just yet. Such dips may support the notion that the entire return unit may have as much influence on a returner’s success as the returner himself.
Masthay has quietly gone about solidifying a punting game that had been a bane for the Packers ever since they allowed Jon Ryan to slip away to Seattle in 2008. There are some stats to suggest that Masthay and his coverage team are having their finest season yet. Only 28.8% of Masthay’s punts are being returned, easily the lowest rate in the league — when they are, opponents are getting only 4.9 yards per return.
The true measure of successful punting (and punt coverage) is of course, field position, and here Masthay and the Packers are also in some rare air with 49% of their punts resulting in starting field position within an opponent’s own 20-yard line. That’s good for fourth best in the NFL just behind Ryan and Seattle.
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