3TFO: Packers @ Bears, Week 17
With neither the Bears, the Packers, nor the Lions putting in any sort of claim to the NFC North title in Week 16, the division title will go to the winner of this one. Chicago took the W at Lambeau Field back in Week 9 when these teams first met, although it was the game in which Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone after taking just seven snaps. After an eight-game stretch that tested the patience of Packer fans, it looks like Rodgers will finally return this week just in time to prevent Green Bay from missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Bears also spent a good portion of the season without their starting quarterback. Jay Cutler will be starting his third consecutive game this week and while Josh McCown filled in admirably, most will be happy that Chicago is finally getting its starting quarterback back under center. A win here would help Cutler quell the quarterback controversy that’s been brewing in addition to granting a home playoff game the following week. It’s do-or-die time, and here are three things each team must address to ensure this isn’t their last game of the season.
The Return of Rodgers
There’s been no bigger storyline in the state of Wisconsin than the state of Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone. Week after week, Packer fans have had their spirits rise in hearing news that Rodgers would take snaps with the first team in practice, only to have their hearts ripped out when it inevitably turned out he wasn’t cleared to play.
But this week is different. Probably. Multiple sources have indicated the former MVP will suit up on Sunday. Before going down against the Bears, Rodgers had been his usual self. For the third year in a row, he’s on pace to finish in the Top 2 in our Accuracy Percentage at 79.6%. Also floating around the rumor mill is that Randall Cobb may return this week. Cobb has worked his magic out of the slot, catching 76.5% of passes thrown his way this year (sixth of 59), nearly identical to the 77.8% he put up a year ago.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they’ve had plenty of injuries themselves. In addition to Cutler, Charles Tillman was put on I.R. last month with a triceps tear, forcing Zachary Bowman into the lineup opposite Tim Jennings. While he hasn’t been a liability by any means, surrendering a quarterback rating of just 62.2, the loss has prevented the Chicago from sending Tillman everywhere to follow a team’s best receiver, as he did against Cincinnati and Detroit this year. Lined up on Cobb (should he play) will be Isaiah Frey. Allowing a quarterback rating of 107.6 when covering the slot, that’s not too bad considering he was taken in the sixth round in 2012.
Chicago’s Run Defense vs. Green Bay’s Running Backs
For the quite some time, Chicago has been known for its stifling defense. But after a linebacking corps that lost Brian Urlacher (retirement) and Nick Roach (to Oakland) in addition to an injury to Lance Briggs, the defense has been a shadow of its 2012 form. James Anderson has just six stops more than Briggs (36 compared with 30), even though he’s played nearly 450 more snaps on defense. His Run Stop Percentage of 5.0 ranks 32nd of 37 4-3 OLBs. And while Jon Bostic’s RSP is better (8.2), only four inside linebackers have missed more tackles in the run game than Bostic’s eight. The defensive line hasn’t played well either, but the linebackers have been as big a reason as any for Chicago’s last place run defense.
In years past, a weak run defense may not have been of much concern against the Packers, but with Eddie Lacy set to start in spite of an apparent ankle injury last week, that’s all changed. Lacy is our third-highest graded running back on the year, and for good reason. Despite missing two full games (neglecting the six snaps he played against Washington before suffering a concussion), the 55 tackles he’s broken are third most. He’s a workhorse of a back too — Lacy has nine games of 20 or more carries. Already having set the Packers’ single-season rookie rushing record, Lacy should be able to add to that total if Chicago can’t commit extra defenders to the box.
When you have a strong armed gunslinger like Jay Cutler, it’s always beneficial to have some big targets to throw to. And that’s exactly what he has in Brandon Marshall (6-foot-4) and Alshon Jeffery (6-foot-3). Both reside within the Top 4 for our wide receiver grading, and while putting up big numbers has rarely been an issue for Marshall, the strides Jeffery has made in his second year are astounding. Tallying a meager 367 receiving yards a year ago, Jeffery is over 1300 yards already. At times he has shown phenomenal body control, making catches over and around defenders that he had no business making. Jeffery has been the more sure-handed of the two as well dropping just four, compared with Marshall’s 12. The duo also has combined for 25 catches on deep passes, the second most for any wide receiver pair.
Covering receivers who tower over them in an unenviable task, but Sam Shields and Tramon Williams will have to do their best if they want to make the playoffs. Since being embarrassed to the tune of 264 yards over the first two weeks of the season, Shields’ play has improved dramatically. Outside of his Week 13 matchup against Calvin Johnson, the former undrafted free agent hasn’t surrendered more than 67 yards in a game. This is in spite of the Packers’ insistence on moving him around the field to track specific receivers. Shields has 12 pass breakups and three interceptions, figures that beat plenty of other corners with more playing time. Williams has three picks of his own (though only four PDs), but both corners have a penchant for coming up with the big play when the team needs it. With eight of the last 12 Packers-Bears games coming down to just one score, it just may be on one of these two to make a play at the end to extend their season.