Pack’s patchwork line must keep Bears off Rodgers

With Aaron Rodgers trying to help the Green Bay Packers secure a
No. 1 playoff seed against a sputtering Chicago Bears team missing
its two best offensive players, the NFL’s most storied rivalry is
looking pretty lopsided these days.

Going into a Sunday night matchup at Lambeau Field, the Packers
can clinch home-field advantage in the NFC with a win, with the
added bonus of knocking their rivals out of the playoffs and
beating them for the fourth – yes, fourth – time in 2011.

The Packers may have lost their shot at a perfect season with a
loss at Kansas City last week, but probably won’t need a perfect
performance to beat a team that has turned to Josh McCown at
quarterback.

Green Bay does have one major concern, though: Can an offensive
line depleted by injuries keep Rodgers from taking too many big
hits from a still-dangerous Bears defensive line?

Rodgers conceded that the Packers may have to adjust their
offense to compensate for a reshuffled line.

”Depending on who’s playing where, you might have to tweak a
few things because those guys are used to playing in certain
spots,” Rodgers said. ”If they have to move around a little bit,
it’s going to take getting used to. We feel confident about the
guys we’re going to line up, and there’s an expectation that
they’re going to play and play well. But you’ve got to be smart
with the personnel you’ve got as well.”

Kansas City got good pressure on Rodgers, including four sacks,
and the Bears hope to do the same.

”We’re lucky we’re athletic up front,” linebacker Brian
Urlacher said. ”We’ve got some guys who can rush the passer with
four, which has helped us quite a bit. And we’re pretty athletic in
the back end as well, so we run around. But there’s really not a
whole lot you can do against him. He’s going to make his plays.
Hopefully we can make some as well.”

The Packers could be without three of their top four offensive
tackles on Sunday after injuries to starting right tackle Bryan
Bulaga and backup Derek Sherrod. Bulaga sprained his left knee and
has been ruled out for Sunday, while Sherrod broke his right leg
and is out for the season.

Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton returned to practice this week,
but it’s not clear when he’ll be ready to play. Clifton hurt his
hamstring in the Packers’ Oct. 9 victory at Atlanta, then hurt his
back during the rehabilitation process.

The Packers could play Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, Evan
Dietrich-Smith at left guard, Scott Wells at center, Josh Sitton at
right guard and T.J. Lang at right tackle. In that scenario, Wells
and Sitton would be the only starters playing their natural
positions.

Even before losing Bulaga and Sherrod on Sunday, the Packers
have been allowing too much pressure on Rodgers the past few weeks.
Rodgers has been sacked seven times in the past two games and taken
several other big hits.

”Obviously, everybody knows the sacks and the hits, problems
that we’ve had the past few weeks,” Lang said. ”It’s never good
to watch a quarterback get hit as many times as he’s getting hit.
We’ve got some guys moving around. That’s not an excuse for us. Our
mentality is, whoever’s playing, your No. 1 job is to protect the
ball carrier, protect the quarterback.”

Packers receivers also struggled to make up for the absence of
Greg Jennings, who has a left knee sprain and is expected to return
for the playoffs. But Urlacher said Rodgers’ play can cover up a
lot of other issues for the Packers’ offense.

”No. 12’s still playing quarterback, so that’s all that matters
in that offense,” Urlacher said. ”He gets rid of the ball of the
football so fast and knows where to go with the ball. It may be a
little bit of a weakness for them, but he’s still playing
quarterback for them, so they’re still dangerous.”

But even if the Bears deliver a typically good performance on
defense, they still might struggle to score.

Jay Cutler broke his right thumb against San Diego on Nov. 20,
when the Bears were 7-3. Running back Matt Forte then sprained the
medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a loss to Kansas
City Dec. 4, leaving the Bears without their two most critical
players on offense.

Backup Caleb Hanie took over for Cutler and struggled, throwing
nine interceptions in four starts, all losses. Now the Bears are
turning to McCown, who hasn’t started a game in four years.

McCown said trying to learn the offense in a short timeframe
isn’t ideal, but doesn’t want to use that as an excuse.

”For anybody in any offense, it’s not ideal to come in this
late,” McCown said. ”But at the same time, like I said, as a
competitor and you understand where the other guys are at is you’ve
got to get yourself up to speed and get ready to play. Everybody
expects you just to go play and play well.”

The Bears already have lost to the Packers three times in 2011 –
the 2010 regular-season finale, the NFC title game and earlier this
season at Soldier Field – and certainly don’t want to make it
four.

And while the playoffs aren’t looking likely without Cutler and
Forte, Urlacher said the Bears ”need something” to at least have
a shot at saving their season.

”Our offense, we’re up and down,” Urlacher said. ”We still
ran the ball pretty well. But defensively, we’ve just got to get
more takeaways to help the offense out in the situation. Without
Jay being in there, we’re not the same team as we were before, so
we have to compensate for that by making more plays on
defense.”