GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Week 9 Monday night matchup between the Green Bay Packers (5-2) and Chicago Bears (4-3) at Lambeau Field:
1. This isn’t the Bears defense of 2012
Remember last season when Chicago’s defense finished third in the NFL in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed and led the league in forced turnovers? Really impressive, right? Well, this season, the Bears’ defense has been bad in just about every area. Chicago is 29th in points allowed per game and 27th in yards allowed per game, but it is still forcing turnovers (ranked fifth). To add in how the analysts at ProFootballFocus.com have rated the Bears, they had Chicago as the fourth-best overall defense in 2012 but now have the Bears as the second-worst defense in 2013. It has been a huge dropoff.
Dominant defensive lineman Henry Melton is out for the season, linebacker Lance Briggs — who has only missed four games in 11 seasons — is out with a shoulder injury and pass-rusher Julius Peppers only has one sack and certainly isn’t playing like the eight-time Pro Bowl selection that he is. And though Brian Urlacher didn’t play well last season, the Bears’ defense is showing that it might be missing the leadership that the now-retired linebacker consistently provided.
In all, this is a chance for the Packers’ offense to put up big yards and a lot of points. Green Bay ranks third in the NFL in scoring and second in total yards, so, even with Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley sidelined (and with James Jones questionable), the Packers will have a chance to light up the Lambeau Field scoreboard against their division rival.
2. A ‘totally different’ Bears offense without Cutler
Jay Cutler is injured, which turns Chicago’s offense over to 34-year-old Josh McCown. And with that quarterback change comes a style change from the signal-caller. As several Green Bay players described in the days leading up to this game, Cutler is patient in going through his reads and, while he’s capable of running, he looks for an open receiver to throw to for as long as he can. Not McCown. He’ll be looking to pull the ball down and run if he has a chance. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers described it as a “totally different offense than what we’ve played against.”
McCown, who played in the United Football League in 2010 and was coaching high school football in recent years, has run for 670 yards in his NFL career. When he came in for Cutler midway through the Bears’ last game, McCown ran it four times for 33 yards.
The Packers have seen McCown somewhat recently, though. That was a Christmas Day game in 2011 when McCown threw for 242 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, also running eight times for 38 yards.
3. The Marshall, Jeffery & Bennett Trio
The three main targets that McCown has available to throw to make up a tremendous trio. It’s probably the best three-man receiver group that Green Bay has seen this season.
Second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery is having a breakout season and has been the Bears’ deep threat with 12 plays of 20-plus yards and averaging 17.0 yards per catch (ranked No. 8 in the NFL). Eight-year veteran Brandon Marshall leads Chicago in targets, receptions and touchdowns. Tight end Martellus Bennett has hauled in four touchdowns and 32 catches.
All three of them are big guys, too. Marshall at 6-foot-4, Jeffery at 6-foot-3 and Bennett at 6-foot-6 all create matchup problems for the Packers. It’s their size that Capers said is the main challenge, especially considering Sam Shields and Tramon Williams (both 5-foot-11) give up several inches. Capers expects Marshall and Jeffery to use that size advantage to seek collisions at the beginning of their routes to get separation.
Unlike when Green Bay faced Cincinnati — when A.J. Green was really the Bengals’ only major receiving threat — or against Baltimore — when Torrey Smith was clearly the top target, the Packers won’t have the ability to lock in on just one guy. That could be an issue for Green Bay if McCown has time and patience to find Marshall, Jeffery or Bennett.
4. Forte is a force
Bears running back Matt Forte is in the midst of what could end up as his best NFL season. With 533 rushing yards already in seven games, Forte is on pace to finish just 20 yards shy of the career-best mark that he achieved as a rookie in 2008.
Forte is currently tied for third in the NFL with six rushing touchdowns and is fifth in rushing average among running backs with at least 70 carries. With Chicago’s change at quarterback, the Bears’ offense could run through Forte even more than usual. And, as if the Packers needed any other receivers to worry about, Forte is fourth in the NFL in receptions by running backs.
However, Green Bay’s run defense has been terrific this season, currently on pace to be the best in franchise history. Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Ray Rice and Reggie Bush have all been held in check, but Forte will be another tough test that the Packers need to pass.
5. Packers’ chance for a seventh consecutive win over Bears
Not since 2007 has Green Bay lost to the Bears at Lambeau Field. That was back in the old days when Aaron Rodgers was still a relatively unknown No. 2 quarterback behind Brett Favre. Whether the games have been played in Chicago or in Green Bay, the Packers are currently riding a six-game winning streak over the Bears.
In the 187th meeting between the two long-time rivals, control of the division at the midway point of the season is also on the line. A Chicago win would put both teams at 5-3 and give the Bears the head-to-head advantage with a late-season meeting to be played at Soldier Field. A Green Bay win would keep the Packers atop the NFC North, giving them a full two-game lead in the standings over Chicago, while also dropping the Bears to a .500 record.
Rodgers is 8-2 in his career against Chicago, but both of those losses have happened on Monday Night Football. While coach Mike McCarthy stated that this is “the game in the NFL every year,” this rivalry has become one-sided over the past few seasons. A Bears win without their starting quarterback would quickly change that.