Shields, Packers defense step up late

With an opportunity to become NFC North champions for the second consecutive year, the Green Bay Packers went into Chicago and got it done.

Handing out grades following the Packers’ 21-13 win over the Bears:

Passing Offense: A-

Aaron Rodgers didn’t put up huge numbers in this game, but the NFL’s reigning MVP played worthy of that title. Rodgers completed 23 of 36 passes for 291 yards with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.8.

All three of Rodgers’ touchdowns were caught by wide receiver James Jones, who now leads the league with 12 TDs. Jones continued his stellar season by again finding ways to get into the endzone. Twice in man coverage and once in zone coverage near the goal line, Jones got open and was responsible for all of the Packers’ scores in the game.

Randall Cobb also continued his emergence as one of the NFL’s elite, playmaking receivers. Cobb caught six of the eight passes thrown his way for a game-high 115 receiving yards.

Tight end Jermichael Finley had a nice game, catching five passes (including one on fourth down) for 61 yards. Greg Jennings again had an average game, finishing with four catches for 50 yards.

The offensive line — with T.J. Lang returning to his more natural left guard sport and rookie Don Barclay remaining at right tackle — played quite well. Marshall Newhouse struggled, giving up two sacks, and an injured Josh Sitton wasn’t his normal dominant self, but Barclay and Lang both had solid performances.

Rushing Offense: C-

The one thing that the Packers can’t afford to have their running backs do is fumble the ball, but Ryan Grant did just that. It’s no secret that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is great at punching the ball out, but a veteran like Grant can’t let it happen to him.

Though none of Green Bay’s three running backs played particularly well, DuJuan Harris was the best of the group. Harris carried it five times for 27 yards (5.4 average), including a 21-yard run. Grant gained 32 yards on eight attempts (4.0), but the fumble negates any positive impact he made. Alex Green got the bulk of the carries, finishing with 13 rushes for 35 yards (2.7 average), which is not good enough for the No. 1 back that he’s going to have to be throughout the rest of this season.

Rushing Defense: B+

On the Bears’ opening drive, Matt Forte gained 37 yards and ran all over the Packers’ defense. But after that, Forte was a relative non-factor, finishing with a total of 69 yards on 20 carries (3.5 average).

B.J. Raji had a dominant effort upfront, consistently pushing Chicago’s offensive line backwards and giving Forte no room to make a strong move. The return of Clay Matthews wasn’t just felt in the pass rush, it was also a vital part of Forte being held in check. Matthews, as he almost always does, held the edge and got in the backfield to close off any running angles, finishing with four tackles for loss.

Passing Defense: B+

Jay Cutler wasn’t nearly as ineffective in this game as he was when these two teams met in Week 2 in Green Bay, but the Bears’ fiery quarterback had very little success yet again. Cutler completed only 12 of 21 passes for 135 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception for a passer rating of 72.5.

Cutler’s interception came when he threw it right to Packers rookie cornerback Casey Hayward, who had the easiest of his six INTs so far this season. Brandon Marshall hauled in the lone touchdown pass after missed tackles from Hayward and linebacker Brad Jones.

Matthews, who sacked Cutler 3.5 times in Week 2, brought him down twice on Sunday. Mike Neal also collected 1.5 sacks, sharing one of them with Jerel Worthy.

In the secondary, Sam Shields did a terrific job covering rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery. Near the end of the game, Jeffery was called for three offensive pass interference calls while being guarded by Shields.

The one big blunder for Green Bay’s passing defense was a 53-yard pass interference call on Morgan Burnett that gave Chicago the ball at the 5-yard line. However, as the Packers did nearly all game, they stopped the Bears from getting in the end zone on that drive, despite a first-and-goal from the 5.

Special Teams: F

The struggles of kicker Mason Crosby amplified Sunday. Crosby missed both of his field goals, one from 43 yards out and one from 42 yards. He has now made 17 of his 29 attempts this season, dragging his NFL-worst field-goal percentage down to 58.6 percent. However, coach Mike McCarthy insisted again after the game that Crosby will continue to be the team’s kicker.

In what McCarthy described as “clearly not the highlight of my coaching career,” the Packers inexplicably attempted a trick play on a punt return midway through the fourth quarter. Green Bay was up 21-10 at the time and had the game all but secured, but as Cobb attempted a cross-field pass to rookie Jeremy Ross, the ball fell short, laid on the ground and the Bears recovered. It handed Chicago an easy chance to get right back in the game.

Overall: B+

The Packers are the 2012 NFC North champs and earned that distinction on the home field of their biggest division rival. That is a significant accomplishment for a team that began the season with a 2-3 record. Rodgers was great, the defense stepped up big during several critical moments of the game, and the roster is starting to get closer to full health. The impact of Matthews’ return was felt immediately, and if Green Bay gets Charles Woodson and Jordy Nelson back prior to the playoffs, the Packers could be eyeing a second Super Bowl championship in three years.

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