The NFC North crown is up for grabs on Sunday and with it a berth in the playoffs. Both the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers are coming off disappointing losses, but each team has the opportunity to wipe away the sour taste of a feeble Week 16 effort and start with a clean palate in the second season.
With that in mind, let’s look at what Marc Trestman, Mel Tucker and the rest of the Bears coaching staff will be dealing with as they prepare their game plans for Sunday’s showdown.
Bears Offensive Game Plan
The Bears’ high-flying offense should soar in the season finale, considering the Packers defense ranks 26th in yardage and 24th in points allowed. Two things they'll have to address, though, are the Packers' propensity to blitz and the slow starts that the offense has had over the last two weeks.
No. 1: Combating Green Bay's Blitz-Happy 3-4
For the eighth time this season, the Bears will face a 3-4 defense. Of their first seven matchups, they’ve won four and, statistically, the offense has put up numbers right around the season averages.
What Marc Trestman will really be planning for is the blitz. According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers dials up the pressure (sending five or more pass rushers) 38.2 percent of the time, one of the highest rates in the league.
Against the Bears in Week 9, by my count, they brought the heat on 12 of 41 pass plays, or 29.2 percent of the time. Ten times they came with five rushers, and twice they brought six.
Interestingly, in Josh McCown’s first start (back when no one realized he could handle the offense), Trestman didn't combat Green Bay’s blitz-laden scheme by running the ball. In fact, the first six plays he called were passes.
But this is where Trestman’s offensive brilliance comes into play. Expecting handoffs, Trestman instead gave them play-action passes—four in those first six plays. McCown didn’t even sell the fakes very well, but even so, each time he was able to freeze the linebackers for a split second, which gave Martellus Bennett and wide receivers on medium-range routes a slight advantage.
The Bears moved down the field and eventually scored on a Brandon Marshall reception.
Expect Trestman's strong game-planning to continue Sunday, this time with Jay Cutler taking the snaps. The Packers defense will be without its defensive anchor, Clay Matthews, as the Pro Bowl linebacker re-injured the thumb that kept him out of four games earlier this season.
The Packers aren't strong against the pass or the run, though, in neither case are they a sieve like the Bears are against the run. Right defensive end Mike Daniels, by Pro Football Focus’ grades (subscription required), has been one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league, both at stopping the run and rushing the passer. Linebacker Andy Mulumba, lining up behind Daniels on the defense’s right side, is the team’s next best run-stopper, so don’t be surprised if the Bears are more inclined to run to the opposite side on Sunday.
Through the air, the Alshon Jeffery-Brandon Marshall combo should have a big day, as they are simply mismatches against an average set of corners and safeties. Also look for Martellus Bennett to continue to see targets since Cutler has utilized him more than McCown has this season.
No. 2: Getting Into a Rhythm Early
Opening drives haven't looked quite so good the past two weeks; against the Philadelphia Eagles, the offense went three-and-out. Against the Cleveland Browns, the offense relinquished the ball on a Cutler interception. In fact, twice this season the Bears have turned it over on possession No. 1, and six other times they've gone three-and-out.
On the other hand, Trestman has scripted six scoring drives on opening possessions this year. Considering Cutler’s recent slow starts and the fact that, according to Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune, he’s 1-7 with 17 interceptions against the Cheeseheads in his career, look for Trestman to try to get his quarterback in a rhythm early with easy completions—wide receiver screens, quick hitches and slants.
Bears Defensive Game Plan
With Aaron Rodgers starting, Chicago will face a more balanced attack than the Week 9 meeting when it looked like completing a pass was simply too much for backup Seneca Wallace to handle.
The Packers will be tough to stop through the air with the former Super Bowl MVP under center; unfortunately, they’ll be just as tough to defend on the ground. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy already has 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season, and the last time these two teams faced off he ran for 150 yards on 6.8 yards per carry.
Having Lance Briggs back was supposed to make a difference for the worst rush defense in the league. But as Marc Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, the Eagles game (no solo tackles, 1 assist) was Briggs’ worst game ever.
With a week of conditioning, the seven-time Pro Bowler will be better against the Packers—at least he’ll need to be for the Bears to have any chance of slowing down the Packers offense. In addition to the progression of Briggs' play, check out two things Tucker will have to address come Sunday.
No. 1: Getting Pressure on the QB
The Bears pass rush, led by Julius Peppers, had one of its best games of the season the last time these teams met. Peppers had his way with rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, accumulating two sacks, three hurries and two batted passes.
There aren't many weak links in Green Bay’s offensive line, though. Even Bakhtiari has played well in his last few games, and now, having seen Peppers once, he may do a better job of keeping No. 90 in front of him.
Rodgers has been adept at handling blitzes over his career, but Tucker may test the star quarterback early on to see if he's really back to game speed. From a psychological standpoint, it works to the Bears' advantage that Rodgers’ last image of real NFL football is taking an injury-inducing hit from Shea McClellin.
No. 2: Slowing down the Run
There's not much to say about stopping the run that hasn't already been said. The front four need to do a better job of shrinking running lanes and disrupting the play at the point of attack. The linebackers need to do a better job of disengaging from blocks and making tackles. The safeties need to do a better job of putting themselves in a position to make stops.
It's not rocket science, but it can feel like it when you're physically overmatched, which is partially the problem. Nonetheless, the Bears are not devoid of talent. If Stephen Paea and Jay Ratliff play like they're capable of and Briggs looks more like himself, there’s no reason to think the Bears can't hold Green Bay under 150 rushing yards.