Can Pack Send the Bears Into Hibernation?

Posted December 13th, 2019 @ 05:12pm

It's only fitting that meeting #200 between the NFL's oldest rivals means this much. And it's only fitting that it will be played at noon in December on a day when the temperature is not expected to get past the teens.

Strange as it seems, it's the first December meeting at Lambeau since 2011 and the first noon kickoff in this series at Lambeau since 2008. The ideal setting for a game that will tell us a lot about these two teams in 2019. As we know the roles are reversed: last year in Week 15 the Bears eliminated the Pack from the playoffs in a win at Soldier Field. This time around, Green Bay can return the favor. A Bears loss, coupled with a loss by a win by either the Vikings or Rams, will end their dream of a return to the postseason.

And while Bears fans are suddenly believing in their team's turn-around, with three straight wins and four out of five to get them above .500 for the first time this season, most Packer fans are in worrying mode, unimpressed by the Pack's 3-2 performance after jumping out to that 7-1 start.

But all would be forgiven with a win over the Bears. Not only would it get the Pack a step closer to the NFC North title, even if they lose at Minnesota next week, it would also keep the dream alive for a top two seed in the NFC. There are reasons for optimism and pessimism. Let's start with the negatives:

The Bears come in to this one as the more desperate team. They know their season is basically over if they lose and they remember the 10-3 loss in the opener when Tramon Williams announced that his unit knew they just needed to make Mitch play quarterback. For some reason Matt Nagy had Mitch drop back to pass 45 times, good for 75% of the offensive plays. If that happens again, the Pack will cruise. But that won't happen again. The Bears' offense has found a flow by finally committing to rookie RB David Montgomery, who has 36 carries for 161 yards the last two games--wins over the Lions and Cowboys. And Trubisky used his legs against Dallas, ten carries for 61 yards and a score.

The Bears' offense has found its footing by running the ball, and using the RPO with their QB, who lately has found his two unheralded tight ends, JP Holtz and Jesper Horsted--covering tight ends has been a problem for the Pack all season. With WRs Taylor Gabriel and Javon Wims likely out, the Pack secondary will focus on Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. It would be nice to see Jaire Alexander shadowing Robinson, but I think he'll be needed to handle the speedier Miller. Kevin King appears ready to return, though he's listed as questionable again--we need one of his 'good' games.

More negatives: Nagy's Bears seem to get better as the season goes along. They're 11-2 in the second half of the season and 4-0 in divisional rematches the last two years. And his defense expects to get back run stuffer Akiem Hicks, who's poised to come off injured reserve on Saturday. It's impossible to know how many snaps he'll play and whether he'll need time to shake off the rust after missing eight games with a dislocated elbow. But his presence on the field lifts a very good Bears defense that will look to take away Aaron Jones and make the Pack's inconsistent passing game beat them.

Now, for the good news: when Virginia McCaskey meets with her minority partners, she should leave a spot at the table for Rodgers, who's 17-4 against the Bears in games he starts and finishes. Yes, he's more mortal now than he was five years ago, but his arm is as strong as it's ever been, he's healthy and he lives for these kinds of stages. And after a couple of weeks of whispers about what's wrong with Rodgers, this is the kind of game where he can make a statement.

The Packers are as healthy as they could possibly hope to be heading into Week 15. Every player on the roster is practicing this week. The only thing that caught my eye on Thursday's report was Davante Adams popping up as limited with his toe. You know it still has to be bothering him because he is just not getting his usual separation and has been less of a downfield threat over the past month.

The Bears have not been so lucky. With Hicks likely returning, they will be without ILB Roquan Smith, whose lost for the season with a torn pec. Removing the team's leading tackler on a defense already missing LB Danny Trevaithan removes some of its bite. Nick Kwiatkoski has been solid in place of Trevaithan; while Kevin Pierre-Lewis held his own when Smith went down. Also dangerous returner and gadget play threat Cordarelle Patterson suffered a head injury in practice on Thursday and his status is in question. That would be a huge loss for the Bears on a cold day, where one big play could turn the game.

Yes, it will be cold. The final regular season game at Lambeau will feature the frozen tundra, with a high of 19 degrees--wind should not be a factor. Obviously, both the Pack and Bears are cold weather teams, but Trubisky doesn't have much of a track record and his accuracy issues aren't likely to improve on a frigid day.

The Bears have gotten off to slow starts this season, and figuring things out offensively in the second half. They've scored just two touchdowns in the first quarter all season, but have reached the end zone 13 times in the third quarter--they've scored TDs on their opening drive of the second half in their last seven games.

So if history holds, the Packers will get off to a quick start and take a two score lead in the first half and then they'll have to hang on for dear life in the second half. Getting Jones involved early and often is imperative: the Pack is 7-1 when he gets at least 15 touches. He and Jamaal Williams need to be productive in the passing game too, to deal with the pass rush, led by Khalil Mack.

We've rarely seen the Pack go to the up-tempo no huddle offense this season, but this might be a good time to use it, especially with a couple of backups and a rusty veteran coming back from injury. It needs to be a day when Rodgers gets rid of the ball quickly and spreads the ball around--getting production from Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow, as well as the usual suspects.

Defensively, we'll likely see the Bears move the fall pretty freely between the 20s. If they can stiffen in the red zone as they've done all season and make Trubisky try to convert big third downs with his arm, they should be in good shape.

There's a lot of steam nationally that this might be a game that the Bears steal. That they will keep their faint playoff hopes alive against a Packer team that isn't as good as their 10-3 record. And there is definitely reason for concern. We really haven't seen the Pack play a complete game since the late October win in Kansas City.

But there is much on the line for the Pack: an NFC North title with wins over the Bears and Lions, a top two seed if they can win out. They're 6-1 at home this season, while the Bears have not been great on the road, winning at Detroit, Washington and Denver--with a big assist from the officials. And then there's Rodgers, who like Brett Favre before him, seems to save his best performances for Green Bay's most bitter rival.

I'm concerned. It won't be easy. It may not be pretty. But the Packers escape and move closer to the NFC North title.

Packers 20  Bears 17

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OK, Now It Get's Interesting...

Posted December 9th, 2019 @ 02:12pm

Throughout the Packer game on Sunday I found myself constantly flipping back and forth to the 49ers-Saints game, to watch what I considered to be the top two NFC teams battle it out. And after the Pack dispatched with Washington, thanks mainly to Aaron Jones and a gimpy Dwayne Haskins, I watched the two heavyweights punch and counterpunch their way to a 48-46 instant classic.

It left me wondering how on Earth we can expect the Packers to compete with either of those teams next month. The answer is, they can't--unless Aaron Rodgers and the passing game discover some kind of magic potion. Once again, there was no rhythm--for most of the afternoon Rodgers had plenty of time in the pocket but could find nobody open--and the Washington secondary is nothing special.

The offense was bailed out once again by the electric Jones, whose 134 rushing yards on 16 carries came against a Redskins defensive plan that was designed to take him out of the game. He added 58 receiving yards, half of them coming on the biggest play of the game, on third and long with the Pack backed up near their goal line--extending a long fourth quarter drive that ended in a field goal and basically put the game away.

But their has to be major concern about the passing game, which seemed to flourish in October when Davante Adams was sidelined, but now looks more and more like the 2018 version, with throw aways, coverage sacks and a dismal performance on third down (just 5-13 on Sunday).

The Packers could get away with it against the likes of the Giants and Skins, but says of frolicking in the bunny patch are over. The Bears will come to Lambeau on Sunday treating the game like a playoff matchup, because they'll be knocked out of the post season with a loss. Not to mention, their passing game has suddenly found life and they will come in confident and poised to spoil the Lambeau party. Then come the Vikings on Monday night and we all know what we're in for in that one.

It's hard to know what to make of the defensive effort, facing a bottom-feeding offense like Washington. Losing Derrius Guice to injury in the first half (after a long run) took away their nice 1-2 punch out of the backfield and forced Adrian Peterson to handle the load. Time and time again, Washington ran the ball on first and second down and then tried to convert via the air. They just don't have the horses to be productive that way. If the Packers are going to be down two CBs (King and Brown), this was the week for it. Hopefully they'll be available against the Bears.

The brightest spot of the game was new punt returner Tyler Ervin, who showed us that it is possible to gain positive yards when you return punts. His four returns netted 51 yards, this for a team that had -8 for the season coming into the game. What a breath of fresh air and terrific mid-week pickup by Brian Gutekunst and his staff.

Big picture, the Pack is 10-3 and currently the #2 seed in the NFC. Win out and they will have a bye on wildcard weekend and host a game in the divisional round. If they beat the Bears and Lions they will be NFC North champs and likely own the #3 seed and face the Vikings on wildcard weekend.

But if they can't raise their level of play beginning Sunday, their playoff seeding will change drastically. Matt LaFleur needs to find a way to get the offense in some kind of rhythm and Mike Pettine's unit will need to limit big plays and continue to perform in the red zone and take the ball away.

Otherwise, this feel good 10-3 record won't feel so good come Christmas.

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Pack's Return to Lambeau Should Be Festive.

Posted December 6th, 2019 @ 04:12pm

Let's just get this one out of the way, shall we? Beginning on Monday, we'll be thinking about the final three games of the season, all division games, knowing that if they beat the Bears and Lions, they'll be no worse than a three seed in the NFC playoffs.

But of course the Pack first must dispatch the Redskins, a team with a historically inept offense, but one that has inexplicably won its last two games, to drop to third in next spring's draft order. OK, their two wins aren't that inexplicable. They've beaten the Jeff Driskal-led Lions and Kyle Allen-led Panthers, compiling 13 sacks and six takeaways in the process. And last week, their two-headed rushing attack of Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice shredded Carolina.

Now they come to Lambeau, for the Pack's first home game since November 10th, as nearly two touchdown underdogs. After firing head coach Jay Gruden earlier in the season, Washington has tried to embody the personality of interim coach Bill Callahan, with a ground and pound approach and relying as little as possible on rookie QB Dwayne Haskins, who in a perfect world, would have used 2019 as a redshirt season.

Haskins has the tools to be a good quarterback, but he has a lot to learn and improve on. He's completing just 54% of his passes, with two touchdowns and six interceptions. He also takes sacks at an incredible rate--on 14% of his pass plays. He does have one legit weapon in the passing game, former Buckeye teammate Terry McLaurin, who's scored five times and averages 15 yards per reception on 46 catches. Expect him to draw Jaire Alexander's constant attention on Sunday.

Washington will undoubtedly attack the Pack's offense the same way the Giants did. It's an altered universe now, as teams look to stop Aaron Jones and the Packers' running game and make Aaron Rodgers beat them. #12 was up to the challenge against the Giants in a snowstorm and the same will be the case on Sunday. With Allen Lazard stepping comfortably into the #2 receiving role, Rodgers is feeling more comfortable in this offense and will continue to feed him and Adams, while using Jones and Jamaal Williams in the receiving game as well.

Green Bay needs to get back to running the football, because that will be the recipe to win the North and make some noise in January. In the Pack's three losses Jones has not reached 40 yards rushing, and he didn't get there last week either. Jones and Williams should both get 20 touches in a game the Pack figures to be playing with the lead.

Aaron Rodgers understands how important it is for the Pack to jump out early and make Washington play from behind, where they need to rely on Haskins' arm. He implored the fans to be loud and crazy early--maybe he figures they've forgotten how to cheer since it's been so long since they've been to a game. He should have probably saved the pleas for next week when the suddenly competent Bears come to town.

The most interesting new dynamic in this game is watching the new returner make his debut. With the Pack jettisoning Tramon Smith and replacing him with Tyler Ervin, they hope they solved their historically dismal return game. Ervin has experience, two years with the Texans and another with the Jags, with nearly 100 punt and kick returns in his resume. He'll try to reverse the Packers' abysmal punt return production, where they have a grand total of -8 yards on nine returns this season. No, that's not a typo. At this point, just hanging on to the ball and not going backwards is all we should ask for.

This two week diversion through the bunny patch can't end soon enough. The Giants and Redskins will tell us nothing about this team. They've been extremely fortunate in the injury department this season, so let's just hope that trend continues and they get set for the final three games with a healthy roster.

Packers 24   Washington 10

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Packer Review

Here you will find my weekly "Packer Review" podcast the morning after each game. 
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Power Rankings

The Baker's Dozen Why 13 and not 10? To celebrate the Pack’s 13 NFL titles, of course. 12/9/19

  1. Baltimore (1)
  2. San Francisco (2)
  3. New Orleans (3)
  4. Kansas City (8)
  5. Seattle (5)
  6. Packers (6)
  7. Minnesota (7)
  8. New England (4)
  9. LA Rams (11)
  10. Tennessee (12)
  11. Buffalo (10)
  12. Houston (9)
  13. Pittsburgh (13)
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