Three keys for the Bears
Leave with no injuries: Bears coach Lovie Smith continues to say the team will play to win, but remaining healthy is ultimately more important than sweeping the NFC North and gaining momentum for the playoffs. Capturing a victory without putting key players in harm’s way is ideal, but probably unrealistic. So the Bears will likely rest some of the frontline contributors in the second half. Walking out of a Lambeau Field with a loss, and a roster full of healthy players is a better situation for the postseason than winning and leaving with injuries. Smith knows that, and will act accordingly.
Progress on defense: The Bears rank third in opponent passer rating (73.2) when they rush four or fewer, and rank in the top five in forcing interceptions with a four-man pass rush. So the Bears won’t show Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers many exotic looks, but the club needs to apply pressure out of their base 4-3. That’s been a hallmark of the defense this season and needs to continue into the postseason. Chicago finished last week without any sacks, and was torched for 393 yards of offense; a direct result of the lack of pressure. Rodgers isn’t Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Give him time, and he’ll pick a defense apart.
Good decisions from Cutler: The Packers typically trick opponents when they go outside their base defense, and go to looks with five or more defensive backs. It happened last week to Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw four interceptions against those looks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. So Cutler needs to diagnose the wrinkles, read the coverage and make the appropriate throws. Cutler has generated passer ratings of 104.2 or better in four of his last five games, and needs to take that efficiency into the postseason.
Three keys for the Packers
Kick it away from Hester: Packers coach Mike McCartney hasn’t divulged the team’s plans on special teams, but it would be a good idea to keep the ball away from Devin Hester, who is scorching hot right now. Hester caught three punts the first time these teams met, returning one for a 62-yard touchdown. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Bears to decide to rest Hester at some point. But while he’s in there, the Packers need to kick it away from him at all costs.
Protect Rodgers: The Bears didn’t sack Rodgers in the first game between these teams, but they kept him under constant duress, which resulted in plenty of holding penalties, including one that negated a Packers’ touchdown. The key to keeping Rodgers upright lies in neutralizing Julius Peppers, who dominated in the first meeting. By deploying plenty of double tight end formations, the Jets might have provided the blueprint for slowing down the defensive end last week.
Diagnose disguised coverages: The Bears show the Cover 2 shell look most of the time, but that’s merely a disguise because they’ve played quite a bit of single-high safety lately to stop the run. Rodgers needs to recognize that and make the correct throws. When the Bears go into a single-high look, the quarterback can take shots down the field. But when they’re in Cover 2, Rodgers has to be patient and work the ball down the field with crossing routes, slants and outs, and the rest of the offense can’t commit silly penalties like they did in Week 3 when the club was flagged a franchise-record 18 times.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: WEBB VS. MATTHEWS
J’Marcus Webb has struggled some this season, but his problems have been more a result of mental breakdowns and lapses in fundamentals, which can’t occur against Clay Matthews, who leads the Packers with 12 1/2 sacks.
The Packers will look to get Matthews matched up on Webb as often as possible, and Webb needs to rise to the challenge, which would go a long way in keeping Jay Cutler healthy for the playoff run.
Webb appears to be a better pass protector than run blocker at this point in his career. Given his size and athleticism, Webb can become a dominating player if he continues to develop.
BY THE NUMBERS
4,580: Yards from scrimmage for Matt Forte since 2008, which ranks as fifth best in the NFL behind Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson. Forte needs 22 yards rushing against the Packers to reach 1,000 for the second time in his three-year career.
3: Eleven-win seasons for the Bears since 2005, which ties for fifth-best in the NFL in that span.
12,165: Yards passing for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is one of just three players in NFL history to throw for at least 12,000 yards in their first three seasons as a starting quarterback.