Bears-Packers: Nuts and bolts

Here's is a nuts and bolts preview of Sunday's NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

Three keys for the Bears

Run the ball: Establishing Matt Forte and the rushing attack is important for two reasons. First of all it, takes pressure off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who will likely be under a heavy Packers blitz for a good portion of his dropbacks. Secondly, it keeps Green Bay’s red-hot offense off the field, while wearing down its defense. What’s most important for the Bears is to achieve balance between the run and pass. Forte averaged 6.1 yards per carry the last time these teams met, but the Bears pretty much abandoned their running game after handing off to the running back just 15 times.

Make the Packers respect Greg Olsen: By flexing out Olsen as a receiver away from the formation, the Bears might be able to force the Packers to devote a defender to covering him. More than likely the Packers would put Charles Woodson on Olsen, which then would minimize the nickel corner’s potential impact as a slot blitzer. Either way, the Bears need to make Olsen a major part of the game plan because of the matchup problems he creates with his size and athleticism. Olsen has caught five passes in each of Chicago’s games against the Packers in the regular season.

Eliminate big plays and make Rodgers dink and dunk: Aaron Rodgers completed passes to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson for gains of 46, 25, and 21 yards during the Week 17 matchup. That’s too many long gains. The Bears need to limit Rodgers to minimal dink-and-dunk completions, which extend the plays in a scoring drive while upping the chances for drive-killing mistakes such as sacks, penalties and turnovers. By generating pressure with the front four led by Julius Peppers and keeping seven players in coverage, the Bears should be able to force Rodgers to be patient and settle for they give him. If the Bears find a way to do that, the Packers will have a difficult time putting points on the board.

Three keys for the Packers

Pressure Jay Cutler: Green Bay needs to take full advantage of its ferocious defensive front and ball-hawking secondary by putting plenty of pressure on Cutler, who is susceptible to making questionable decisions when flustered by the rush. Green Bay’s myriad nickel blitzes and multiple fronts typically create confusion in the protection schemes of offensive lines. Given all the struggles the Bears have experienced up front, that would seem to be an ideal formula. The Packers sacked Cutler nine times in two meetings during the regular season. Tack on some additional sacks, and the Packers can increase their chances of walking away victorious.

Establish James Starks: Brandon Jackson gained just 12 yards on seven attempts in the Week 3 meeting between the teams. Starks rushed for just 20 yards on five carries in the Week 17 matchup in which the Packers leaned heavily on the passing game. By establishing Starks, the Packers can prevent Chicago from forcing them to be one dimensional. Then, Green Bay would have the Bears on the ropes because they’d be forced to devote a member of their already-average secondary to run support. In addition, the threat of Starks as a runner would help the Packers to establish play-action and bootleg passes that would get Rodgers on the move, where he’s most dangerous.

Minimize Julius Peppers' impact: Packers left tackle Chad Clifton performed well against Peppers in the Week 17 finale, limiting the defensive end to four tackles and no sacks. In fact, Peppers hasn’t sacked Rodgers in either of the Bears’ meetings against the Packers. So the team’s success against the Peppers needs to continue if it wants to prevent the defensive end from being a potential game-changing disruptive force. Given Peppers’ struggles against Clifton in the last matchup, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the defensive end line up over rookie Bryan Bulaga, who was called for two holding penalties in the regular-season finale trying to block Israel Idonije.

Matchup to watch: Packers punter Tim Masthay vs. Bears punt returner Devin Hester

The Packers punted eight times in the last meeting between the teams, but Hester was able to return just two of them (for 35 yards) because of a masterful job of directional punting by Masthay.

Masthay knows he won’t be able to get off booming punts in the frigid air at Soldier Field, but considers placement more important than distance when kicking to Hester, the game’s most dynamic return man.

By the numbers

158: Total playoff games played between the 46 Bears on the 53-man roster who have postseason experience. Nineteen Bears made their postseason debut last week against the Seahawks.

.632: Chicago’s winning percentage in home playoff games. The Bears are 3-1 in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field.

18: Passes broken up by the Bears defensive line, which ties for third in the NFL. Six of the team’s 21 interceptions during the regular season came as a result of defensive linemen (Peppers 2, Idonije 2, Henry Melton and Tommie Harris) deflecting passes.

21: Quarterback hits recorded by the Packers in the postseason. Matthews leads the team with six.

26: Postseason berths for Green Bay, which has made the playoffs in 13 of the last 18 seasons, and three of the last four years under coach Mike McCarthy.