Breaking down Sunday's Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers game (8:20 p.m., NBC)...
1. The offensive lines: They'll make or break these two teams. Name three offenses that you expect to have grown significantly from 2008. I'd go with these two teams plus Buffalo. Now consider that all three of those teams are experiencing overhauls along the offensive line. Nothing stymies offensive growth like a leaky line, so I could be way off on my picks in the end.
In terms of offensive line change, the Bills are in a league of their own (a new player at every position, two rookie guards and they just cut their starting left tackle), but the Packers and Bears each have three players new to their position, including a few guys who won their jobs by a whisker. Add that up and things could get interesting for Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. (Counterpoint: Cutler had the same situation in Denver last year and he statistically did just fine.)
Neither quarterback was sacked in the preseason, which looks great on paper, but preseason statistics rarely tell the whole story. Against Denver in the Kill Cutler Bowl, Cutler's zero sacks just as easily could have been four or five. Left tackle Orlando Pace, who sometimes looks 25 and sometimes looks 45 these days, should have been whistled for a hold in the end zone that saved another. And against Buffalo, Cutler took the type of head-on face shot that would send most QBs scurrying to the bench.
Rodgers, meanwhile, kept his clean sheet using his feet, including two nifty scrambles against the Cardinals. But he's shown fragility issues in the past, so don't expect him to make a habit out of scrambling. Also consider the number of deep balls Green Bay threw in the preseason. Rodgers chucked three 40-plus yard balls in the first half against Arizona alone. He'll need time to complete those in the regular season and I'm just not convinced this line can always give it to him. How these two lines fare this week against feisty defenses should tell you plenty about each team's offensive prospects down the line.
2. NFC North, meet the 3-4 defense. With the Packers moving to a 3-4 system this offseason, the number of NFL teams running a base 3-4 jumps to nine. (I don't count the 49ers, who go halfsies; some 3-4 and some 4-3.) The Bears played none of those teams last year, which speaks largely to the Packers' justification for the change: unfamiliarity. Chicago's most recent run-ins with the 3-4 came early in 2007 -- Week 1 at San Diego and Week 3 against Dallas. And over those two games the baffled Bears combined for just 13 points and 441 total yards, including 77.5 yards per game on the ground.
The Bears did get a glimpse of the 3-4 against Denver this preseason, and for their first two series they looked absolutely perplexed. (Main offender: Pace, who routinely got burnt by pass rushing outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil.) The Bears went three-and-out in their first two series while Cutler was routinely abused.
With some exceptions, Green Bay's 3-4 was relatively successful this preseason, forcing a Bears-like 12 turnovers in their first three games before drawing none against Tennessee.
The advantage is clearly Green Bay's -- to a certain extent. They know the system. Chicago has to learn it. The Bears face 3-4 base defenses five times this season and how they handle the Packers' could be telling of their season to come.
3. Keep an eye on the Aaron Kampman-Chris Williams matchup. On one hand you have Kampman, a career defensive end with 50.5 sacks in seven years. He suggested in the preseason that he was doing just fine having moved to left outside linebacker as part of Green Bay's switch to the 3-4. But he never said he enjoyed it. Or that he was thriving in it, or anything like that. And I'm seeing why.
I observed Kampman on every single play during the Packers' preseason Week 3 tilt at Arizona (he, like most of Green Bay's starters, played only one half), and I see a guy who's still feeling his way around the position. In the end Kampman registered just one tackle, which was really a pile-on; and he returned a loose ball for a touchdown, which he gets little credit for. He was well blocked on the play and got lucky by being in the right place at the right time.
My simple assessment: Kampman doesn't look comfortable without his hand on the ground and he loses leverage when he's back on his heels. In one instance it caused him to whiff on a 20-yard Beanie Wells touchdown run. I saw him get blocked to the ground by a tight end twice, too. And he's a serious liability in coverage. (Enter Greg Olsen and Matt Forte.) On the upside, he still makes a great effort to get involved in running plays, fighting across the line, but that's not entirely his job. If Kampman plays every game like this in 2009, you have to consider that a huge strike against Green Bay's switch to 3-4. How do you justify sacrificing his average of 12 sacks over the past three seasons?
On the other side of the ball you have Bears right tackle Chris Williams, a first-round pick in '08 (14th overall). Williams sat out almost all of his rookie season with a back injury, leading Chicago to scuttle its plans of Williams at left tackle. He'll ease his way into the line at right tackle and slide left when Pace retires, probably in 2010 or so. He played adequately in the preseason. I never saw any kind of mean streak in him, but overall he got the job done.
Now he faces a serious test in Kampman, new position or not. If Williams isn't ready to be an NFL contributor, it'll stand out Sunday night. If Kampman has a grasp on the position, we should see it clearly.
4. Mismatch of the week: Green Bay's receivers versus Chicago's secondary. A few figures to chew on: Green Bay's first-string offense had 13 preseason possessions. They managed at least a field goal attempt on all but two of them, and one of those two remaining drives died on downs at the Buffalo Bills' 15. They scored nine touchdowns, six of them in the air. And two of those passing scores went for more than 50 yards. So, that's where all the excitement about Green Bay's offense originates.
On the opposite side, Chicago's backfield is a work in progress and, realistically, a potential disaster. One cornerback, Charles Tillman, sat out the entire preseason following back surgery. Tillman might return this week (he says he's 50-50), but would Chicago really start a guy that cold? The other corner, Nathan Vasher, is in danger of losing his job, so poor has his performance been thus far. The safety situation is even worse. Danieal Manning should be the free safety, but his hamstring could prevent it. Kevin Payne looks to be the strong safety, but he could easily be supplanted by a rookie sixth-round pick, Al Afalava. It's hard to get excited about Chicago's prospects on passing downs. That provides a smooth transition to...
Every week, I'll lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 1 matchup:
Aaron Rodgers -- Fact: Thirteen quarterbacks notched at least 200 passing yards against Chicago last year. Rodgers could do 400 and it wouldn't shock me.
Greg Olsen -- Packer-killer has two TDs in four games against Green Bay. When he draws Kampman in coverage, look out.
Donald Driver -- This 34-year-old is barely holding off his competition for the second receiver spot. He averages fewer than 60 yards over 13 starts against Chicago, with just two career TDs.
Ryan Grant -- The Bears' interior was impenetrable in '08; and then they hired line coach Rod Marinelli, who's being deemed a savior.
Shockingly, the Lovie Smith-Mike McCarthy era hasn't exactly been chock full of closely fought Bears-Packers games. Average margin of victory: 19.5 points. But I expect this one to be akin to last year's Week 16 thriller, which Chicago won 20-17 on the right hand of defensive end Alex Brown, who blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation.
Look for Rodgers to test the Bears' suspect secondary with some deep looks early. Whether Chicago's defensive line has actually been rejuvenated by Marinelli -- or not -- will determine Rodgers' ability to get those balls off. Without physical evidence of any renaissance, call me a doubter. I'm calling for a few early Green Bay passing scores, setting up Ryan Grant to do what he does best: grind through the middle. Cutler will keep the Bears in it, but I like Green Bay in the end. Packers 27, Bears 20.