UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Expect defenses to dominate in Packers-Bears; 10 things to watch

CHICAGO -- It was minus-14 wind chill here early Friday morning as I took a brief, and perhaps foolish, three-block walk for coffee. Bear weather. Packer weather. And though it won't be this bad Sunday at 2 local time -- 19 degrees, with a wind-chill temperature of about 10, winds gusting up to 12 mph -- it still reinforces my thought about this game: It's not going to be a pointfest, even with two good quarterbacks playing very well.

I was in Green Bay on Thursday, doing some research and interviewing coach Mike McCarthy and others for the game of the generation in these parts. (Bears-Packers for the right to go to the Super Bowl? Bigger than Cubs-Anybody for the right to go to the World Series.) And when I drove into the Lambeau Field parking lot, a fence across the street was painted yellow, with this in big green block letters: IN COACH MCCARTHY WE TRUST. That's good, and smart. But if there were another fence with another sign, I'd suggest this addendum: IN COACH CAPERS WE TRUST TOO. Because I think defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have as much to say about this game -- as will the defensive braintrust for the Bears -- as McCarthy and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

The Chicago defense has been kryptonite to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this year. In 21 possessions (not counting end-of-game kneeldowns), Rodgers has led three touchdown and two field-goal drives. The other 16 have resulted in zero points, including 11 punts and two interceptions. In 16 games this regular and postseason against everyone else, Green Bay has averaged 26.9 points; against the Bears, Packer points per game are half of that: 13.5.

The Bears haven't been any better, scoring 23 points in eight quarters against a Green Bay defense they have struggled to figure out. So I think what we're going to see is not a match between the rising star of the quarterback world, Rodgers, coming off one of the great playoff games we've seen a quarterback play (with no wind, 72 degrees, on the fast rug of the Georgia Dome) facing off against one of the great deep throwers in football, Jay Cutler. No. What we're going to see is a game Curly Lambeau and George Halas would have loved, the kind these two teams have been playing, intermittently, for 90 years. Maybe not quite like the 0-0 tie in 1932 or the 2-0 thriller in '38 or the 6-3 job in '79, but a Monsters of the Midway game.

Biggest reason: Both defenses have the edge in the hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage. The Chicago defensive front has been collapsing offensive lines all season, led by run-stuffing ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and a strong defensive-tackle rotation. (Interesting how the Jets and Bears both have invisible power guys on the line -- Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha for New York, Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton for the Bears -- and all will be big factors this weekend.) And Green Bay's defensive front, maybe not with quite the brute-strength factor, is just as effective in forcing play.

Green Bay had six sacks of the Bears when they met Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field, and the Packers used an effective and odd blitz in that game, and a few more times late in the season. You'll be able to see it on the NFL Matchup show this weekend on ESPN, which will be an essential watch for both games this weekend because of the weird defensive wrinkles all four teams, and their chess-playing coaches, will throw at the opposition.

"It's a delayed blitz by a linebacker, either Eric Walden or Clay Matthews,'' executive producer Greg Cosell, a video maven who has studied the teams, said Friday morning. "One of them stands behind the line, then attacks after the offensive line has sorted out what they're doing. Walden got an 11-yard sack in the last game, and he had [center] Olin Kreutz and [guard] Roberto Garza looking at each other, thinking the other guys should have picked him up. It's been a pretty effective weapon for Green Bay.''

On the other side, Chicago has been able to make Rodgers uncomfortable, rushing up the middle and around the edge, and pushing tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga back too far on occasional. Rodgers looked like a miracle improviser last Saturday at Atlanta, throwing the ball accurately on the run. But you can't make a living throwing 65 or 70 percent as a quarterback when moving. And what will complicate matters for Rodgers on Sunday is not really knowing what he'll see in the Chicago secondary. Instead of playing classic cover-2 in their meeting three weeks ago, the Bears played mostly a single center-fielding safety, either Chris Harris (who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a hip injury, though it appears he'll play Sunday) or Danieal Manning, with the other either playing run-support or sometimes blitzing.

"They're a fast defense, a good defense, a smart defense,'' Green Bay wideout James Jones said Thursday in the Packer locker room.

I have a feeling if I were at Halas Hall on Thursday, I'd have heard the same thing about the Packer D. Get ready for an old-time Butkus-Nitschke game Sunday. I think that's what we'll see.

On Thursday, I went on record and predicted a Steelers-Packers Super Bowl matchup. Here's why.

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago.

It's always suspect to look at a trade and say a team could have had either this guy or these three draft choices. But now that the deal has had some time to breathe, and trusting that Bears GM Jerry Angelo would have navigated through the 2009 and '10 drafts to fill needs the Bears had in each draft, let's take a look.

Chicago traded the 18th and 84th picks in 2009 and the 11th pick in 2010, plus Kyle Orton, for Cutler and a fifth-round pick. With the 18th pick in '09, Chicago could have taken a left tackle of the future, which it didn't have, in Michael Oher, or a pass-rusher, which it lacked, in Clay Matthews. With the 84th pick, it could have taken a receiver (it took one 15 slots later, Juaquin Iglesias) like the one who was taken in that exact spot: Ole Miss speedster Mike Wallace. With the 11th pick in 2010, it could have taken the best guard/center available, either Maurkice Pouncey of Florida or Mike Iupati of Idaho.

We have no idea if those players were high on the Bears draft board, but Chicago sacrificed the rebuilding of the offensive line, at the very least, to trade for Cutler, and it's vital that at some point he prove it was a wise decision. There are very few times in a player's career that he'll have the kind of chance Cutler has now -- playing the conference championship game at home, with the winner, obviously, going to the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' pass-catching line against the Jets:

Matt Toeaina, DT, Chicago (number 75).

Toeaina, another in the long line of Samoan block-of-granite defensive tackles to play important roles in the NFL, came to the NFL from Pago Pago, American Samoa, and the University of Oregon, and he makes up an important part of the rotation at defensive tackle for the Bears. Though he seems like a classic nose-sized player (6-foot-2, 317 pounds), he has the ability to knife through gaps like a top three-technique tackle too. In the last six weeks of the season, he broke through to sack the mobile Mike Vick and Joe Webb. So Aaron Rodgers will surely be aware not only of the threat of the rush when Tommie Harris is on the field, but also when Toeaina, who has started 10 games this year, is in the rotation as well.

1. How the Jets defend the pass. Last week, it was Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie shutting down the outside in man coverage against New England. Will they be able to do the same thing, with little safety help for the outside corners, against the better speed of the young Pittsburgh wideouts?

2. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders. They're rookies, sixth- and third-rounders from Central Michigan and SMU respectively. But you've been watching the games, and you've seen that the Steelers aren't afraid to go to either rookie at any time of the game. Interesting. Last week was Roethlisberger's 14th week practicing with Brown this year, and he didn't look for ol' reliable Hines Ward or his speed-burning sophomore, Mike Wallace. He looked for Brown on the biggest play of the game, third-and-19 in the fourth quarter. That's why the Jets have to respect all the Steelers weapons, not just Ward and Wallace.

3. The Rex Factor. He's going to figure something out. He and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have made their list, checked it twice, and I don't doubt, as he told me Sunday night after stunning the Patriots, that he's turned defending Ben Roethlisberger into a team exercise. Recall his words from MMQB: "We listened to every suggestion known to man about scheme and coverage. When I hire coaches, I want coaches who work with me, not for me. Last week, I challenged every coach. Come up with a plan. Help us find a way. We get help from players too. Jimmy Leonhard [a starting safety now on injured-reserve] even came up with a concept we used involving quarters coverage and a little wrinkle we used. I really leaned on Mike Pettine and [secondary coach] Dennis Thurman to get it all straight. We kept mixing 'em all day. Sometimes we'd play standard stuff, then we'd change up. We probably were more multiple than they'd seen, by anybody.'' But Big Ben does something Tom Brady and Peyton Manning don't do: He looks to run, and he makes plays running. Point. Counterpoint.

4. The Jets, burning their Jets. You wouldn't think a 106-yard rushing game by a team would be something to strive for. But, in part, the Jets won the first game between the teams last month by rushing for 106 yards, which is the best running game any team had on the Steelers all season. New York will try to do it again, obviously, to lessen the pressure on Mark Sanchez.

5. Terry McAulay. The ref in the Bears-Packers game is the same who reffed the first Chicago-Green Bay game this year, the one in which Green Bay was assessed 18 penalties. Eighteen! "Perfect,'' Brian Urlacher said with a smile Thursday. One big, big difference: Postseason crews are all-star crews, so McAulay will have different men with him in this game. But you can bet he'll be on the lookout for those offensive holds.

6. Brett Keisel's beard. It spawned its own Facebook and Twitter pages and I do believe things are growing inside it.

7. Labor. Nothing's happening, really. But we're bound to be thinking of it quite a bit as we watch the first two of the last three games we may be seeing for a long, long time.

8. The Lovie extension. I can't see the Bears not re-signing him, but it's going to be a major topic, win or lose, for Chicago -- how possibly could they consider letting go a coach who took them to the NFC Championship twice in five seasons?

9. Tom Brady's foot. It'll get quite a bit of analysis on the weekend shows, I'm sure, after his surgery to repair a stress fracture there Thursday. But you watched him play against the Jets. You watched him move without limping. I'm not buying that it had anything at all to do with his performance in the 28-21 loss.

10. The legend of Aaron Rodgers. He's going to have to leap tall buildings in a single bound to justify what the smart guys on TV are saying about him. But this is not the defense, or the surface, where you'd figure he'd be Atlanta good again this weekend.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.