When Aaron Rodgers is on, he's pretty tough to stop.
That's not exactly breaking news. What the Chicago Bears found out all over again in their 55-14 embarrassment of a loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night is that when Rodgers is on to the level he was in this game, stopping him isn't even a thought. The best you can do is to batten down the hatches and hope he doesn't break any longstanding league records against you. Rodgers hit five different targets for six total passing touchdowns in the first half alone, and it would have been a lot worse had the Pack not smartly decided to pull him, knowing that Rodgers could do far more for them as the season goes along without any needless injury. The score was 42-0 after Rodgers' sixth touchdown with 14 seconds left in the half, and anything of import the Bears did in the second half was all in garbage time. Rodgers gave way to Matt Flynn early in the third quarter, finishing his day with 18 completions in 27 attempts for 315 yards, no sacks and no turnovers. In a career that will eventually land him in the Hall of Fame at this pace, it was perhaps Rodgers' most impressive game.
"We just got things going early, hit a rollout, and hit a couple of busts in coverage as well," Rodgers told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. "The line did a good job of giving me time to extend plays and look down the field. [Receiver] Jordy [Nelson] made a couple of nice catches, and [running back] Eddie [Lacy], you throw a pass for three yards and it turns into a 60-yard touchdown. Guys made plays, the defense did a good job and it's a good win for us. We did a good job of putting extra time in, refocusing on the bye week, and we had a good performance."
The bye week came after a 44-23 loss to the Saints on Oct. 26 in which Rodgers threw for 418 yards, but had just one touchdown pass to two interceptions. This Rodgers, the one who took nearly every opportunity and turned it into points, is one of the NFL's most dangerous individuals and he makes the 6-3 Packers an estimable foe down the stretch.
Here are three thoughts from Sunday's rout.
1. Green Bay's commitment to formation diversity is paying off.
Remember early this season, when the Packers seemed stuck in an endless array of three-wide sets and any defense could figure them out? Not anymore. Ever since Aaron Rodgers told us all to "R-E-L-A-X" in late September, the Pack has been decidedly back on the offensive pace, and it was obviously no different against the Bears' reeling defense. Rodgers threw six touchdown passes in the first half, matching a professional football record first set by Daryle Lamonica of the AFL's Oakland Raiders in 1969, and he did it in a lot of different ways. The first touchdown to tight end Brandon Bostick came out of a power set from the Chicago one-yard line. Bostick ran a cross from right to left, and rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller got caught looking in the backfield. Then, tight end Andrew Quarless caught a four-yard touchdown out of another run set, at which point it was time for Rodgers to get the ball to his more explosive targets.
Two touchdowns to Nelson came off embarrassing coverage breakdowns by the Bear. Safeties Chris Conte and Ryan Mundy were completely out of place, respectively, on zone handoffs, but there was an offset I formation with twins slot right on the first Nelson score, and a nice little tight end crosser on the second. The 56-yard touchdown screen from Rodgers to Lacy is worth watching over and over, because you will rarely see offensive linemen break off from the formation and block downfield this well, and with this much choreography.
Then, Randall Cobb took things into his own hands (literally) with an amazing one-handed touchdown catch late in the second quarter.
Yes, you saw amazing athletes making great plays, but you also saw everything from wide formations to full house backfields, and that, as much as anything, is the trademark of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy: true and effective formation diversity that sets defenses on their heels.
2. Clay Matthews is a pretty good inside linebacker, as well.
Since he was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft out of USC, Matthews has been one of the league's best pass-rushers as an outside linebacker in Dom Capers' flexible-scheme defenses. But Sunday night marked the first time that the intent was for Matthews to kick inside on a majority of snaps, a move made real by injuries suffered by the team through the season. It's not always easy for players to switch positions like that, but Matthews used his athleticism and power to make a real difference as an inside defender. He wasn't strong enough to take guards on one-on-one, but he moved through gaps with impressive abandon, and dropped into coverage very well (this has been an underrated attribute of his since his rookie season). In the end, playing inside and outside. Matthews finishe 11 total tackles, nine solo tackles, a sack, another sack that was taken off the board due to a penalty, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and several hurries and coverage stops. It was a bravura performance for an inside linebacker who has played the position for 10 years, never mind how Matthews had to come to it.
"To be completely honest, I didn't know if I was going to go tonight," he told Tafoya after the game. "To take an outside linebacker -- a pass-rusher -- and put him in the middle, it's two completely different worlds. But at the end of the day, you've got to be a ballhawk and get after it, and that's what I did. I had freedom in playing the defense today, and it paid off."
Matthews did get advice on the position from father Clay II, who played outside and inside linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons from 1978 through 1996. But it was up to the son to make a go of this with just a bye week to prepare, and what resulted was one of the more impressive single-game defensive performances of the entire season.
3. Chicago's days of defensive dominance are well and truly over.
From Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary and Buddy Ryan to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Lovie Smith, the Bears have spent decades living up to their "Monsters of the Midway" nickname with impressive consistency. Smith was fired as the Bears' head coach following the 2012 season despite several seasons of great defense, and it's taken new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker less than two seasons to part that history out and make it all seem like a distant memory. With a few stark exceptions, the Bears' defense of today is passive, unexceptional, unspectacular and alarmingly easy to exploit. Rodgers was able to tear this defense apart just as Tom Brady did in Chicago's last game, because Tucker doesn't do much in the way of disguises, effective blitzes and varied coverage concepts. That was just as true in Chicago's 51-23 loss on Sept. 24 as it was on Sunday night, and despite a free-fall of free-agent spending in the offseason and a focus in the draft, this Bears team clearly lacks the overall talent and cohesion to make Tucker's limited schemes go. The result? A disaster from start to finish.
The good news for the Bears is that they're not the only NFL team to allow more than 50 points in consecutive games. The bad news? The last team to perform that ignoble feat was the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons. And that is not the kind of NFL history you want to be associated with.