Today is Tuesday, September 8th. In five short days, it will be September 13th. Sunday. Do you know what that means?
Yes, actual meaningful NFL football is back again. All the pointless preseason predictions and fantasy football fallacies (lol, alliteration) can finally come to an end, and the boys start playing games that actually count towards something. Let's have a quick, unscientific breakdown of how Green Bay stacks up to the first
victims opponents of the season: the Chicago Bears.
The game is a complicated one, but it can be easily broken down into four main matchups: one team's rushing offense against the other's defense, one team's passing offense against the other's defense, and vice versa. Special teams, coaching, depth, and weather are all important, but for now, these four areas are the beginning of the buildup towards the opener. Let's get to it, shall we?
CHI rushing vs. GB defense: The obvious place to start is with Chicago's Matt Forte. The 3rd round pick lit the Windy City on fire during his rookie campaign, racking up 1,715 yards on 379 total touches. He had so much involvement, some said that he was the Bears' offense in 2008. And they wouldn't be too far off: Forte accounted for 73% of Chicago's rushing attempts and nearly 35% of his team's offensive yardage, well beyond anyone else in the league.
Forte's detractors say that he's primed for a sophomore slump, citing the dreaded 'Curse of 370' as reason for him to regress in 2009. I personally doubt this theory's application to Forte, and I certainly don't believe that last season's workload will affect him until after Week 10 at the earliest. Forte will be fine.
As far as depth goes, Chicago has little need for a 3rd down back or goal line specialist because Forte fills those roles so well. However, their roster did take a hit when Kevin Jones, formerly a first rounder from Detroit, went down for the year with a torn ankle ligament. Garrette Wolfe (4.6 ypc in 2008) and The Other Adrian Peterson (5.0 ypc in 2008) fill out the running back stable, but neither of them averaged more than 2 carries per game last season.
When blocking is concerned, Chicago boasts an above-average offensive line. Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza are solid run blockers inside, but the decision to start Frank Omiyale over Josh Beekman could be the weak link in the trenches. Orlando Pace is no longer the dominant run blocker he once was, but his 6'7" 325 lb. frame can still move DEs out of the way. Last year's first round pick Chris Williams seems to be healthy for 2009, but the amount of time spent in the trainer's room figures to have hindered his progress. He might be a turnstile, or he might be a brick wall. We have no way to know. Jason McKie and Desmond Clark are decent blockers out of the backfield and on the edge respectively, while Greg Olsen's blocking is not quite there yet.
Against Green Bay's defense, it's hard to predict exactly what will happen. The 3-4 alignment gives much better flexibility when it comes to runs outside the tackles, but the gaps between the NT and DEs might result in open running lanes between the tackles if the ILBs can't disengage from blocks. However, if Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji, and Ryan Pickett penetrate just one or two yards in the backfield, they can short-circuit any rushing attempts the Bears throw at us. When Forte gets to the linebackers, the only real concern is Nick Barnett's ability to make tackles after the long rehab from an ACL tear. Brady Poppinga, Aaron Kampman, Brandon Chillar, and A.J. Hawk are all adept tacklers and will slow down Forte as he makes cuts.
Advantage: Chicago. The 3-4 defense looks great, but doesn't have experience handling a versatile back like Forte or a power run scheme that Chicago employs.
CHI passing vs. GB defense: Jay Cutler made headlines when he complained his way out of Denver. However, Green Bay's defense needs to focus less on his child-like tendencies and more on the cannon growing out of his shoulder. Cutler has developed a nice rapport with TE Greg Olsen, and Matt Forte is always a threat to catch out of the backfield. However, Chicago suffers from a major shortage of proven WRs, as Earl Bennett has 0 career catches and Devin Hester, while greatly improved, is still a burner trying to become a receiver.
Chicago's pass protection is the major question mark coming into the season, as Orlando Pace has too many miles on him while Chris Williams doesn't have enough. Both have the tools to be elite pass protectors, but Pace is getting old and Williams doesn't know how to use them just yet. Will they keep Cutler off his back, or will they be helping him up off the turf? Olin Kreutz will help as much as he can by continuing to be a smart center who makes excellent line calls.
Green Bay's secondary is widely regarded as a top unit in the NFL. Charles Woodson can cover just about anything, and Al Harris has remained a top-flight corner despite his declines in speed and agility. Nick Collins is an excellent athlete playing the deep safety, and Tramon Williams is one of the better nickel corners in the league. Two problems in the secondary are Atari Bigby, who doesn't cover receivers all that well, and depth behind Williams at CB.
The biggest coverage questions, especially against Chicago, lie with the LB corps. Brandon Chillar was a shut-down defender against TEs last season, but his move inside might take him away from that role. Aaron Kampman spent his entire NFL career at DE, so his coverage skills are likely below average right now. Clay Matthews is a decent coverage linebacker, but his hamstring injury hindered his preseason development and pushed Brady Poppinga into the starting job.
Green Bay's best chance to clamp down on the Bears' passing attack is to use the outstanding pass rush they've developed throughout the offseason. Jay Cutler isn't as panicky as Kurt Warner when facing the rush, but he's not Peyton Manning either. If the blitz schemes can force Cutler into hurried decisions, he's liable to force a throw into an area that isn't open. Disguising blitz packages and using stunts will hopefully confuse both Cutler and the offensive line, giving the Bears few opportunities to air it out.
Advantage: Push. If I had to choose, I'd choose Green Bay, but only slightly.
GB rushing vs. CHI defense: Green Bay's rushing attack left much to be desired last season, mainly due to Ryan Grant's snail-like start and a game of musical chairs with the offensive line. However, Mike McCarthy has sought to reverse last year's fortunes in the ground game, which has already looked better in the preseason. By committing to a starting five early on, McCarthy has given the five-some of Clifton, Colledge, Spitz, Sitton, and Barbre a chance to develop a cohesiveness up front that the team has missed for years now. Combined with Ryan Grant's improved health and conditioning and DeShawn Wynn's newfound commitment to the run game, Green Bay should have a competent rushing attack.
Chicago's defense is still formidable, but is showing visible signs of decline. Tommie Harris is unblockable when healthy, but his injuries have made that rarely the case. Adwale Ogunleye has never been a stout run defender, and Alex Brown and Anthony Adams are fringe starters that lack overwhelming size. Lance Briggs is still an outstanding defender, Pisa Tinoisamoa was an excellent pickup from the Rams, and Brian Urlacher looks healthy enough to stall his decline.
Advantage: Chicago. Green Bay needs to show their dominant run game in practice, not just in theory.
GB passing vs. CHI defense: Green Bay's passing attack needs little introduction. Aaron Rodgers has been outstanding in the offseason, and gets to work with a corps of receivers that is the envy of any NFL team not from Arizona. Greg Jennings is recovered from his concussion suffered against the Cardinals, and Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Donald Lee, and Jermichael Finley are all excellent route runners able to produce after the catch.
In the preseason, Green Bay's pass protection has been nothing short of fantastic. Aaron Rodgers was hardly touched throughout the four-week exhibition schedule; he often had more time than he knew what to do with. Chad Clifton is getting up in years, but the coaching staff believes he's got at least one year left in him. Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Josh Sitton are all above-average in pass protection, and Allen Barbre has at least been servicable.
Chicago's secondary is in shambles right now. Gone is Mike Brown, once a terror in the defensive backfield. He is replaced by Kevin Payne, who started all 16 games last year because of injuries. At the other safety is Al Afalava, a rookie out of Oregon. Trumaine McBride and Nathan Vasher are at the corners, but they simply aren't able to cover the likes of Jennings and Driver. Charles Tillman just started practicing on Monday after offseason back surgery. CB Zack Bowman and S Daneal Manning are both struggling with hamstring issues.
To illustrate the Bears' concerns with their pass defense, I turn to ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert:
Can those players [Tillman, Bowman, Manning] possibly be ready to match up against a Packers passing offense that proved laser-sharp at every turn this preseason? (One statistic to chew on: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers averaged 11.3 yards per attempt this preseason, more than any NFL passer with more than 17 attempts.)
To avoid a massacre, Chicago needs to get after Aaron Rodgers. Adwale Ogunleye has the tools of an outstanding pass rusher despite his long-coming decline. Tommie Harris is an outstanding inside rusher. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Pisa Tinoisamoa, and Hunter Hillenmeyer (remember him?) are above-average to great blitzers. Will they be able to take advantage of a developing Packer offensive line?
Advantage: Green Bay by a country mile. Aaron Rodgers was excellent against Chicago last year and has only improved.
Preliminary verdict: It all comes down to the passing game for Green Bay and the running game for Chicago. If Green Bay can't contain Matt Forte, Chicago will be able to control the clock and decide the game. If Chicago can't contain Aaron Rodgers, it's going to be ugly for the Bears. To quote Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald,
In their press release for Sunday night’s nationally televised season opener at Green Bay against the Packers, the Bears list their starting cornerbacks as Trumaine McBride and Nate Vasher on the "unofficial depth chart."
Good thing it’s "unofficial," because if the Bears are forced to line up with McBride and Vasher covering Greg Jennings and Donald Driver all night they’ll lose by 4 touchdowns.
I'm going to avoid making an outright prediction this early in the week, but I'll let the voters do the talking for me.