As Sunday quickly approaches, many Packers fans are eager to witness a similar beat down their team gave the Bears on two occasions last season. While the gap in overall team talent remains rather wide, a new regime in Chicago led by former Denver head coach John Fox is breathing fresh life into an otherwise humiliated roster.
Green Bay may still be a heavy favorite in this matchup, but the new coaching staff could very well surprise some people in 2015. Remember, Fox led the Broncos to division titles in each of his four seasons there. With this in mind, here are some things to keep an eye on come Sunday afternoon.
Yes, this unit did finish 30th in total defense a year ago. And yes, Aaron Rodgers did throw ten touchdowns with zero interceptions in two games against them. But that was also under head coach Marc Trestman's watch, or lack thereof. Trestman, known as an offensive guru, was too wrapped up in the headache that is Jay Cutler to put much of an emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
Enter John Fox, whose defense in Denver was third overall in total yards in 2014. Granted that roster gave him much more to work with compared to what he has now, but this Bears unit can only go up from here. I am not trying to say Rodgers is going to get shut down, but I don't expect the same dominance we all so thoroughly enjoyed last year. Which leads me to my next point...
Packers' passing attack
This is what I am looking forward to watching the most. We all know by now Jordy Nelson is lost for the season. Is Davante Adams ready to fill in and break out in his second season? He has received high praise from his peers throughout OTAs and training camp, even being named the offseason MVP by head coach Mike McCarthy.
New top target Randall Cobb is still being held back by the shoulder injury he suffered in the team's third preseason game. While he has vowed to play on Sunday, one must wonder how often Rodgers will look his way. The other unknown is the workload newly re-acquired receiver James Jones will be given. The advantage he has over other options like Ty Montgomery or Jeff Janis is an already-established trust with Rodgers. While some new variations have been installed in the offense in the year he was gone, McCarthy has been impressed with his progression in such a short amount of time.
Safety Morgan Burnett has not practiced all week with a calf injury, putting his status for Sunday into serious question. Should he be unable to go, the next man up will likely be Micah Hyde. Here lies the uncertainty. While Hyde is mainly used as the nickel cornerback, where will he line up when defensive coordinator Dom Capers goes with that package? If he stays at safety, one possibility is bringing in starting corner Casey Hayward in from the outside. Hayward has done most of his damage in the slot throughout his career, including intercepting six passes in his rookie season in 2012. In order for this situation to play out, the coaches must have enough trust in one of their three rookie corners to play on the outside (first rounder Damarious Randall, second rounder Quinten Rollins or undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter). Another possibility is leaving Hayward on the outside to let a rookie play the slot. Either way, a rookie would be heavily relied on.
Anther option is to leave Hyde in his nickel slot and bring in another safety. That would be either Sean Richardson or Chris Banjo. Neither one, however, has extensive defensive experience in a game. While both are key special teams contributors, it is yet to be seen how effective they can be on the defensive side of the ball.
Packers' Return Game
A big reason rookie Ty Montgomery was selected in the third round was for his skills as a return man. While special teams coach Ron Zook has slated him as the top guy on kick returns, Montgomery did not see as much time on the punt return unit during the preseason. Part of that could be due to a fear of overworking him with his extensive playing time on offense. We can only wait and see who the coaches decide to catch punts, but Montgomery is here for a reason.
There are a few different things that will factor in to how the coaching staff decides to utilize their options at linebacker. The first is the health of inside starter Sam Barrington. He has been limited all week with an ankle injury and his status for Sunday is up in the air.
The next thing to consider is how to effectively use Clay Matthews. Will they stick with the same strategy from the second half of last year, pushing him inside on run plays and back outside on passing downs? If Barrington cannot go, he may very well be lining up exclusively inside. Also, who would start beside him? Nate Palmer has been next man up throughout camp, but rookie Jake Ryan could be another option.
Lastly, it will be interesting to see what kind of snap count Julius Peppers will be put on. It has been a topic of conversation this offseason, with the thought process being more rest will lead to more impact plays.
No matter how it shakes out, it appears there will be a lot of snaps on the outside for either Mike Neal, Nick Perry, or both. It's about time for one of them to show their worth, and this game should provide the opportunity.