On Thursday, the Green Bay Packers face their archrival, the Chicago Bears, for the first time this season. Jeff Berckes of Windy City Gridiron was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Bears and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Brian Hoyer has started four games for the Bears this season, and at least statistically has performed reasonably well. Meanwhile, Jay Cutler did not light the world on fire in either of his two appearances thus far in 2016 and remains on the shelf with a thumb injury. Have we seen the last of Cutler in a Bears uniform, and if not, is the end near?
To be fair to Cutler, he played behind an offensive line that shuffled right before the year started and looked dreadful against two legit defensive fronts in Houston and Philadelphia. Hoyer has been efficient but not particularly effective against some bad defenses. You can throw for all the yards in the world but unless they’re converted into points, you’re not doing it right. Say what you will about Cutler, but he’s willing to risk it for the biscuit.
Hoyer’s efficiency draws a stark contrast to Cutler who is more old-school gunslinger. You’d like to see the positives of both players combined into one quarterback but it’s too late for either of these guys. This year sure is pointing towards a top 5 draft pick and, despite other teams needing a quarterback who are off to a bad start (Browns, Jets, and 49ers), the prospects of a rookie quarterback in 2017 are looking good. Cutler’s contract next season can be severed with little penalty and Ryan Pace can fully put his mark on this team by moving on from the mercurial signal caller. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s brought back as sort of a lame duck until a rookie is ready but if I had to bet a dollar on it, I’d say he’s cut after the draft.
If it were up to me, I’d play Cutler when he’s healthy. He’s more entertaining than Hoyer and unlocks the best offensive player the Bears have in Alshon Jeffery. Without a young quarterback to gain experience on the roster, why not just enjoy the last ride of Jay Cutler? Given his career mark against the Packers, I’m sure I’d get no disagreement from Green Bay.
APC: The Bears have played the entire season without their best pass rusher, Pernell McPhee. How has his absence affected the defense, and when might he return to the field?
Pernell McPhee started the year off on the PUP-list and is eligible to play this week. As of this writing, the Bears have not made the decision whether or not McPhee will play this Thursday. McPhee is the best player on the Bears defense and brings a presence that simply can’t be replaced with anyone on the roster. Lamarr Houston was lost early on to a torn ACL, which further thinned out the OLB group. The return of McPhee will bring a physicality and emotional leadership element that is missing from this defense right now. When McPhee returns, I’d expect the pass rush and the run defense to improve, which can only help reduce pressure on the back end. If nothing else, this team is more entertaining when McPhee is on the field.
APC: As the John Fox-Ryan Pace era nears the midway point of its second season, what has the regime done well and where does it need to improve?
Ryan Pace was brought into a team and tried to make a blockbuster trade to land Marcus Mariota and move on from the Jay Cutler era. He traded away Brandon Marshall due to personality concerns to the Jets. The Jets selected one pick ahead of the Bears in the draft and, no longer needing a WR, took DE Leonard Williams to bolster an already stacked defensive line, robbing the Bears of a centerpiece to rebuild their defense. The Bears gave up on Martellus Bennett, giving him away to the Patriots for a late pick, to help arm the next iteration of the Patriots dynasty with a unique passing threat. He let Matt Forte, probably the best Bears running back since Walter Payton, walk away in free agency to finish his career for the Jets where he’s been as useful as one can expect on that squad. John Fox attracted Adam Gase to Chicago for one season only to be hired away to Miami as their Head Coach. So, I guess the combination has been very good at helping improve AFC East teams.
Best construction on the progress of this rebuild is that they are building depth that’s been lacking for years and are trying to establish an identity. It is obvious at this point that another offseason is needed to continue developing young players and realigning resources to better reflect what that identity will be. Moving on from Jay Cutler, building an effective zone-based running scheme, getting stronger on the defensive line, and adding playmaking talent to the back four are all part of where I see John Fox and Ryan Pace taking this franchise if they’re allowed to continue.
APC: If charged with game planning against the Bears, how would you attack their offense? Their defense?
First, I’d stack the box against Jordan Howard to take away any semblance of a running game. Howard has looked like the real deal early on in his career. With an offensive line that has come together in recent weeks, his emergence has helped Hoyer stay on schedule and convert first downs with short to intermediary throws. Second, I’d sit on the underneath routes and dare Brian Hoyer to beat me deep. Hoyer’s air yards per attempt sit towards the bottom of the league at 3.72. That might not be a problem if the personnel matched a catch and run passing game but the Bears best player is Alshon Jeffery, a jump ball specialist who needs back shoulder fades to be at his best. (Worst fear as a Bears fan is Alshon Jeffery signing with GB in the offseason)
On the other side of the ball, I’d throw deep early and often. Given the Packers lack of depth at running back and Eddie Lacy’s ankle injury, I’d lean on Aaron Rodgers’ ability to make plays and get the ball deep. The secondary is young and inexperienced outside of Tracy Porter and they were victimized by T.Y. Hilton and Andrew Luck two weeks ago. Jordy Nelson should have a big game in this one. This may just be the game Rodgers needs to jump start the offense.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Who do you expect to win on Thursday, and why?
Anyone who takes the Packers and the points on Thursday night will win. There’s this 30-second cell phone video making the rounds of a Bears fan taking on 3 Jaguars fans in a fight outside Soldier Field on Sunday. The Bears fan, predictably, loses that altercation. If we use this as a metaphor, the next 30 seconds of that clip would show a Packers fan kicking him while he’s down followed by a Vikings fan flying off the top rope to finish him off. This team desperately needs a bye week to figure out how to salvage something in this season but will need to get beat up by two division rivals on national television before they get there. This team doesn’t know how to beat bad teams and they certainly aren’t ready to take on anyone better than that. Enjoy the show.
We'd like to thank Jeff and Windy City Gridiron for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Bears. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Thursday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Bears vs. Packers.