The Packers concluded their Obsessive Aaron Rodgers Watch yesterday, and as Brett was kind enough to post, he will return this weekend, playing the role of white knight in shining green/gold/cheesehead armor. Plenty of people reacted as though that sealed things up for Green Bay. I might be a bit biased; I do write a Bears blog, after all. And if this was the 2010 Green Bay Packers, I might feel that way. But that team had a legitimately good defense, as did last year’s Packer squad. Both were top-10 by Football Outsiders Defensive Efficiency metric. This year? Not the same story. And that defense just lost Clay Matthews.
Beyond their regression on defense, expecting Aaron Rodgers to step in and play up to his full potential (on the road in potentially difficult conditions) is a lot to ask, even for a player of his caliber. He might get Randall Cobb back, which could be another boost for the Packers. But if you’re asking me to pick which offense I’d expect to perform better on Sunday, I’d take the Bears. Rodgers has essentially missed eight weeks, and though he’s “practiced” for two weeks now (according to Mike McCarthy) that is still a very long lay-off to overcome. A fractured clavicle also seems like a difficult injury to deal with as a quarterback; it was his non-throwing shoulder, but it’s more of a core injury than anything, and throwing a football requires movement in the off-arm as well. (I just pantomimed a throwing motion, in case you were wondering.)
It’s also a tough injury to protect. You can’t exactly put a cast on it, or add extra padding. Nor can he protect himself from re-injury should he be sacked, hit, or otherwise knocked to the ground. (I’m not going to advocate anything overly dirty, but I think we might see Rodgers on the receiving end of the slightly late, two-handed shoves to the chest that Cutler takes every week.) I’m assuming that the first hits he takes in the game will be the first contact he’s experienced since he was originally injured. If the Bears can rattle him physically, is there any guarantee he’ll play at a higher level than Matt Flynn would have?
Aaron Rodgers is a great player. Before he was injured against the Bears, the Packers moved the ball 71 yards on 6 plays. Chicago’s defense is quite poor; I don’t think they’ll be as bad as they were against Philadelphia, but that’s only because of how extraordinarily poor they were against the Eagles. It was so bad I have a hard time envisioning a repeat performance. But that doesn’t mean I think they’ll play well.
The silver lining for the Bears? I don’t think Green Bay’s defense will play well, either. They’ve allowed 74 points ovr their last 2 games. The Bears picked them apart for 442 yards the first time around, with Josh McCown under center and Clay Matthews out; 171 of those came on the ground. Green Bay ran for 199, of course. Eddie Lacy is expected to play despite missing practice, and he very well might have another big game. I think this weekend will likely be another high-scoring affair. The over/under is currently 53; I’d take the over, assuming the weather isn’t catastrophically bad.
Why do I have such faith in the offense, despite Jay Cutler’s well-chronicled struggles against Green Bay? Well, it’s pretty simple, and Jay Cutler feels the same way: they weren’t as good on offense in those years. As Adam Hoge notes in that story, Cutler’s been sacked 30 times against the Packers, including 11 times over two losses last season. (Remember his confrontation with J’Marcus Webb last year, as the offensive line gave up seven sacks? Remember how J’Marcus Webb was the starting left tackle last year? Or have you successfully blocked those painful memories?) McCown was only sacked once in November’s victory. This Bears offense is built to handle the sort of pressure that has troubled Cutler against Green Bay; this post from ESPN Chicago’s Michael C. Wright (using numbers provided by ESPN Stats & Info) notes that “the Packers have sent five or more 43 percent of the time on first down on Cutler, while the rest of the league tried that tactic just 29 percent of the time.”
How have the Bears handled that pressure? From the same post: “Cutler has completed 49 percent of his throws for one TD and eight interceptions when Green Bay sends five or more pass-rushers over the past five years.” That’s not good, and there were many factors at play, Cutler’s performance included. But lack of anything resembling competent offensive line play jumps out, of course. How about the receiving talent? Devin Hester, Roy Williams, Johnny Knox, Dane Sanzenbacher, Kellen Davis…who exactly was Cutler supposed to use as a safety valve? Not to mention the people calling plays, from Mike Martz’s “no audibles allowed” approach (seriously) to Mike Tice’s “(unintelligible grunting)” efforts, there was very little support on the sideline. Until this season, Jay Cutler was asked to lead an offense that was the polar opposite of quarterback friendly, and he suffered for it.
Things are different now. This is a terrific offense, and not just by Chicago standards. An improving offensive line (that rates far better in terms of pass protection than run blocking), a sparkling collection of skill players, and a coaching staff that gets it. It’s no surprise that Cutler has played much better this year. He’s 8th in ESPN’s Total QBR, which is not adjusted for opponent. (Josh McCown is 1st, despite playing a softer schedule; his numbers still speak to the offense’s improvement.) That is not a metric that has been kind to Cutler in the past. His ranking over his Chicago career, going backwards to 2009: 21st, 16th, 22nd, 20th. He was 4th with Denver in 2008, the last time he played on a competent offense. This season, he ranks ahead of names like Brady, Luck, Wilson, Romo, Newton, and Stafford. We’ve seen quite an offensive improvement this season, and let’s remember that it’s just the first year. It stands to reason that things could get even better, and that’s one big reason why I’ve advocated for Cutler’s return.
This Sunday’s game is a big one, obviously. It’s essentially the first round of the playoffs, but it’s going to be treated as so much more than if the Bears simply had to beat the Vikings. This is your stereotypical “BIG GAME”: biggest rival coming to town, national television, a returning Aaron Rodgers, the potential for snow, an expiring contract for the home team’s quarterback. The praise or criticism for Cutler (and to a lesser extent, Rodgers) is going to be massively amplified, and some are going to use it as a referendum on whether he should be re-signed this offseason. I’m certainly not going to go that far, and I highly doubt anyone in the Bears front office will either.
It will, however, be a very important part of an overall evaluation. With the Lions imploding yet again, it’s obvious that the Packers are the true benchmark in the NFC North, and how the Bears stack up relative to the Packers, both now and going forward, will have a large impact on Chicago’s success. The two teams have had mirroring seasons, in many ways: starting quarterbacks missing significant amounts of time, rosters ravaged by injuries, quality offenses being counterbalanced by struggling defenses. It’s poetic that they’d meet with the division on the line. And whoever wins will have certainly earned their title, having overcome fairly significant obstacles en route to the playoffs.
I really do think Jay Cutler will play well.
I don’t know if that will be enough for the Bears to win.
But I hope they do.