Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is still basking in the glory of one of the greatest playoff performances in the history of the world. Only 5 of his 36 passes hit the turf against Atlanta, and he complied 366 yards and 4 TDs (1 rushing) against the number-one seeded Falcons…on their home field.
The performance impressed Mike Ditka enough that he proclaimed on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown it was “the best individual playoff performance” he’d seen in his 50+ years around football. That’s high praise coming from a Hall of Famer who gained legendary status making life miserable for the Packers as a player and coach.
So while Rodgers assumes Mike Vick’s place as the league’s “IT” player of the moment, you’ll have to forgive Lovie Smith and his defensive players if they’re not shaking in their jockstraps at the thought of facing A-Rod.
Rodgers’ impressive numbers in Atlanta came against a mediocre defense in a setting protected from the outdoor elements. As recently as two weeks ago, Lovie’s boys made ‘the Chosen One’ look mortal in a low-scoring game on Rodgers’ home field. The Pack only managed 10 points and Rodgers had as many INTs and TDs (uno).
There’s no reason to believe Brian Urlacher and his mates won’t have similar success on Sunday. Here’s why…
1) The Bears’ defensive scheme
The Bears’ Cover-2 defense will force Rodgers to be patient, and big plays will be hard to come by. Safeties Chris Harris, Danieal Manning and Major Wright will help on deep coverage, diminishing the explosive potential of Mike McCarthy’s outside receiving threats – Jennings, Driver, Jones and Nelson.
And without the threat of injured TE Jermichael Finley, who he had at his disposal in his earlier trip to Soldier Field, Rodgers loses that fast, big body that can outrun Urlacher to the deep middle of the field. That will free up #54 to help on underneath routes and in run support, where his athleticism is almost like having a third-safety on the field at all times.
While the Bears played hard (and to win) in their regular season finale against a desperate Pack team fighting for a playoff berth, they didn’t show their entire defensive hand. Yet they still managed to corral the high-scoring Green Bay offense.
With his familiarity of the opponent, look for Lovie to stick to the scheme but make enough tweaks (like blitzes, mixed man-to-man coverages) to force Rodgers and Co. into driving the length of the field.
2) Lack of running game
The Bears lead the NFC in rushing defense, allowing only 90 yards per game. So Rodgers won’t have the benefit of a productive run game. Instead, the responsibility of beating the ‘underdog’ Bears will rest almost entirely on his right arm.
While Packers rookie James Starks (whom the Bears nearly drafted last year) had a 100-yard rushing day against the Eagles, he’ll be lucky to halve that yardage against the Bears.
None of the Packers’ RBs averages anywhere close to 4 yards per carry. While Mike McCarthy will stay dedicated to running attempts, yards will be hard to come by on the ground.
The Seahawks, with their more impressive trio of running backs – including Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington and Justin Forsett – were held to a combined 20 rushing yards. Of course, falling behind by 21 points in the 1st half didn’t help their cause either.
Making the Packers offense one dimensional will allow Lovie the luxury of having 1) his defensive backfield sit in their zones, 2) free up the D-line to rush Rodgers and 3) bring occasional blitz pressure from the middle (Urlacher, Lance Briggs) or the outside (from nickelback DJ Moore).
3) Poor field conditions
The playing surface at Soldier Field will be drastically different than anything the Packers have seen this year…and that includes the sod they played on in Chicago back in September. Cold temps (early forecast calls for the 10s with no precip) and a chewed-up turf will make life miserable for Packers wide receivers.
One little stumble by Jennings and crew could be the difference between a Packers first down or a turnover. The Bears on the other hand, have played on the league’s worst field for the last month.
With two playoff road wins this year and 10 TD tosses in his first 3 postseason games (including last year’s high-scoring loss to the Cardinals), Rodgers is quickly approaching the upper echelon of NFL QBs. I think he’s surpassed Rivers and Brees and only has to look upward at Brady, Peyton and Big (Turdbag) Ben.
But come Sunday in Chicago, some old friends in blue and orange are eager to make him look like Average Joe.