The Chicago Bears weren't able to stay with the Green Bay Packers' powerful offense in last season's two matchups between the NFC North members. Based on the initial returns of their first effort of the 2012 campaign, keeping the pace doesn't appear to be as much of an issue.
Coming off a very impressive debut, the Bears bring their revamped passing attack into Lambeau Field for a Thursday night showdown between the storied rivals, a game which already carries considerable importance for the Packers even at this early stage.
Aiming to become a more high-powered offense, Chicago general manager Phil Emery wasted no time in attempting to achieve that goal by acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade with Miami at the onset of this past offseason. It was a move both bold and somewhat risky as well, as the physically imposing three-time Pro Bowl selection is a proven producer but came with plenty of baggage stemming from a host of off-field problems.
Emery's maneuver certainly paid some immediate dividends to start, however, as Marshall erupted for 119 yards and a touchdown on nine catches to help ignite a prolific aerial outburst that propelled Chicago to a 41-21 season-opening rout of the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, reunited with Marshall after a successful three-year period between the two in Denver from 2006-08, overcame a rough beginning to put up 333 passing yards and a pair of touchdown throws, while rookie Alshon Jeffery -- another big-bodied receiver brought into the fold during the spring -- tallied 80 yards and a score on three catches in a strong debut.
Chicago finished the afternoon with 428 total yards in delivering its highest scoring output in a Week 1 contest since a 41-31 triumph over Cleveland in 1986. The 41 points were also the Bears' most in a single contest since the 2009 season.
"You have Alshon catching touchdowns, (slot receiver) Earl (Bennett) catching 60-70 yards, (running back) Matt Forte, (wideout) Devin Hester. So we have a lot of weapons," said Cutler. "You (the defense) kind of have to pick what you're going to do."
The Packers have often been in that same situation, as no team in the NFL was better at lighting up the scoreboard last year. Green Bay generated a league- best and franchise-record 560 points in amassing a stellar 15-1 record last season, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns to claim his first career NFL Most Valuable Player Award.
Green Bay hardly resembled its 2011 juggernaut in its first outing of the new season, however, with a ferocious San Francisco defense rendering Rodgers and his mates largely ineffective in pinning a notice-serving 30-22 loss on the Packers this past Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The Packers mustered only seven points and 204 total yards over the first three quarters in having a 13-game home winning streak during the regular season come to an end.
Chicago wasn't as successful in its two attempts to slow down Green Bay's multi-layered passing game last year, however. The Packers scored 62 points in a pair of 2011 wins over the Bears, with Rodgers compiling eight touchdown passes in those tilts.
The star signal-caller may be without one of his best assets, though, with dangerous wide receiver Greg Jennings questionable for Thursday's test after straining his groin against the 49ers.
With a loss putting the reigning NFC North champions at a two-game deficit to Chicago in the division standings, the Packers will have a heightened sense of urgency to defend their home turf this week.
"It's going to be another tough game," Green Bay defensive back Charles Woodson stated. "That's a team that's gotten better over the offseason. They had a tough game [Sunday] and they won. They'll come in feeling good about what they've accomplished the first game of the season."
Bears lead 91-83-6
Streak: Packers have won last three meetings 2011 Meetings: Packers 27, Bears 17 (Sept. 25 at Chicago) Packers 35, Bears 21 (Dec. 25 at Green Bay)
Bears HC Lovie Smith vs. Packers: 8-9 Packers HC Mike McCarthy vs. Bears: 8-5 Smith vs. McCarthy Head-to-Head: McCarthy leads, 8-5
Notes: This is the longest and most extensively played series in NFL history, dating back to 1921. Counting a 21-14 verdict at Soldier Field in the 2010 NFC Championship, Packers have bested the Bears four consecutive times and prevailed in six of the last seven bouts between the longtime foes, with Chicago's lone win over that span a 20-17 home decision in Week 3 of the 2010 season. Bears have lost in four straight visits to Lambeau Field since a 27-20 victory on Oct. 7, 2007. The teams have squared off twice in postseason play, with the Bears downing the Pack by a 33-14 count in Chicago in a 1941 NFL Playoff.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
Chicago: 6th overall (428.0 ypg), 14th rushing (114.0 ypg), 3rd passing (314.0 ypg), 3rd scoring (41.0 ppg)
Green Bay: 19th overall (324.0 ypg), tied 26th rushing (45.0 ypg), 11th passing (279.0 ypg), tied 18th scoring (22.0 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
Chicago: 18th overall (356.0 ypg), 8th rushing (63.0 ypg), 26th passing (293.0 ypg), 13th scoring (21.0 ppg)
Green Bay: 21st overall (377.0 ypg), 31st rushing (186.0 ypg), 6th passing (191.0 ypg), tied 23rd scoring (30.0 ppg)
Chicago: +4 (5 takeaways, 1 giveaway) Green Bay: -1 (0 takeaways, 1 giveaway)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Chicago: 66.7 percent (6 possessions, 4 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 7th overall Green Bay: 100.0 percent (2 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 1st overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Chicago: 50.0 percent (4 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 11th overall Green Bay: 100.0 percent (2 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 27th overall
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The additions of Marshall (9 receptions, 115 yards, 1 TD last week) and Jeffery (3 receptions, 80 yards, 1 TD) appear to have given Chicago far more balance on an offense that was too often reliant on versatile running back Matt Forte (80 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) a year ago, not to mention a better chance of survival if Thursday's game becomes a shootout. Cutler (333 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) will be striving to get the ball into all three playmakers' hands as much as possible, as he illustrated by targeting Marshall a whopping 15 times against the Colts, but must be careful in choosing his spots. The Packers led the NFL with 31 interceptions in 2011 and have picked off Chicago's strong-armed quarterback five times in Cutler's last three appearances in this series, in which he's managed only two touchdown passes. Giving Green Bay a healthy dose of Forte and backfield sidekick Michael Bush (42 rushing yards), who plowed in a pair of short scoring runs in last week's win, could help counter Cutler's tendency for turnovers at times. The Packers rendered Forte a non-factor as a runner in last year's first meeting, with the Pro Bowl back mustering a paltry two yards on nine attempts, but Chicago rolled up 199 yards on the ground in giving Green Bay a game at Lambeau Field back in December, and neither Cutler nor Forte were active that night.
Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Tice may indeed lean heavily on his talented duo of running backs this week, if for no reason other than to limit the impact of Packers pass-rushing terror Clay Matthews. The energetic outside linebacker was continually camped in the San Francisco backfield in the opener, recording 2 1/2 sacks of Niners quarterback Alex Smith and receiving credit for four hurries. While defensive architect Dom Capers' unit was able to mount steady pressure, controlling the ground game was a major problem on Sunday. The 49ers gashed Green Bay for 186 rushing yards and an average of nearly six yards per carry as the defense clearly missed the presence of valued inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, out for all of 2012 after tearing his hamstring in the preseason. Replacement D.J. Smith (9 tackles) really struggled in his tackling and containment, with counterpart A.J. Hawk doing his best to compensate by netting a game-high 14 tackles. San Francisco also took advantage of Woodson's shift to safety in the Packers' base alignment, with elevated starting cornerback Jarrett Bush (4 tackles) picked on frequently on the day. He could be replaced in the lineup on Thursday if promising second-year man Davon House can be cleared to go after missing Week 1 with a dislocated shoulder. Woodson (5 tackles) did pick up 1 1/2 sacks as a blitzer out of the slot in nickel looks, a tactic Capers may employ repeatedly against the Bears to help protect his suspect secondary.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
It would be a major surprise if the Packers don't stick to the plan that worked so well in last year's two wins over Chicago, a blueprint that involves spreading the field with a deep cast of receivers and taking advantage of the superior marksmanship of Rodgers (303 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), who completed better than 68 percent of his throws during his banner 2011 campaign and had a spectacular 73.1 percent (29-of-67) success rate against the Bears. The possible absence of Jennings (5 receptions) could hinder that strategy, but there's still more than enough quality options at the ultra-efficient quarterback's disposal. Big-play wideout Jordy Nelson (5 receptions, 64 yards) toasted the Bears for 115 yards and two touchdowns on six catches in Green Bay's Christmas night win, while athletic tight end Jermichael Finley (7 receptions) hauled in three scoring grabs during last September's victory in Chicago while finishing with 85 yards on seven receptions. James Jones (4 receptions, 1 TD) was on the other end of two Rodgers touchdown strikes while subbing for an injured Jennings in the teams' most recent meeting, and emerging youngster Randall Cobb came away with nine catches for 77 yards out of the slot last week while adding a 75-yard punt return score. The Packers don't run the ball much and abandoned that aspect after falling way behind against the 49ers, but former Bear Cedric Benson (18 rushing yards) is capable enough to at least keep his old team honest on the defensive end.
While Chicago's veteran defense does a good job of preventing the big play, it's still liable to be picked apart by Rodgers if it's not forcing the issue up front. It's therefore critical to the Bears' chances for success that the end rotation of Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and rookie specialist Shea McClellin combine with disruptive tackle Henry Melton (5 tackles) to routinely get in the Green Bay triggerman's face and cause him to speed up the decision- making process. Melton was a force in the Indianapolis win, notching two sacks and making three stops for losses. Compounding the matter is the health status of Charles Tillman, the team's best cornerback, as well as stalwart middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Tillman exited Sunday's contest with a shin injury and is a question mark for this week, and although backup Kelvin Hayden (7 tackles, 1 INT) has plenty of game experience, he still quantifies as a drop- off in ability in a matchup where the Bears will need all hands on deck. Urlacher will play, but how much and at what level is unclear as the perennial Pro Bowler continues to deal with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee. If Tillman can't go, another big game out of opposite-side starter Tim Jennings (4 tackles) would be a huge boost for the Bears. The diminutive cornerback intercepted Colts rookie Andrew Luck twice on Sunday and registered four pass breakups.
Green Bay's offense has yet to hit its stride even going back to the preseason, and with the Bears appearing to now have the firepower necessary to go toe-to-toe with the league's top scoring teams, the time is clearly now for Rodgers and company to step it up and reach their usual standards of excellence. Fortunately for the Packers, they know full well what they'll be getting from out of a Chicago defense that isn't fancy, or as formidable as the take-no-prisoners San Francisco outfit that stymied Green Bay last week. Marshall and Forte will be hard to handle for a Packers stop unit that's still somewhat of a work in progress, but odds are Rodgers will come closer to showcasing his MVP form against a familiar opponent. He's also the less likely of these two quarterbacks to commit a pivotal turnover that could loom large to the outcome of what should be a close and exciting contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Bears 24