With the game this week rapidly approaching, we thought it might be time to bring up some things that we'll be keeping an eye on this weekend. Every phase of the game is going to be important, and it's going to take an impressive effort for both teams to stand out against one another.
1. Chicago's Kickoff Return Production - Kickoff return will be a big key. While it's easier to try and pin the opponent back on punts (which is exactly what the Packers did in Week 17, holding Hester to 34 yards returning), it's hard to do so on a kickoff. If you kick it out of bounds, you give them great field position. Kick it directly to Devin Hester, and he'll do his damnedest to make you pay. Kick the high short kick and try to run under the coverage, he may blow past you.
In a perfect world, the Bears would only see the Packers kickoff once. Since that's not likely, the field position they can get from kickoffs will be crucial to their success. The Bears have shown throughout the season that long, sustained drives don't come as easily for them as a few boom-boom-boom plays will.
2. The discipline of Green Bay's Secondary - They are good. There's no dancing around that fact. That said, they do have some vulnerabilities, particularly when the linebackers cheat up on the line. Tramon Williams has been their defensive hero the past few weeks, and with good reason. He's got three playoff interceptions. He's got good eyes, good hands, and quickness to jump routes, but that's the key--he will jump a route, counting on his safety help. With well designed plays that give the safety something to think about other than coming over to help the corners, you can catch them off guard enough to perhaps get the big play.
His interception return against the Falcons came in a situation where the Falcons, with the ball late in the first half, were at the 52-yard field goal range. They wanted to run one more play, get out of bounds, and set Bryant up about 10 yards closer. Since the Falcons have #84, and everyone knows the ball is going to #84, Williams jumps the out route that White runs, and heads virtually uncontested to the end zone. This is the kind of the play that Jay Cutler absolutely cannot make this weekend if the Bears want to be successful.
Let's go back to the linebackers cheating up. When they're either disguising or blitzing, it can sometimes create a soft middle area where solid crossing receivers or mismatched tight ends can have a lot of success in the mid-deep area. This is a place that I think Greg Olsen can own in the afternoon, provided Cutler's accuracy keeps him from overthrowing into the safety coverage.
3. The Bears need to get a running game going early. - In their Week 17 matchup, Forte, Taylor, and Cutler combined for 110 yards on 20 attempts rushing. For those doing the math at home, that's 5.5 yards/attempt. Since then, the Packers allowed 78 yards to the Eagles, and 43 yards to the Falcons (approximately 4 yards/carry.)
Look for the Packers to try and seal that up, to get Jay Cutler throwing early and often. This is where the Bears need to stay disciplined--as long as they don't get down early, they should be able to get 25-30 rushing attempts into the game. If they can get there, there's a good chance that Forte can make something happen against the Packers defense.
4. Get to Rodgers - He's got the legs to do it, and if the Bears drop too far back into coverage, he'll make first downs running. The defensive line needs to step up the pressure early and get upfield, without losing too much containment of the gaps. If the ends over pursue, Rodgers can step up into the gap and make you pay by foot or by arm. If you can get a few sacks or a lot of hits on him, even better. He's calm, he's cool, he's collected, but he'll still have problems if he thinks he's going to get his lunch money taken.
5. Pick up your blitz assignments - Dom Capers is notoriously good at dissecting opposing offenses, and you can expect a lot of different blitz looks coming on Sunday. Jay Cutler's known to get a little squirrelly once he sees some pressure, and you can expect to see Matthews and Woodson coming around that edge, possibly trying to exploit Webb's rookie status. It'll be a big day for the big kid at right tackle.
What are your keys to the game? Post them up in the comments below, and I'll feature the best ones in a column this weekend before the game Sunday.