History not only lets a person treasure the past, it lets them measure it.
The NFL’s oldest rivalry reaches a notable milestone this Sunday. It’s the 200th meeting between the Bears and Packers, the cornerstones of the football world. These respective franchises have had many classic battles over the years since their respective inceptions. Moments borne out of bitter hostility and hatred for a common enemy. Touchstones of revered sportsmanship and solemn respect bringing out the best of humanity in a sporting context. It’s fitting they get to mark the occasion of a fight that will never end with a number that provides proper context to a thoughtful past.
Chicago is fighting for its playoff life, hanging on by the thinnest of threads. Relevance has been restored in Green Bay, albeit in a tenuous sense. A Bears-Packers game in December where both teams have a winning record and have something to play for. Fireworks and drama are sure to follow.
To get a better perspective on the Packers entering this match-up, Jason B. Hirschhorn of Acme Packing Company was kind enough to let me interview him about a team that seems to be more good than great.
1. The Packers are 10-3, the first time they’ve won at least 10 games in three years. They’re currently in line for the NFC’s No. 2 seed. By some accounts, it’s a team that can make a deep January run. Yet the sentiment one can glean from not only some of the Green Bay faithful, but some involved directly with the organization, is that they’re leaving a lot to be desired. What can you speak to that underlying frustration, and how would you evaluate the Packers’ play over three months into the season?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: While the Packers have managed to play at a very high level on offense and defense over the course of the season, they have yet to do both simultaneously for an extended stretch. The Packers offense began the season slow as I’m sure your readers recall from Week 1’s performance against the Bears. Meanwhile, the defense looked like one of the best units in the league, generating pressure and turnovers at top-5 rates.
After the first quarter of the season, the Packers offense found a groove, with Aaron Rodgers delivering vintage performances against the Eagles, Cowboys, and Raiders, the last of which earned a “perfect” passer rating. However, outside of the Oakland game, Green Bay’s defense displayed significant regression, keeping the opponents within striking distance until the final moments.
Since then, both units have continued to fluctuate. It no longer appears that the Packers will have a dominant defense at any point the rest of the season, and while the offense probably can hit the high marks again, it doesn’t seem likely to do so consistently enough for a long playoff run.
2. There was a lot of off-season discussion concerning how a younger head coach such as Matt LaFleur would ingratiate himself to an established star such as Aaron Rodgers. Aside from reports of a potential “disconnect,” how has LaFleur and Rodgers’ relationship progressed since that early turbulence? Where have the two been able to find a common ground? And what can LaFleur’s work with Rodgers and the offense say about his efforts with the rest of the roster?
JBH: None of us covering the team can say with confidence what Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur’s relationship is or isn’t at this stage. The Packers have won a lot of games this season, and that would help the rapport between any quarterback and coach, but we don’t actually know enough about the two yet to make a definitive declaration.
As for your question about common ground, that too is difficult to say. It doesn’t appear that the Packers offense perfectly mirrors what LaFleur has run at previous stops, nor does it appear exactly as it did during the McCarthy era. That suggests some level of compromise, though it could also relate to the personnel in Green Bay relative to other LaFleur teams. Green Bay’s primary weapons on offense are Davante Adams and Aaron Jones with little other skill-position talent standing out. That likely has forced LaFleur to adjust his plans.
3. A holdover from the Mike McCarthy era, Mike Pettine is in his second year as Packers defensive coordinator. Aside from a blazing start, Pettine’s defense has struggled. Not only are the Packers 20th in defensive DVOA, they’re 22nd in total yards per game allowed, and 18th in third down defense. Perhaps the only place Pettine’s unit can hang its hat on is that it’s been relatively adept at keeping opponents out of the end zone: Green Bay is 7th in red zone defense, and 13th in opponent scoring. Why have the Packers failed to field a consistent defense, and how much of their issues are to blame to Pettine? Is Green Bay’s defense that much of a liability given that the team is on the precipice of a guaranteed home playoff game?
JBH: Mike Pettine certainly bears some of the blame for how the defense has regressed over the course of the season. While the unit still generates pressure at a fairly high rate -- 33.9 percent, fourth highest in the NFL -- it really hasn’t thrived in any area other than the ones you’ve mentioned. Pettine has blitzed less in 2019 than in the past, but that hasn’t resulted in markedly better coverage or a high turnover rate after the first half of the season. Perhaps Pettine feels he cannot or should not play more aggressively, but his approach hasn’t worked well of late.
The Packers need the defense to improve it they hope to make a long playoff run. As mentioned earlier, the offense probably cannot reach its apex every week, and while it can win them any particular game, it likely won’t win enough games to reach the Super Bowl.
4. Who is one player on both the Packers’ offense and defense that’s emerged as a difference maker this season that may also be lesser-known to more casual observers? How have they helped buoy their respective units?
JBH: Offensively, Elgton Jenkins has already established himself as one of the premier pass-protecting guards in the league and a valuable run blocker. Offensive linemen rarely garner notice outside of big mistakes, but he has played as well as anyone on the Packers offense this season. Jenkins has yet to allow a sack and has a pressure rate of just 3.6 percent. The Bears’ best bet is to try to attack another part of Green Bay’s offensive line, most likely Billy Turner who struggled against them in Week 1.
On the other side of the ball, safety Ibraheim Campbell has taken on a larger role since returning from the physically unable to perform list earlier this season. The Packers have played him as an off-ball linebacker on passing downs, filling the void created by Raven Greene’s ankle injury.
5. There’s no need to beat around the bush any longer. Who wins on Sunday, and why?
JBH: I think the Packers take this one. While the Bears looked as good the last few weeks as they have all year, Green Bay has home-field advantage and the carrot of possibly clinching a playoff berth this week in its favor.
Robert takes an anxious comfort in Bears-Packers being one of the rare (only?) world institutions that has managed to hold up well over the last century.
Follow Jason on Twitter @by_JBH. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.
You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.