Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
09 Oct 2007
by Ned Macey
The balance of power changes quickly in the NFL. One season after the Bears went to the Super Bowl, they were underdogs against a Packers team that has missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Through two quarters, the deterioration of the Bears seemed accelerated. In one brilliant defensive half, the Bears recaptured their 2006 magic and saved their season. The Packers, meanwhile, showed that they may have trouble dealing with success, as they lack an offense that can effectively run out the clock.
The first half was about as one-sided as a 17-7 first half can be. The Packers marched up and down the field at will against the supposedly stout Chicago defense. Even the much-maligned Packers' ground attack appeared ready for Sunday Night Football. Rookie DeShawn Wynn and journeyman Vernand Morency totaled 102 yards on 13 first half carries. The Packers only punted one time on six first half possessions, undone by two lost fumbles by rookie wide receiver James Jones. Those two fumbles, both forced by Charles Tillman, kept the Bears in the game and saved them from a fourth loss in five contests.
The Packers were clearly the better team in the first half, but they played too conservative in the second half and were dominated by the Bears defense. The Packers ran on five of their first six and on nine of the first 11 second half plays. Even when they returned to the pass, they kept everything short. Brett Favre did not attempt a second half pass of 15 yards until the penultimate play of the game. Before the desperation last drive, Favre did not throw a second half pass to his best receiver, Donald Driver. Seven of his ten attempts during this time went to running backs or tight ends.
In no small part, the Bears defense deserves credit for this play. The defensive line began to dominate. Lance Briggs was everywhere, and Brian Urlacher made a crucial interception. At the same time, the Packers were clearly burdened by a lack of sustainable running attack. The early running success was largely a result of surprise, as the Bears had linebackers dropping into coverage and defensive ends rushing upfield. Once it became clear that the Packers were trying to run the ball, the Bears adjusted and eliminated the big runs. Nine second half runs netted a total of 19 yards.
This game was the first the Packers played where they held a lead they needed to sustain. Previous wins were all in doubt into the fourth quarter. Even their one blowout, over the Giants, did not get out of hand until late in the fourth quarter.
The Packers offense is pass-heavy, but they have a quarterback who will make the occasional mistake. Favre's ill-timed interception in this game was extremely costly. Nursing a big lead, the temptation is to pull in Favre and attack on the ground. Neither of those options proved successful on Sunday. The Packers should stick with their game plan, which involves high percentage passes down the middle of the field that should keep the clock moving anyway.
Favre's interceptions are the price you pay for the rest of his high-quality play. The Packers should continue to stress ball security with Favre, but they cannot be afraid of their own quarterback. He is still the best player on their offense.
The Bears offense, meanwhile, continued to struggle, but Brian Griese limited his mistakes, made a few big plays, and avoided the pass rush. The Bears, in particular Cedric Benson, continued to struggle on the ground, leaving the game to be decided by Griese's right arm. Griese's role as savior is an odd position for such a journeyman. The second half showed the reason for such a pronouncement. Mere competent quarterback play can be enough when the Bears dominate on defense and special teams.
In Griese's first game, a disastrous loss to Detroit, he forced passes and held the ball too long in the pocket. On Sunday, he still threw a costly interception when the game was tied, but committing only one turnover is an improvement. More importantly, he made a couple of big throws that were supposedly beyond his ability. On three separate plays, he hit a tight end down the field for big gains. The most important was a 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Greg Olsen that brought the Bears within three points late in the third quarter.
Finally, Griese was facing a decent pass rush from the Packers and was only sacked two times. One of Griese's primary weaknesses has been his tendency to hold the ball too long in the pocket. He was sacked six times against Detroit in his first start. For his career, Griese has taken well over two sacks per game when he has started. One of Rex Grossman's few strengths is his willingness to throw the ball away and avoid the sack. Grossman was probably too eager to get rid of the ball, but his willingness protected an aging offensive line who can struggle against speed rushers.
Fortunately for Chicago, the Packers have deemphasized Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in order to shore up their run defense. The run defense is much improved, but the Packers are not as successful rushing the passer as they were in years past.
Griese's success, however limited, highlighted a major weakness for the Packers defense. Standout defensive backs Al Harris and Charles Woodson cover the outside of the field, but the safeties and linebackers struggle at times in coverage. The Bears exploited this with tight ends Olsen and Desmond Clark. Other teams have had similar success by bringing primary targets across the middle. For Chicago, their starting receivers generally line up outside, but they proved effective clearing Harris from the sideline to open up space for the tight ends.
For Green Bay, the pass defense is becoming a certifiable weakness. They have great faith in their corners and play a great deal of man-to-man coverage. The problem is that while the starting corners are good, the rest of the defense is not up to the task. The Packers will see more and more receivers on the field against them, and they do not have the personnel to contain them. They will then be forced to drop safeties back into coverage, leaving them susceptible to the run.
These nitpickings aside, the 2007 Packers are a much more complete team than the 2007 Bears, and nothing in Green Bay on Sunday goes to disprove the notion. The Packers had 154 more yards of total offense, but the turnovers killed them. The Bears were fortunate to recover all three fumbles they forced, including an acrobatic recovery by punter Brad Maynard. The Packers also committed 12 penalties, including one that kept alive the Bears' first touchdown drive.
Finally, the Packers dodged Devin Hester but did so at an extreme cost. Kicker Mason Crosby had four meaningful kickoffs, and he always kept his kickoffs short. As a result, the Bears started on at least the 30-yard line each kick and three times started outside the 35-yard line. Only once did Chicago score with the advantageous field position, but the other three times they were able to flip field position and pin the Packers inside their own 25-yard line. Meanwhile, the Packers only reached the 30-yard line on one of their six kickoff returns. Due to penalties, they twice started inside their own 20-yard line.
The end result of conservative play-calling, bad fumble recovery luck, penalties, and poor special teams play was a seven-point win by Chicago. Even the most ardent Bears fan would admit that this game was somehow "stolen." Of course, a week ago, the Bears made many of the same mishaps and somehow let the Lions escape with a win. Certainly, it is better to be on the victorious side in a stolen game.
The better news than the all-important win is that the Bears appeared to recapture their formula of dominant defense and stout special teams in the second half. The Bears dominated the line of scrimmage and disrupted any rhythm that the Packers hoped to maintain. Favre's lack of time in the pocket and open receivers downfield certainly contributed to his conservative decisions. The ill-timed interception was the result of a pass rush that forced Favre out of the pocket, where he is less comfortable.
These two teams are scheduled to meet again in Week 16. Whether or not that game has playoff implications likely depends on whether or not the Bears really have recaptured their 2006 form on defense. If the league-average unit that has appeared all season until the second half on Sunday is the real Bears defense, then the Bears will continue to disappoint. Brian Griese is serviceable as a quarterback, and he should continue to improve as he becomes more comfortable. Still, the Bears offense is broken and will not be able to pull its weight this season.
For Green Bay, this game was oddly reassuring. Despite the loss, they maintain a two game lead over the Bears in the division, and they showed their first signs of life in the running game. No offense to the 3-2 Lions, but at this point, the Bears appear to be the only other legitimate threat to win the division.
The Packers' one weakness, pass defense against multiple-receiver sets, is likely one that will not be exploited in the coming weeks. They face a series of teams in the coming weeks that normally excel on the ground. Washington, Denver, Kansas City, Minnesota, and Carolina would all prefer to run the ball, and the Packers should win at least three of those games. At that point, they should be 7-3 and able to coast into the NFC playoffs. Chicago showed that the NFC North would not be a runaway. Their comeback the rest of the season, however, will be even more difficult then the rally they staged on Sunday.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
54 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2007, 12:26am by Andrew