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Packers-Bears: 5 things to watch

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Nov 03 2013 09:40:59 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 04 2013 12:51:12 AM CST

The Packers and Bears are meeting for the 187th time Monday night, the longest rivalry in league history.

Packers-Bears: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (5-2) vs. the Chicago Bears (4-3).

The time:  7:40 p.m. CST Monday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage:  ESPN. WISN (Ch. 12 in Milwaukee) and WBAY (Ch. 2 in Green Bay) will simulcast the ESPN broadcast on their over-the-air stations in accordance with NFL rules in home TV markets.

The announcers: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 85-44 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Chicago’s Marc Trestman is 4-3 in his first season as coach of the Bears and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Bears lead the all-time regular-season series, 91-87-6 but the Packers hold a 32-22 edge in games played in Green Bay. The Packers have won six straight and eight of the last nine meetings, including playoffs.

The rankings: The Packers’ second-ranked offense is No. 3 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense is No. 4 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Bears’ 10th-ranked offense is No. 14 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their 27th-ranked defense is No. 25 against the run and No. 27 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 10 1/2 points.

The injury report: Packers – Out: TE Jermichael Finley (neck), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb). Doubtful:  OLB Nick Perry (foot). Questionable: WR James Jones (knee). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (hamstring), TE Ryan Taylor (knee), CB Sam Shields (toes). Bears – Out:  LB Lance Briggs (shoulder), QB Jay Cutler (groin). Questionable:  WR Joe Anderson (abdomen). Probable: CB Charles Tillman (knee), S Major Wright (knee), LB Blake Costanzo (knee).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Peanut allergy:  As the week was drawing to a close, Tillman was asked a series of questions about Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. First, the Bears cornerback was asked about Rodgers’ ability to throw the back-shoulder pass and if it was his toughest throw to defend.

“Hell, every pass he throws is hard to defend, just because he’s that good,” Tillman replied. “He’s got a lot of precision in his arm.”

Then, Tillman was asked if Rodgers was the best at the back-shoulder, which Tillman worked on defending during practice throughout the week.

“(Expletive), he’s the best …” Tillman replied, then changing the cuss word before continuing. “Shoot, he’s the best at a lot of throws.”

Call it a mutual admiration society, because Rodgers raved about the man they call “Peanut” during his radio show last week, too. And the biggest concern for Rodgers and his receivers when it comes to Tillman is not just his ability to cover or intercept passes, but the way he forces fumbles, too. Even as he battles a knee injury, Tillman is as good as it gets at taking the football away. According to research done by ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky, since his 2003 NFL debut, Tillman has forced 41 fumbles. Only Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis, with 43, has more during that stretch. And of the top 12 in that category, only Tillman isn’t a defensive end or outside linebacker, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That means that unlike Mathis and the others, Tillman doesn’t get the bulk of his fumbles by sacking an unsuspecting quarterback.

So far this season, James Jones is the only Packers receiver to lose a fumble, and he did it when he was reaching for the pylon on a would-be touchdown against Washington in Week 2. But with two relatively inexperienced wide receivers in second-year man Jarrett Boykin and rookie Myles White filling in for Jones and Randall Cobb, Tillman has new targets to go after. Even if Jones, who’s listed as questionable, plays, it’s unlikely he’ll play every offensive snap. That means the young guys better be wary.

“He’s a Pro Bowl corner, experienced veteran, savvy veteran, ball hawk. He’s an attention-to-detail type player,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said of Tillman: “You’ve got to always have some awareness about him certainly from a ball-security standpoint. He does an outstanding job – (he’s) one of the best in the business at causing turnovers, causing fumbles. So you’ve got to have some awareness about that.”

Center of attention: There was a time when Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith’s game was brute force and nastiness. Now, while he’s still got an edge and all kinds of strength, he’s become more of a thinking-man’s center. Watch him during the game Monday night and you’ll see him pointing out oncoming rushers and making crucial line adjustments in concert with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After starting the last two regular-season games and both playoff games last year in the wake of veteran Jeff Saturday’s benching, Dietrich-Smith has taken his game to new heights this season in the first seven games

“Evan’s done a hell of a job, man. He’s always been athletic and strong; he just wasn’t able to have the mental part of the game down four years ago or whatever it was,” Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton said. “And these past two years, he’s taken over mentally and taken over the whole mental part of the thing for the offensive line. I was just saying now when I have a question about another team, I go and ask Evan. It’s his job as a center to be right 100 percent of the time and always know what the other team is doing, and he’s done that. And like I said, he’s big and strong and fast and athletic, so I knew all he needed was the mental part. He’s playing real good football for us.”

But it’s not just what Dietrich-Smith has between the ears that’s given the line a lift. He also is a tone-setter with his style of play.

“He’s more of a physical presence in there (this year),” offensive line coach James Campen said. “He gets under people, plays with a good base, does a very good job with that. He’s a tempo guy. He’s a younger guy that can get to the line, set everything up, get us moving. So, I think he brings a lot of energy.”

Testing, testing:  The conversation began with cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt and a handful of reporters asking him about the competition in his room, where he might have five starting caliber cornerbacks – Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Davon House, Casey Hayward and rookie Micah Hyde – but a maximum of four cornerback spots when the team goes to its dime (six DBs) package. What happened instead was Whitt gave the writers a taste of what his guys go through every week to get ready. On Fridays – or, in this case, on Saturday because of the Monday game – he administers a weekly three-page test on which his guys must prove their knowledge of the game plan and the opponent’s scheme.

According to several cornerbacks, the test entails eight to 10 questions about the upcoming opponent’s tendencies on the first page; 20 questions where players must match opponent formations with the defensive play call on the second page; and eight to 10 questions on coverage combinations on the third page.

“I actually call it a pre-test because the real test is the game,” Whitt said.

This week’s test was actually taken orally as a group, but as Whitt points out, the unit’s biggest test will come against oversized, ultra-talented Bears receivers – 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall and 6-foot-3 Alshon Jeffery.

“The tests do matter,” Whitt said. “If they don’t do well on that test, and it’s close between two guys [for playing time], the guy that does better will be the one that plays.”

That’ll be the question on Monday night, and McCarthy admitted that there’s some intense competition going on for the nod to play.

“They’re probably not the happiest bunch, but that’s good,” McCarthy said. “Conflict is good and competition and the fact that you can’t play everybody 50, 60 snaps. You want that throughout your whole team. I think it’s a great credit to our personnel department, Joe Whitt and his development of those guys, and more importantly the players. They’re doing a heck of a job competing each and every practice to make sure they’re the ones that are playing on Sundays, and we’re going to play the hot guy.”

Backup plan:  Last week, Dom Capers found out midway through Wednesday’s practice that the Minnesota Vikings would be starting Christian Ponder instead of announced starter Josh Freeman at quarterback. This week, the Bears tried to play it coy with Cutler’s status, but with a groin injury that is expected to cause him to miss a month, it was no surprise when he was officially ruled out on Saturday.

That means the Bears will go with 34-year-old backup Josh McCown. The Packers have faced him twice before – in a 38-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and in a 35-21 victory over the Bears in 2011 – so they have some idea what to expect.

Then again, with the Bears coming off a bye week, McCarthy is expecting the unexpected.

“We’re in an unscouted-look mindset with the Bears (coming off) a bye week, and obviously with us coming off a Sunday night game,” McCarthy said. “They’ve had an opportunity to step away and prepare a little longer for this game. Those are the kind of things we’re looking at. As far as the quarterbacks, you look at the video that’s available. I don’t think it’s going to change their offensive approach or their style of play based on who plays quarterback. But, hey, that’s why you play the game. We’ll see what happens.”

Capers wasn’t as focused on the quarterback change as he was on the entire offense being altered under Trestman, who replaced defensive-minded Lovie Smith as head coach. The Bears not only renovated their offense but their offensive line, where only center Roberto Garza remains from last year.

“They’re certainly a totally different offense than what we’ve played against,” Capers said. “They’ve remade their offensive line. I think Garza is the only guy who played last year. They’ve got two rookies over there on the one side of their line (right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills). And they have two free-agent guys (left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson) that they brought in on the other side. They’ve got the two big receivers and Marshall and Jeffery. We’ve always felt that (running back Matt) Forte is one of those guys that you can’t ever relax on. He’s had a 50- and a 55-yard run. Very smooth; one of the best receiving backs, I think, in the league. That’s the challenge.”

Inside job:  McCarthy didn’t want to tip off the Bears on his plans at inside linebacker this week, but with Brad Jones set to return from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him since Oct. 6, the Packers have some decisions to make alongside A.J. Hawk. That’s because fill-in starter Jamari Lattimore has been quite good, notching 25 tackles and two sacks since taking over at the position after both Jones and primary backup Robert Francois (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) were lost against Detroit that day.

While McCarthy wasn’t hinting at anything, Capers came right out and said that Lattimore will play. It sounds like Jones will play and could start, but Lattimore will play – it’s just unclear in what role. On Monday, Capers had said that Lattimore’s play merited continued playing time – according to Pro Football Focus, which gave him positive grades on all three of his starts, Lattimore also has two quarterback hurries and only two missed tackles in his 148 snaps – and it appears he’ll get it.

“It’ll be interesting to see. When a guy has missed as much time as Brad, you want to try to work him back in and not overwork him because the key is to keep him out there and keep him working,” Capers said. “We’re happy to have Brad back. He brings experience, he’s a very good communicator, and we’ll just have to monitor where he is in terms of how many plays and all those things.

“We’ve been really pleased with the way Jamari’s played. The key is with Brad is he’s missed quite a bit of time here. So we’ll work Brad in, we’ve got to monitor his reps, make sure we don’t overwork him as his first game back, but I know he’s excited to get out there and play. You’ll see Jamari at times because he’s certainly played well enough to warrant getting some time.”

For his part, Lattimore said whatever the coaches decide is fine with him – and he actually seemed to mean what he said.

“I approach every week like I have been, as a starter or non-starter – just go out and do my job, read my keys, fix my flaws and just try to get better,” Lattimore said. “At the end of the day, that’s the coaches’ decision, not mine. I feel like you can never go enough. I don’t like to talk about that kind of stuff. I just play. That’s for other people to judge it.”

THE PREDICTION

The Bears will get no sympathy for their injuries from the Packers – “We’ve been decimated by injuries, too,” Sitton responded when a reporter brought up the Bears’ issues during the week – but the big difference is that the Packers haven’t lost their star quarterback. It’s hard to picture the Bears generating much offense without Cutler, even with Marshall and Jeffery at McCown’s disposal. The guess here is that the Bears find a way to score a few points and then add more in garbage time. Without Lance Briggs on their already struggling defense, though, it seems the Packers offense is in position for a big night. Perhaps it’ll be different in the rematch in Chicago in a couple months. Packers 31, Bears 20. (Season record: 7-0)

– Jason Wilde

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