Analysis  

 

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: Keys to NFC North bout

The Green Bay Packers host the rival Chicago Bears on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network). This is a pivotal early-season matchup in the NFC North. The Packers (0-1) are coming off a disheartening home loss to the San Francisco 49ers -- Green Bay's second straight loss at Lambeau Field, going back to last season's playoff loss to the New York Giants -- so they will certainly come in motivated to rectify the mistakes they made in Week 1. With the Bears (1-0) looking to seize an early edge in a competitive division, this game will feature a playoff-like atmosphere.

Here are four keys to a scintillating midweek showdown:

1) The Packers must slow down Chicago's revamped offense.

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The Bears underwent an extensive offensive makeover in the offseason and now appear to have one of the NFL's most explosive attacks. Jay Cutler looks like an MVP candidate throwing to new wideouts Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the bruising running-back combination of Matt Forte and Michael Bush is as formidable as any in the game today. In Mike Tice's debut as Bears offensive coordinator last Sunday, Chicago rolled up 428 total yards of offense, cruising to a 41-21 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Meanwhile, the Packers were manhandled by San Francisco in Week 1. Green Bay's defensive front seven was overpowered at the point of attack, while the secondary was victimized by big plays due to communication issues. In addition, the unit tackled poorly and couldn't get off the field in critical situations. Against a newly diverse Chicago offense, the Packers' defense must win on first down and create long-yardage situations for Cutler and Co. If Green Bay can force the Bears into a one-dimensional approach, the Pack can use exotic blitzes, with Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson coming off the edges, to create negative plays and turnovers.

2) Cedric Benson needs to add balance to the Packers' offense.

The Packers scooped up Benson in mid-August to add a steady veteran contributor to the backfield. The eighth-year pro has tallied three straight 1,000-yard seasons and compiled 12 100-yard games during that span. But he was a non-factor in his Packers debut against the Niners' stout run defense. Benson finished with 18 yards on only nine carries, spending most of his time on the sideline, as the Packers were in comeback mode early and operated without a running back on more than half of their total plays (31 of 61).

Against the Bears, Benson must be a factor to keep Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije from aggressively rushing up the field in pursuit of Aaron Rodgers. If he can muster 70-plus yards on 15 or more carries, the Packers will be able to slow the Bears' fierce pass rush and set up some deep-shot opportunities in the passing game off play action.

3) The Bears must take away the deep ball.

Rodgers is a dangerous passer from the pocket, particularly when he looks downfield. He had 64 completions of 20-plus yards in 2011, fifth-most in the NFL, and is certainly at his best when given the entire field to target in the passing game. Greg Jennings is doubtful for Thursday night's game, but Jordy Nelson boasts exceptional skills as a vertical route runner, and James Jones can also be targeted deep. The Packers will push the ball down the field four to six times a game to generate explosive plays.

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The Bears are typically one of the league's best teams at defending the deep ball. Their hallmark Tampa 2 coverage forces quarterbacks to settle for checkdowns or risk turnovers with low-percentage throws into traffic. The Packers have recently struggled against defenses that are adept at taking away the deep ball -- Green Bay is just 1-3 in Rodgers' last four starts, with losses to the 49ers, Giants and Kansas City Chiefs. Chicago should steal a page from those teams' playbooks and feature some "2-man" coverage (two deep safeties with man-to-man coverage by the underneath defenders).

4) Bigger impact on special teams: Devin Hester or Randall Cobb?

The third phase of the game is underappreciated, but it could be the deciding factor in this contest. Hester is the most explosive returner in NFL history, with 17 kick/punt return touchdowns in his seven-year career. He is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, and his ability to flip the field with a long return routinely changes the course of games.

Cobb is just as dangerous as a returner, with speed to burn and a knack for eluding tacklers in the open field. He has taken three returns to the house, including a 75-yard punt return against the 49ers in Week 1, and shows the ability to break off big plays with the ball in his hands. Although Cobb is certainly not as accomplished as Hester, the battle between these talented playmakers will have a significant impact on Thursday's outcome.

Prediction

Green Bay can't afford to fall into a 0-2 hole, with the Bears and Detroit Lions looking like viable contenders in the NFC North. Rodgers is poised to deliver an MVP-like performance in front of the home fans at Lambeau Field; the Packers get the nod in this one.

Packers 28, Bears 17

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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