The Chicago Bears laid yet another egg at Lambeau Field on Thursday, extending their losing streak against the Green Bay Packers to five games. Prior to the matchup, Bears head coach Lovie Smith said this was the best team he has ever brought into Green Bay, but after watching them lose 23-10, it's hard to draw the same conclusion.
Bad offensive lines don't normally travel well in the NFL, and Chicago's line, which was overmatched all night, was no exception. Poor protection and poor decision-making by quarterback Jay Cutler helped the Packers escape, even though they looked nothing like the Packers of last season.
In fact, if there ever was a night that Green Bay was going to lose to Chicago, it was Thursday night. The Packers' offense has its own problems, from the lack of an explosive running back to a failure to control the line of scrimmage, and the unit never got into a rhythm against the Bears. Running back Cedric Benson showed improvement after Week 1, but every time he made a play, I found myself thinking that if the Packers could rush more effectively, their offense would be even better. Benson might work in the short term, but he is not the long-term solution for that ground game.
Last season, the Packers punted just 55 times in 16 games, slightly more than three punts per game. So far in 2012, Green Bay has already punted 11 times, an average of 5.5 per game. That essentially means their opponents are getting about two more possessions per game than they had in 2011, putting more pressure on a defense that is as vulnerable as it was last year. Scoring also seems to be down; the Packers scored less than 24 points in just one regular-season game in 2011 -- the 19-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15. However, through two games this season, Green Bay has yet to hit that 24-point benchmark.
Should the Packers faithful be concerned? Yes, for sure. In addition to the difficulty running the ball and controlling the line, Green Bay isn't catching passes consistently or protecting well at the left tackle position. Opponents also seem to really understand how to slow down Green Bay's passing attack. Clearly, teams have studied the Packers' offense this offseason; it's hard to see quarterback Aaron Rodgers putting up the same kind of numbers (passing for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns) he did in 2011. The unit gets 10 days off to readjust, re-evaluate and get back on track before the Packers visit the Seattle Seahawks a week from Monday.
The Bears, meanwhile, must eventually rebuild their offensive line to the point where they can control the line of scrimmage on the road -- particularly in a hostile environment like Lambeau Field. How can Chicago legitimately contend for the Super Bowl if its line can't block the Packers? In terms of personnel, the Bears must have an answer for handling someone like Clay Matthews, who disrupted their game plan by himself on Thursday. Right now, offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb is not the guy.
Cutler did not play well. But as much as fans want to make fun of his demeanor on the sideline, his real issues stem from the offensive line's inability to adequately protect him. I'm not giving Cutler a pass, but any quarterback working with limited protection will struggle. Cutler's body language is not good. But do you think Peyton Manning's body language would have been any better if he were in Cutler's shoes? Cutler has to play well for the Bears to win, but his supporting cast has to help.
Beating the Indianapolis Colts at home in Week 1 didn't prove much for the Bears. To make a run at the playoffs, they'll need to win against the good teams in the NFC. But right now, given how bad their offensive line is, it's hard to think they can win on the road against top-tier defensive lines. There is time for improvement, but for the sake of Bears fans, it has to happen sooner rather than later.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1) Since the Buffalo Bills rewarded Ryan Fitzpatrick with a new contract last year, he's thrown 20 interceptions against just 15 touchdowns, and the Bills have gone 2-9. In that span, Fitzpatrick has attempted 399 passes and completed 237, for an average of just 6.39 yards per attempt. The Bills expected Fitzpatrick to be their franchise quarterback, but based on the last 11 games, they clearly need an upgrade at the position.
2) After last week's struggles in Cleveland, one has to wonder about the long-term future for quarterback Michael Vick with the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia front-loaded Vick's contract, paying most of the guaranteed money in the first two years. He has $3 million guaranteed next year, but the Eagles have a short window in which they could escape that obligation. If Vick doesn't produce this year -- which would mean making a playoff run -- it will be hard to imagine the Birds bringing him back as their starter in 2013.
3) The Washington Redskins have done a nice job melding elements of the Baylor offense and the college Piston offense with their own style. But the 'Skins must also know that all the bubble screens and behind-the-line throws that Robert Griffin III made in Week 1 -- he completed seven behind the line of scrimmage -- will be harder to pull off as opponents begin to prepare for that kind of attack. What most impressed me about RG3 against the New Orleans Saints was his precision on both short and long passes -- he attempted 11 passes of more than 20 yards, completing seven.
4) The defending Super Bowl champs have to be worried about their depth on both the offensive and defensive lines. The New York Giants' once-proud offensive line is not the same as it has been in the past, and the only thing that can fix the running game is improved line play. I'm sure the Giants have put in training camp-like work during their extended off time as they prepare for their matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
5) I was impressed with the Denver Broncos' defense last Sunday, specifically with second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe. The rookie defensive tackle plays hard, plays quick and shows power. He must continue to develop as the season goes on, because the Broncos are going to be without veteran Ty Warren for yet another year. Depth in the Broncos' front could be a concern.
6) Interestingly, the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive front includes three former top-11 draft picks: Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey and Dontari Poe. None of the three have shown much in the way of pass-rush skills; Jackson and Dorsey have a combined six career sacks, and Poe doesn't appear to be much better. Given how much money is invested in their defensive line -- remember, Jackson was drafted in 2009 and Dorsey in 2008, meaning their rookie deals fell under the old pay system -- the Chiefs must get some kind of pass rush. It's hard to pay that kind of money for run stoppers.
7) My game-tape game ball goes to Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, who played as well as any left tackle in the league last Sunday, despite facing one of the NFL's best pass rushers in Minnesota Vikings star Jared Allen. Monroe dominated the matchup, even with the crowd noise going against him. If he continues to play at that level, Monroe will be a blue-chip player this year.
8) I know the Pittsburgh Steelers want a more balanced offense, but they're much better when they throw to set up the run than when they focus on establishing their ground game. The more the Steelers are in base sets and the less they spread the field, the easier it is for their opponents to defend them. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is much better running the two-minute offense than he is in the base offense right now, in part because the Steelers lack talent on the offensive line.
9) The Cincinnati Bengals' defense is good -- when they play teams that can't spread the field or throw the ball. Their corners are not great at man-to-man coverage, and they struggle when running a nickel-type defense. Cincinnati's defensive front tired quickly against the Baltimore Ravens last Monday, and without any pass rush, their weakness in the secondary was exposed.
10) Coaches have to be careful not to complain about officials too much during games, because the rest of their team will follow their example. The more a coach screams and yells about non-calls, the more his players will do the same, and the less they'll focus on the game and their jobs. Though it's tough to do when calls are being missed, it's important that players and coaches keep their focus and avoid getting frustrated.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.