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NFL Preview - Chicago (0-0) at Green Bay (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the football world eagerly awaits the impending on- field standoff between Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, the team first must prepare itself for another new gunslinger who's made his way onto the NFC North scene.
Jay Cutler will make his official debut as a Chicago Bear when the hot-shot quarterback's new team heads to historic Lambeau Field this Sunday for a season-opening showdown with a Packers squad that has its sights set on a bounce-back year.
While the Minnesota Vikings' courtship of former Packers legend Favre dominated the headlines for a good portion of this offseason, Cutler was playing the leading man in a real-life soap opera taking place in Denver. A public feud between the strong-armed signal-caller and first-year head coach Josh McDaniels resulted in the Broncos jettisoning their franchise centerpiece to Chicago in a blockbuster April trade that sent veteran quarterback Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round draft picks to the Mile High City.
In Cutler, the Bears are getting a 26-year-old entering the prime of his career and coming off a 4,526-yard, 25-touchdown season, as well as what the organization believes is a long-term solution to a position that's been a real sore spot during Lovie Smith's five-year reign as head coach. In spite of an offense that finished a paltry 26th in the NFL in total yards, Chicago just missed out on a playoff berth in 2008 after battling its way to a 9-7 record.
Last year's Packers were significantly better than their longtime rivals on that side of the ball, although that wasn't reflected in the overall standings. Green Bay put up the fifth-most points in the league during Aaron Rodgers' long-awaited takeover for Favre under center, but a team that won 13 regular-season tests and reached the 2007 NFC Championship Game with the future Hall of Famer at the controls slumped to a disappointing 6-10 mark in the protege's first year as a starter.
With seven of those 10 defeats coming by four points or less, the Packers enter 2009 hopeful that Rodgers' expected progress, plus an overhaul of a defense that was both a sieve against the run and struggled to consistently pressure the passer last season, will be enough to get back to the top of the division scene. Green Bay is switching to a 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers and used its two first-round picks in April's draft on a pair of promising stoppers, Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji and Southern California outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
Chicago holds a 90-80-6 advantage in the NFL's most-played series, which dates back to the 1921 season, including a conventional home-and-home split last season. The Packers were 37-3 winners when the teams met at Lambeau Field in Week 11, and the Bears returned the favor with a 20-17 overtime win at Soldier Field in Week 16. Chicago last won in Green Bay in 2007, handing the Packers a 27-20 loss at Lambeau.
For all their storied history together, the teams have met just once in the postseason, a 33-14 Bears victory in a 1941 NFL Playoff.
Smith is 7-3 versus the Packers as a head coach, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 2-4 against both Smith and Chicago as a head man.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Considering the Bears have sent one quarterback (Jim McMahon, 1985) to the Pro Bowl over the last 45 seasons, it's easy to see why Cutler's (4526 passing yards, 25 TD, 18 INT with Denver in '08) arrival has generated so much excitement along the shores of Lake Michigan. It's hard to expect the move to instantly transform Chicago into an offensive juggernaut, however. The Bears have major questions to answer at wide receiver, where return-man extraordinaire Devin Hester (51 receptions, 3 TD) is still learning the nuances of the position and projected No. 2 man Earl Bennett -- an ex-teammate of Cutler's at Vanderbilt -- didn't have a single catch as a rookie last year. The team is in good hands at tight end, where co-starters Greg Olsen (54 receptions, 5 TD) and Desmond Clark (41 receptions, 1 TD) are both reliable and effective targets. A remodeled offensive line headed by seven-time Pro Bowl Orlando Pace, a free-agent pickup from the Rams, and 2008 first-round draftee Chris Williams at the tackle spots will be expected to provide able protection for the Bears' new field general.
Even with Cutler now in the fold, Chicago is still going to be a run-first team on offense centered around the talents of sophomore sensation Matt Forte (1238 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 12 TD). The 23-year-old placed third in the NFL with 1,715 yards from scrimmage in his debut and became only the second rookie in league annals to record 1,000 rushing yards and 60 catches in a season. Even with the youngster's accomplishments, the Bears only ranked 24th overall in rushing yards (104.5 ypg) and averaged a mediocre 3.9 yards per attempt on the year.
Forte gets to attack a Green Bay defense that finished a lowly 26th versus the run in 2008, surrendering an unhealthy 131.6 yards per game. Injuries certainly played a part in the team's poor showing in that area, as three of the Pack's top stoppers -- middle linebacker Nick Barnett (49 tackles), end Cullen Jenkins (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and strong safety Atari Bigby (21 tackles, 1 INT) -- missed a combined total of 28 games due to injuries. Barnett appears to have recovered from a torn ACL that ended his season in November and will line up next to former top-five overall choice A.J. Hawk (86 tackles, 3 sacks) at the inside positions of the unit's revamped 3-4 look. Top pass rusher Aaron Kampman (62 tackles, 9.5 sacks) is shifting from a sit-down end to a stand-up outside linebacker in the new arrangement, designed in part to help better the Packers' pedestrian total of 27 sacks a year ago.
While last year's defense had its trouble fending off opposing ground attacks, Green Bay continued to hold its own against the pass. A strong and seasoned secondary held enemy quarterbacks to a 55 percent completion rate, the third- best mark in the league, and sent a pair of starters to Honolulu in veteran corner Charles Woodson (62 tackles, 7 INT, 3 sacks) and standout free safety Nick Collins (72 tackles, 7 INT). Twelfth-year cornerback Al Harris (24 tackles) also remains a top-level cover man, although he and Woodson are 34 and 32, respectively, and have been injury-prone over the past few years.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Even though Rodgers took some heat for the Packers' inability to win the close ones last season, he still proved to be a worthy successor to the Favre throne after a three-year wait. The 25-year-old's 4,038 passing yards and 28 touchdown throws were both fourth-best among the league's quarterback contingent, and he completed nearly 64 percent of his attempts in McCarthy's West Coast system. Rodgers did have the luxury of a deep and capable corps of receivers at his disposal, with both emerging superstar Greg Jennings (80 receptions, 1292 yards, 9 TD) and reliable vet Donald Driver (74 receptions, 1012 yards, 5 TD) each eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in 2008. An offense that averaged 238.3 yards per game (8th overall) through the air last season could be even better if No. 3 wideout James Jones (20 receptions, 1 TD), who compiled 676 receiving yards as a rookie in 2007, can regain his first-year form after an injury-plagued second season.
The Packers weren't as effective running the football last year, as primary carrier Ryan Grant (1203 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 5 TD) averaged a mildly disappointing 3.9 yards per rush, more than a yard less than the number he produced during a breakthrough 2007 campaign. The undrafted free agent's best game of the season did come against the Bears at Lambeau Field, however, a 25-attempt, 145-yard outburst in Week 11. Third-down back Brandon Jackson (248 rushing yards, 1 TD, 30 receptions) is expected to miss the opener because of an ankle sprain, with holdover DeShawn Wynn (110 rushing yards, 1 TD) slated to take over those duties on Sunday.
Rodgers will be taking aim at a Chicago secondary that surrendered the third- most passing yards (241.2 ypg) in the NFL last season, but also ranked among the league's best with 22 interceptions. First-year starter Kevin Payne (88 tackles, 1 sack) emerged as the Bears' best playmaker in the backfield, snaring a club-high four picks while also showing a willingness in run support. Injuries were a problem for this area during the preseason, but free safety Danieal Manning's (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) hamstring seems to have healed enough for him to be available for the opener. Cornerback and top cover man Charles Tillman (93 tackles, 3 INT), however, is a question mark due to an back problem that required offseason surgery. Nathan Vasher (21 tackles, 1 INT), a Pro Bowl honoree in 2005 who's been slowed by health issues of his own the past two years, will step in if Tillman can't go.
The Bears were considerably tougher to run on in 2008, with their decorated front seven limiting opponents to just 93.5 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.4 yards per attempt. Stalwart middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (93 tackles, 2 INT) and weakside counterpart Lance Briggs (110 tackles, 3 INT) have been to 10 Pro Bowls between them and are prototype players in the team's Cover-2 scheme, while tackle Tommie Harris (37 tackles, 5 sacks) is one of the game's most disruptive interior linemen when healthy, which hasn't always been the case in recent years. Chicago only took down the quarterback 29 times as a team last season, a contributing factor to the defense's poor ranking against the pass, but do have a pair of ends on the roster who have put together double-digit sack totals in the past in Adewale Ogunleye (62 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and Mark Anderson (18 tackles, 1 sack).
Both Cutler and Rodgers earned their way to No. 1 fantasy quarterback status by eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark last season, although the former's stock has fallen somewhat with the move to a less pass-friendly offense and an inferior selection of receivers than he had in Denver. Rodgers draws a juicy matchup in the opener, getting to face a banged-up Chicago secondary, against which he had a pair of two-touchdown games against last season. Jennings is also a must-play here and Driver makes for a solid choice as a No. 2 receiver, and Green Bay's expected success in the passing game should benefit's Grant's prospects as well. Forte owners aren't about to sit the player they likely selected with their initial choice in their league's draft, especially against a Packer defense that wasn't good against the run last year. As for Chicago's receivers, Olsen should be a good play at tight end and the unproven Bennett has sleeper potential at wide receiver.
While Cutler's addition has certainly added some intrigue, in many ways these are the same old Bears, a team that still lacks playmakers at a number of offensive skill positions and relies on an opportunistic defense and excellent special teams to win games many believe they shouldn't. Problem is, the Packers don't turn the ball over a whole lot and have more players on the offensive side that can change the outcome of a game, starting with their quarterback. Factor in a defense that should be better than last year's injury-ravaged group and a raucous home crowd, and Green Bay gets the nod in what's always a competitive affair between two bitter ancient rivals.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Bears 20
09/10 18:05:14 ET