CHICAGO — The build-up has been all about the quarterbacks.
For the Green Bay Packers, the question was whether Aaron Rodgers would be able to play after missing seven starts due to a broken collarbone. For the Chicago Bears, it was whether Jay Cutler should be replaced by backup Josh McCown after a shaky return from his own injury-related absence.
But while the discussion leading up to the winner-take-all game in the NFC North Division has been quarterback-driven, today’s winner most likely will be the team that can get its defense to play like defenses traditionally play in the NFL’s most storied rivalry — tough, physical and opportunistic.
That hasn’t happened often this season for either team. Indeed, for two franchises from the old Black-and-Blue Division, the Packers and Bears suddenly have become teams that are much better equipped to win shootouts than bloodbaths.
There have been plenty of bloodbaths in this 92-year-old rivalry, even recently. Including playoff games, the Packers and Bears have played 18 times since 2005 and only three times in those 18 games has a team scored more than 27 points.
With Rodgers finally back in the lineup for the Packers and Cutler having more offensive weapons than perhaps any Bears quarterback ever, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these teams hit 27 by halftime. Yes, the defenses are that bad.
For two teams with radically different defensive approaches, the reason for these meltdowns is largely the same — not enough great players. Units once teeming with big-play specialists are now bereft of difference-making players.
Actually, the only thing different about their decline was the timetable. The Packers’ defense has been in a three-year slide while the Bears’ defense collapsed just this season.
But more on that later. First, the gory details.
Just last Sunday, in a game in which they could have clinched the division title, the Bears gave up 54 points to the Philadelphia Eagles. For a defense that had been the backbone of the team under former coach Lovie Smith, it was the low point in one of the more dramatic falls in recent NFL history, one that has negated the offensive gains made under first-year coach Marc Trestman.
The Eagles game was the fourth time the Bears allowed 40 or more points this season, the same number they gave up in the previous nine seasons combined. The Bears rank 30th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed in the NFL. They are particularly poor against the run, having given up 5.4 yards per rush — the NFL’s worst mark since the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961.
The Packers’ defense might have laughed at those numbers earlier in the season, but no one’s laughing anymore. Green Bay ranks in the bottom 10 in the NFL in points and yards allowed. Should the Bears score 40 today, it would break the Packers’ single-season record of 439 points allowed, set in 1983.
And the problem is getting worse, not better. The Packers have given up 33.8 points per game in their past four outings.
Although both quarterbacks have been slowed a bit (Rodgers) or completely shut down (Cutler) by the other team’s defense over the years, they had to be licking their chops this week. Simply put, neither defense throws a scare into anyone anymore.
Although different in scheme and style, both defenses are predicated on forcing turnovers. Both historically use pressures, sacks and turnovers to get off the field. But since both are virtually devoid of playmakers at this point, the sacks and takeaways haven’t come at their usual pace.
Since the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, when the Packers allowed a mere 240 points, they have experienced a slow drain of playmaking ability. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins left in free agency, safety Nick Collins suffered a career-ending neck injury, cornerback Charles Woodson also left in free agency and linebacker Clay Matthews was lost just last week after re-breaking his thumb. Even cornerback Casey Hayward, who showed an aptitude for big plays as a rookie in 2012, has played only a handful of snaps this season due to injury.
In Chicago, the talent drain among the key defensive difference-makers occurred more quickly. Linebacker Brian Urlacher retired during the off-season when the Bears wouldn’t re-sign him, cornerback Charles Tillman was put on injured reserve recently, linebacker Lance Briggs has been playing hurt all season and defensive end Julius Peppers is nearing the end of the line.
As the playmakers have departed, neither team has replenished its supply, either due to neglect or poor personnel decisions. The people happiest about that have to be Rodgers and Cutler. Going into today’s game, both have solid running attacks and dynamic receiver groups to work with for perhaps the first time.
There will be no shortage of firepower in the game, so whichever defense can rise up and get itself off the field on third down more often will give its team a trip to the playoffs. As hard as it may be to believe, that favors the Packers.