Thursday, January 20, 2011

Packers vs. Bears NFC Championship Game Preview

In case you haven't heard, there is a rather interesting football contest taking place this Sunday at Soldier Field between the Packers of Green Bay and the Bears of Chicago. Apparently, these teams have played a lot over the years, but rarely has their games had this much meaning. The winner, I guess, will have the chance to play in another game called the Super Bowl. I don't know about you, but I think that sounds kind of cool. I may even try to watch this match-up on my television.

Ok, enough of the snarkiness. Holy crap, the Bears and Packers are playing in the NFC Championship Game! Let that sink in for a minute. First of all, no one in their right mind saw the Bears having this much success this season. But, to top it off, not only are they one game away from the freakin' Super Bowl, but they also have the chance to get there by beating Green Bay, who, besides being our mortal enemies, were the chic Super Bowl pick this year by everyone and their sister. And it all takes place by lake at Soldier Field in Sweet Home Chicago. If you are not out-of-your mind, Alonzo Spellman-crazy, Mike Ditka-fired up for this game then you should hand in your Bears fan membership card.

Packers vs. Bears Preview

Protecting the quarterback, not turning the ball over, special teams, and the running game are all obvious factors that will impact the outcome of this football game. But, they are also obvious factors that impact almost ALL football games. So, I won't spend much time on these. In fact, I won't really be spending any time at all on the Packers strengths or weaknesses. Instead, I will focus on what I think are the important issues the Bears need to address in order to win this football game. Some of these still might be obvious, but, hey, I'm just a fan. No one has ever paid me to play, coach, or analyze professional football.

1. Red Zone Defense
It will be imperative that the Bears keep the Packers out of the end zone at the end of long drives. I think I'd have to be delusional to think we're going to completely shut down this Packers offense. They are going to move the ball to some extent. But, once they get inside the 20, the Bears will need to tighten up the space in their zones, force Rodgers into his 3rd or 4th read, and be aggressive at playing the football in the air. And, the defensive line can't be caught getting upfield and out of their gaps in case Green Bay decides to run weak-side draw plays under the defensive end. Any field goal given up inside the 20-yard line is a HUGE victory for the Bears.

2. Jay Cutler's Eyes
The Packers play an aggressive form of bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage. In his four games against this defense, Jay has looked befuddled most of the time. He needs to use their aggressiveness against them. There have been numerous times where he has stared down a receiver and thrown it late down the middle of the field only to see two, three, even four Packers defenders converge on the football. This can only happen when a quarterback is staring at a receiver or into an area far too long. Jay needs to use his eyes to move defenders to one area and then throw to the area they have vacated. I haven't seen him use many pump fakes, which may not be built in the Martz offense. But, that could also be an invaluable tool against a Packers defense that thinks it can pick off every pass he throws.

2a. Jay Cutler's Roaming Eyes
I hate to sound like such a Ron Turner, ball-control wimp, but I think Cutler (and Martz) should reverse the reads this week in their offense. I'm pretty sure most teams, and especially a Martz offense, have the quarterback read the defense from back to front (deep to short). The Packers pass rush and coverage is too good to wait for long developing pass plays. I think Jay should look for the underneath routes first and get the ball out of his hand to Forte, Taylor, and Olsen, especially early on in the game. This will help build confidence and, hopefully, frustrate the Packers blitz.

3. Forte and Taylor
I think Martz should put Matt Forte and Chester Taylor on the field at the same time for 12-15 plays. This will give them a myriad of run/pass options as well as showing Green Bay something that the Bears really haven't done much this year. If both players can chip on the ends/backers and then get into the flat, I think it will provide the outlet options Cutler will need.

4. Misdirection
The Bears have run on a few misdirection plays this year, and have had some success. I think they need to do this a few times early in the game to get the Packers thinking, which will slow down their pass rush. This is what offenses do to the Bears because their ends can get up field so fast. We should be doing it to other teams.

5. Zone Blitz
Ok, so this one might be a bit far-fetched, but I would love to see Marinelli call a handful of zone blitzes where D.J. Moore comes off the slot and Peppers drops back into coverage. While it may be insane to take Peppers out of what he does best, he is too athletic not to use him in a variety of ways to try and confuse the Packers. Plus, I would love to see Julius get a pick-six on a pass intended for Donald Driver.

6. Defensive Line Hand-Play
Finally, the entire defensive line should be aware of the clock in Rodgers' head. If on a given play the defensive line was unable to get much penetration, they MUST get their hands up in hopes of deflecting a pass. The Bears used to be really good at this during the Jauron years when they had very little pass rush. If the defense can get two or three balls tipped up in the air, good things will happen.

If the Bears can do some of these things plus, you know, protect the football, run it well, get a special teams score, and get a bunch of turnovers, the Bears will win big. I don't really think you can count on all of those happening in the same game, especially in the NFC Championship Game against a familiar opponent that is playing as well as the Packers. But, the defense has shown it can limit the Packers offense this year, and the Bears offense has shown some signs of life towards the end of the season. This should be a really close, relatively low-scoring game. Since the Bears are at home, and I'm a huge homer Bears fan, of course I think they'll win...but it will be close enough to cause a huge increase in Maalox consumption during the 4th quarter and, yes, overtime. So, pack your bags Bears fans. Your trip to Dallas awaits you. Bear Down!!!

Bears 23, Packers 20 (OT)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Chicago Bears Origin Story

In 1943, a former Notre Dame Monogram three-time award winner got the chance to play for the Chicago Bears when some of their players were drafted into the war. This offensive tackle was a large man with a wry smile and a great sense of humor. The stories of his antics became family folklore, much like Paul Bunyan. At 6'4" and over 230 pounds, he actually reminded people of Paul Bunyan. Even though he could easily intimidate (especially when, years later, boys started calling on his two daughters), it was his quick wit and general zaniness that left the biggest impression. After his one championship season with the Bears, playing alongside greats like Sid Luckman and Bronko Nagurski, he went on to become a successful salesman. He saw one of his daughters get married, and the birth of two grandchildren. Sadly, though, William (Bill) Steinkemper, my grandfather, died years before his time and shortly before I was born.

I never had the chance to sit on his knee, play catch with him, or ask about his stint with the Bears. As I get older, I think often about a relationship that never was and how it has shaped me as a man. I imagine the stories he must have had and the wisdom he could have shared. At times, when I allow myself to think hard about it, I ache. For some, that may not make sense. How is it possible to miss someone they've never known? I'm learning more and more each day, during life's inevitable trials, how real that pain can be.

The 1943 team picture (he's #35) hangs in my house as well as an "action" photo of my grandfather blocking for Sid Luckman. I see these photos everyday. They are my connection to him. While these photos can only offer a glimpse of the man he was, they still provide me with enormous pride and joy. I honor him with those photos. I also honor him when I explain to people that the Bears are part of my family heritage, however brief that stint may have been. Every Sunday from September through February (hopefully), I dutifully watch my Chicago Bears. I've cried after losses. I've danced after wins. I've broken a remote control. I've done victory laps through my house. I've punched countless pillows. I've alienated my perfect bride. I've even started a blog.

I guess, deep down, I do all of these things to honor the memory of the grandfather I never knew. I'm sure most fans have a similar story about their favorite team. While a relative or friend may not have played for that team, I'm sure there are countless memories and rituals about that team that involve a grandfather, father, mother, brother, sister or friend. These moments have helped shape each of us. It is, for lack of a better word, a legacy.

In the end, the cynical amongst us may claim that being a diehard fan is nothing more than rooting for laundry. But, that laundry represents something far more important than wins, money, bragging rights, or media fodder. It is a connection to our collective pasts, presents, and futures. For some, it is the only way to relate to family or friends. For others, it is an escape from the sometimes painful reality of life. Regardless of the reason, it is important, and it is every bit as real for us as it is for the men who are lucky enough to compete.

So, today I find myself reflecting upon the reasons I became a Bears fan, and how lucky I am that my grandfather played for a real organization like the Chicago Bears rather than that Mickey Mouse operation they run in Green Bay. :-)

Later this week, I'll put a preview together in the hopes I can provide Mike Martz with some tips on beating the Dom Capers defense. But, today, I'd like to hear other fan origin stories. What's yours?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Seahawks vs. Bears Playoff Preview...Be Careful What You Wish For Edition!

As everyone knows by now, the most unlikely match up for the Bears first playoff game became reality when Seattle upset the Saints on Saturday and the Packers beat the Eagles. If you honestly thought this would happen, then you are either bat-crap crazy or a stinking genius. I thought our opponent would end up being the Saints because I "knew" they would win, and I was pretty confident the Packers would beat the Eagles. Well, Matt Hasselbeck and Marshawn Lynch sure proved me wrong, even though I was secretly wishing it would turn out this way. I mean, seriously, who wouldn't want to face a team that finished 7-9 in the regular season by winning the worst division in football?

It sounds like I wasn't the only Bears fan pulling for the Packers on Sunday, either. Legions of die-hard, mustache-wearing, sausage-eating fans were actually hoping our mortal enemies from cheeseland would beat the Eagles. Why? Because Michael Vick scares us a helluva lot more than Matt Hasselbeck. And, I think Bears fans remember the debacle against the Seahawks earlier this season and we want revenge.

Seahawks vs. Bears Preview:

Seattle was able to do some things on offense against the Saints that they shouldn't be able to do against the Bears. Hasselbeck threw multiple touchdowns down field over defenders that were either beaten in man coverage or simply out of position. He will have a very hard time doing that against the Bears due to the Cover-Two. He still scares me with his guile and intelligence, two factors that helped them beat the Bears during the regular season. But, the Bears got very little pressure on him that game, and the offense couldn't sustain a drive to save their lives. Somehow I don't see those things happening in this game. Jeremy Bates will call a good game and try to keep the Bears off balance with draws, slants, dig routes, and go routes down the sidelines between the corner and safety (all weaknesses of the Cover-Two), but Peppers and company will get hits on the banged up Hasselbeck and rattle him. If he's knocked out of the game (a distinct possibility), it's over.

Lynch's run at the end of the Saints game was amazing and memorable, but I can't see the Seattle running game being much of a factor against a fired-up, 2nd-ranked rush defense playing at home in their first playoff game in four years. Urlacher and Briggs will attack the line of scrimmage, which will force Seattle into lots of third and longs. I think they'll probably check down to Lynch and Forsett quite a bit in the passing game, so the Bears tackling will need to be better this time than the last time they played Seattle.

When the Bears have the ball, they'll need to be balanced and mistake-free. Obviously the offensive line will need to play well and Martz will need to remember that Matt Forte is his best bet for getting the Bears to the NFC Championship game. But, most importantly, Cutler will need to play poised and remain calm, especially early in the game. This is his first NFL playoff game and, at times in his young career, he's played recklessly in big games. I hope Martz is smart enough to know that the Bears can win this game without exposing Cutler to low percentage passing plays, especially early on.

I expect the special teams under Dave Toub to continue to excel. Why wouldn't I? He's the best special teams coach in the league and, if the Bears make it to NFC Championship Game, I hope he gets the big raise he deserves.

It took a great third down throw from Rex Grossman (no, seriously) and a Robbie Gould field goal in overtime to beat the Seahawks last time these two teams met in the divisional round. I don't think this game is headed for overtime, but a team that isn't suppose to win that is lead by a motivational head coach is dangerous. Seattle could run all sorts of misdirection plays, fake punts, and flea-flickers. Why wouldn't they? They're playing on borrowed time. However, this quote (Sun-Times) from Matt Hasselbeck after Seattle's win on Saturday is likely posted in the Bears' locker room. ‘‘If we get to play Chicago, then I think there is a chance we could still host another game here in the playoffs.’’ Well, Matt, you got your wish. Be careful what you wish for.

Bears 24, Seahawks 13

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Meaningless Loss...or Was It?

The Chicago Bears are the #2 seed in the NFC. They have a bye this week, and they host their first playoff game in the Divisional Round the following week. After an abysmal preseason, a few terrible home losses, and colossal embarrassments against the Giants and Patriots, their playoff position is without a doubt an unexpected surprise (thank you Joe Webb). But, after a hard-fought loss to the Packers yesterday that had no impact on their playoff seeding, do we really know what this team is capable of accomplishing in the playoffs?

There are some encouraging signs that we can take from yesterday's game. In a playoff-type atmosphere in a hostile environment, the defense shut down one of the hottest passing games in the NFL. The defensive line made Rodgers uncomfortable most of the game, and the secondary executed much better than in recent games. They completely shutdown the Packers running game, got two turnovers, and were especially good on third down. After recent subpar performances against the Jets and Patriots, this is definitely encouraging. I would've liked to have seen Peppers or Urlacher make a game changing play, but they've been great most of the year, so I can't really complain. Overall, an outstanding effort by the defense on the road in a meaningless game against a desperate, hungry team.

However, the protection problems that have plagued the Bears most of the season have reared their ugly head again. The Packers employ a complicated, blitz heavy scheme that utilizes lots of man-under coverage. This makes it tough for the quarterback to find open receivers compared to playing against a zone scheme where holes underneath the coverage are common. But, the Bears have now seen this scheme four times in the past two years. Yet, it continues to befuddle Cutler. At some point, he and the offense need to learn how to beat this scheme. Most of his completions were short, and when he did throw down the field, it was frightening. There were at least two passes that should've been intercepted on top of the two that were intercepted. The quick dump-off passes to uncovered receivers running down the seam worked once or twice against the blitz, but then the Packers adjusted to that and took away a huge part of the Bears blitz-beating plays. Some of the protection problems weren't on the offensive line (Brandon Manumaleuna missed an easy block on a blitzing Charless Woodson), but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried that their confidence might be a little shaken heading into the playoffs.
I've read that the Bears utilized a "vanilla" game plan, and that they didn't do anything different in their game planning since the Jets game. That may be true, but aren't in-game adjustments needed even if you're not trying to show your hand to the rest of the league, especially when you're QB is getting mugged? This was the Martz offense from early in the season when ineffective pass plays kept getting called in place of running plays that had proved effective. I'm hoping this was an anomaly, but I'm worried that Martz still defaults to pass-whacky play calling when his back is against the wall. Let's hope Forte and his 4.5 yards per carry make a return visit in the next game because it seems like the offensive line has gotten the running game mostly figured out.

Johnny Knox, after a great game against the Jets, is starting to show his limitations as a number one receiver. He dropped an easy catch that hit him in the stomach, and his small stature limits his ability to make plays when the ball is in the air. His speed and quickness still make him dangerous, but the Bears need a reliable go-to receiver who can make a play in crunch time. Knox isn't that guy yet. Let's hope Bennett will be healthy for the playoffs because he has become, without a doubt, the most reliable receiver in key situations for the Bears.

It's tough to be overly critical of Cutler's performance. The protection wasn't great, and the Packers secondary stuck with the Bears receivers like glue. He provided us with his usual inexcusable throw with the interception in the end zone, but his other pick was just a bad pass. In fact, Hester was open on the play, and it would've given the Bears a first down inside the 15-yard line. I still worry that Cutler's few bad decisions each game will cost us in the playoffs, but I hope that he can play a mistake-free game when it counts. Or, at least overcome those mistakes with his potential for brilliance.

Pulling out my crystal ball, I think the Bears will play the Saints in the divisional round. I think the Packers and that defense of theirs will shutdown Vick and the Eagles. And, I don't see how the Seahawks can beat the Saints. I'd prefer to see Seattle in a rematch from earlier this season, so we can crush them on our way to the championship game, but I'd bet on Sean Payton and Drew Brees any day over Pete Carroll and Charlie Whitehurst/Matt Hasselbeck. I think the Bears match up pretty well to the Saints and we've already beaten the Eagles. So, if the Bears can tighten up things in their protection, and the defense can play with the intensity they showed yesterday, maybe the Bears can get themselves a playoff win.

But, no matter what happens this Sunday, we know we won't see the Packers again...unless it's in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. If that happens, maybe Martz and company will figure out a way to beat that Capers defense. They didn't do it yesterday, but that was a meaningless game...right?