Sunday, January 2, 2011

Packers' Report Card: a B for Beating the Bears

Overall: B

The Packers may have defeated their longtime and hated division rivals to clinch a playoff spot, and did so against Bears' coach Lovie Smith's starters all game long to boot.  But the Packers came out flat and unfocused, and couldn't seem to execute much, particularly on offense.  The Bears defense created a firewall for the Packers' running game that only seldom-used James Starks seemed able to penetrate occasionally.  As a result, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the offense simply couldn't connect on enough passes to generate any sustained drives.  Thankfully, the defense gained momentum as the game went on and took the game on its shoulders, getting help from punter Tim Masthay and his coverage teams to steal an ugly win from the Bears.

Rushing Offense: D-

After a productive game against the Giants, in which the Packers appeared ready to commit to a power running game, the Bears front seven quickly closed the door on Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn.  It's not a good thing when Aaron Rodgers is your leading rusher in a game, but watching Jackson curl up before he hits the line of scrimmage meant the Packers were looking for other options.  In what was a pleasant surprise, James Starks was active and rushed for 20 yards on five carries, and did so with purpose.  It's too bad McCarthy didn't keep feeding him the ball.

Rushing Defense: B-

After a quiet start, Bears running back James Forte started rushing for huge swaths of yards in the first half on his way to a 91-yard day on only 15 carries.  He contributed 35 all-purpose yards on the Bears' only scoring drive in the second quarter, and it looked as if the Bears were going to control the game on the ground.  But after the critical stop of the Bears on fourth down at the beginning of the second half, the Bears resorted to a passing game that diminished Forte's touches and put the ball in the hands of Jay Cutler.  Forte finished with 60 receiving yards on the day, also.

Passing Offense:  D+

Aaron Rodgers had his struggles all day, with tackle Bryan Bulaga committing three holding penalties and having his receivers drop at least four catchable passes in the first half alone.  Rodgers appeared to be forcing the ball at times, throwing too hard or simply not executing well (as was the case in a botched fake-sneak/screen that almost turned out to be a disaster on the goal line).  In the end, it was three straight completions at the start of the fourth quarter (totaling 68 yards and a touchdown) that spelled the difference in the score, but stalled drives and having to punt late in the game put more pressure than needed on the defense.

Passing Defense: A

When the Bears turned to Jay Cutler to save the day, the Packers defense rose to the occasion.  Led by fourth-string linebacker Eric Walden, who led the team with 10 solo tackles, two sacks, and two hits on Cutler, the Packers limited the Bears to a paltry 168 yards through the air and made critical stop after stop.  Charlie Peprah had a key interception, and the Packers began putting regular pressure on Cutler in the second half, piling up six sacks; the best by Charles Woodson who flew through the air to bring Cutler down.  At the end of the game, with Cutler dinking and dunking his way down the field for a game-tying score, Nick Collins made the game-sealing interception deep in Packer territory.

Special Teams: A

It's not often that the Packers' special teams contributes to a win, much less gets an A from me, but Tim Masthay utilized his directional punting and kept dangerous returner Deven Hester from becoming a factor.  He parked four punts inside the 20, and thanks to Jarrett Bush, two punts were downed inside the five yard line.  In fact, Masthay’s net punting average of 37.6 for the season ties the top single-season mark by a Packers punter since 1976.  Mason Crosby pooched one kickoff that was returned 28 yards by Daniael Manning to midfield, but the defense forced that drive back into Bears territory for a punt.  Pat Lee took over kickoff duties and did well (23.5-yard average), while sure-handed Tramon Williams had a 41-yard return that set up the Packers' second-quarter field goal.

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