The Packers and Aaron Rodgers continue to distance themselves from the Bears. | Sun-Times Media
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Updated: October 30, 2013 4:34PM
With Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs out with injuries, the Bears’ once-promising season threatens to get worse before it gets better. Even more daunting is the prospect that the big-picture outlook is diminishing a well — the Bears still are losing ground to Phil Emery’s self-proclaimed model, the Green Bay Packers.
Three weeks into the season, the 3-0 Bears had a two-game lead over the 1-2 Packers. But since then the Bears have gone 1-3 while the Packers have won four straight to wrest control of the NFC North.
But it’s not just the records that tell the story. It’s how the Packers have done it that bodes ill for the Bears in their attempt to catch up with the NFC North standard bearers. Unlike the Bears, the Packers have taken a step backward and still are moving forward. And you can only give Aaron Rodgers so much credit. He’s good, but he’s not that good.
On Sunday, the Packers played without linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb, tight end Jamarcus Finley and right tackle Bryan Bulaga and still beat the Vikings with ease, 44-31 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
And while Rodgers was typically efficient — 24-of-29 for 285 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 130.6 passer rating — he wasn’t the whole show. Led by rookie Eddie Lacy (29 carries, 94 yards, one touchdow) and would-be Bear James Starks (7-57, one touchdown), the Packers rushed for 182 yards on 42 carries.
For the record, the 42 carries are the most by the Packers in one game since 2004. The Packers’ reinvigorated run game arguably poses the biggest threat to the Bears. Previous 20th, 27th, 24th, 14th and 17th in the NFL with Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers are now fourth in rushing yards per game (141) and third in yards per attempt (4.8).
The Bears are proud of the progress they’ve made with a revamped offensive line. But the Packers are outdoing them even on that front. The Packers have three new starters and no players who were at their current position last season. Right tackle David Bakhtiari is a fourth-round draft pick. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay were undrafted. Veterans Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were fourth-round draft picks. The Packers’ five starting offensive linemen have a combined one Pro Bowl berth (Sitton last year).
Rodgers gets much of the credit for the Packers’ offensive success, but there’s more to it than that. Emery is right to attempt to emulate the Packers’ success. But as current circumstances have proven, it’s going to be a lot harder than it might have looked.
And now, 10 observations heading into the Bears post-bye-week game against the Packers at Lambeau Field:
1. If the Bears can survive their current plight — injuries to Cutler and Briggs and a poor defense — their road to the playoffs isn’t insurmountable. Assuming the 49ers or Saints will be the first wild-card team in the NFC, the battle for the second wild-card berth is wide open. The Lions (5-3) lead the Panthers (4-3), Bears (4-3), Cardinals (4-4), Rams (3-4) and Eagles (3-5). When the Lions lead anything, there’s always a chance.
2. Even with two games against the Packers remaining, the Bears’ schedule the rest of the way looks no less manageable after Sunday’s games. Their final nine opponents are a combined 33-35, with only three opponents currently over .500: at the Packers (5-2), Lions (5-3), Ravens (3-4), at Rams (3-4), at Vikings (1-6), Cowboys (4-4), at Browns (3-5), at Eagles (3-5) and Packers (5-2).
3. The Lions’ victory over the Cowboys was a blow to the Bears’ playoff hopes — you just know that if the Bears remain contenders in the NFC, the Lions’ improbable comeback victory over the Cowboys will loom large. The Lions still look like a team that will beat itself if given the chance, but their victory Sunday makes the Bears’ game against the Lions at Soldier Field on Nov. 10 a must-win.
4. Though Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs are the marquee injuries, cornerback Charles Tillman’s knee remains a concern. Tillman, who missed part of the fourth quarter against the Redskins with a recurring knee injury, did not pratice Monday but the Bears are hopeful he can play against the Packers. But even if he does play, it remains to be seen how well Tillman’s knee will hold up — it’s been nagging him all season. And that could be huge with the Lions up after the Packers. After Calvin Johnson’s incomparable performance against the Cowboys — 14 receptions, 329 yards, one touchdown — Tillman’s availability for the Lions might be more critical than against the Packers.
5. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears respond to getting the entire bye week off. Under Lovie Smith, the Bears worked out early in the bye week and had a long weekend.
‘‘I think we did a good thing by letting these guys rest,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘They came back with a lot of energy [at practice Monday]. There was very little rust in terms of executing and gettting through the practice.’’
For what it’s worth, Trestman’s teams were 5-4 with an extra week between games in the CFL, including 3-1 in the playoffs.
6. It’s probably no big surprise to Bears fans
, but former Bears quarterback Jason Campbell had much more success in a starting role with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday than he did with the Bears last season.
Playing in place of deposed starter Brandon Weeden against the best defense in the NFL in the Kansas City Chiefs, Campbell was 22-of-36 for 293 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 105.4 passer rating. In relief of an injured Jay Cutler last year against the 49ers, Campbell was 14-of-22 for 107 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 52.7 rating. The big difference? Campbell was sacked once against the Chiefs — who came in with a league-leading 35 sacks. He was sacked six times with the Bears against the 49ers.
7. The Bears miss Israel Idonije, but Idonije misses the Bears. As it has tured out, Idonije leaving the Bears to sign with the Lions a bad move for both sides. Wtih the Bears, Idonije would have been an every-down player, either inside or outside, with the injury to Henry Melton. With the Lions, Idonije is playing 37 percent of the snaps on a defense that isn’t that good.
Last year, Idonije played 68 percent of the defensive snaps with the Bears — 72 percent even after he lost his starting position to Corey Wootton. Idonije’s departure was a surprise last year, especially considering his deep roots in the community. He turned down an offer from the Bears in the offseason, but ended up signing for the veteran’s minimum with the Lions. The Bears signed Sedrick Ellis to take his place — a downgrade even if Ellis would have played. But Ellis retired on the eve of training camp and the Bears’ defensive line situation went downhill from there.
8. None of the Bears’ final nine opponents are ranked in the top 10 in points allowed: the Packers (16th), Lions (20th), Ravens (11th), Rams (T-21st), Vikings (30th), Cowboys (17th), Browns (15th), Eagles (T-23rd) and Packers (16th).
9. Rookie Khaseem Greene will get the first shot at Lance Briggs’ weakside linebacker spot, but Greene did not receive a ringing endorsement from coach Marc Trestman on Monday. Trestman noted that while Greene is first in line, Blake Costanzo, Jerry Franklin and even newcomer Larry Grant will be considered, pending Greene’s play during practice this week.
That said, the Bears’ best chance to stave off disaster on defense is to let drafted rookies such as Greene and Jon Bostic play as much as they can and prove they were worth drafting in the first place. It’s not like a veteran is going to come in off the bench or off the street and solidify a shaky situation. The Bears’ porous defense is an early referendum on general manager Phil Emery’s first two drafts.
10. Emery raised some eyebrows with his defense of Shea McClellin last week, claiming that McClellin was making progress in the run game. That might or might not be true, but regardless of how McClellin is grading out from a scout’s perspective, McClellin is not passing the eye test as an every-down, hand-on-the-ground defensive end.
The coaching staff, though, seems to understand it will have to be more inventive with McClellin to get more out of him. The first post-bye indication will be rookie David Bass’ snap count. Bass has been effective in limited snaps in three games and while it might be wishful thinking that he could develop into a productive defensive end, he’s as good as the Bears have right now as far as young, developing linemen currently playing end. Bass’ snaps have increased from 14 to 29 to 30 in his three games. He is one of only three defensive players with overall grades of 1.0 or better by Pro Football Focus — 1.1, behind Lance Briggs (2.5) and Corey Wooton (2.1).