I like to think of some football concepts in baseball terms. First downs are analogous to getting on base (or if you prefer, not making an out). Picking up first downs gives your offense extra chances to score, and in general, the more first downs you pick up, the better your offense will be.
There is another way to generate offense in the NFL. This is the “big play” which I see as analogous to slugging. Even if you create a lot of outs in baseball, you can still be (somewhat) valuable if you hit a lot of HRs, essentially capitalizing on the chances you do have.
The Bears “Cover-2” scheme has a reputation for taking away the deep ball, but I believe as the Bears play it this is a misnomer. The Bears cover-2 scheme excels at stopping drives. The way to attack the Bears is with slugging, not with OBP.
The key to understanding the Bears cover-2 is to understand Brian Urlacher’s responsibilities. He is charged with taking away the middle of the field on passing plays, which allows the safeties behind him to get deep drops and take away most deep balls from most teams. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that Lance Briggs is one of the best LBs in the league as well, especially in pass coverage on TEs. Against conventional offenses and with proper personnel (which the Bears do possess) this defense is truly difficult to do anything against. Throw Julius Peppers into the mix as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper and it’s easy to see why the Bears have excelled this season.
While the presence of Urlacher makes the deep ball hard to throw for most teams the Packers are not most teams. In the last game of the regular season, the Packers scored all 10 of their points off of bombs to Greg Jennings on the outside (he was tackled at the 1-yard line both times). The Jets receivers also had success with big gains, as did the Bills’ Stevie Johnson. Look for the Packers to try and get the ball deep using two formations in particular.
Perhaps the Packers biggest upgrade going into this game is the perception of James Starks. Starks hasn’t actually played that well overall (though he was a major factor against the Eagles) but he’s played well enough to warrant some attention. Moreover, the one thing the Bears defense does struggle with is power running. Brian Urlacher is great in side-to-side pursuit, but can be blown up in one-on-one matchups with fullbacks and TEs. Former Detroit Lion fullback Corey Schlesinger seemed to delight in bowling over the fast but undersized middle linebacker.
If the Packers can get off a few successful runs early (even if it is only 4-5 yards) they will be able to draw Urlacher up from the deep middle and attack the area behind him. Even if play action isn’t working the Packers have one more option.
2. The 4/5 WR set.
Teams simply do not score a lot on the Bears (including the Packers), but the teams that have put up points on them have something in common. The Jets have Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Dustin Keller. The Eagles have Maclin, Jackson, Celek, and a good 3rd WR in Jason Avant. Seemingly everyone on the Patriots is a weapon.
The Bears Cover-2 becomes vulnerable when it is spread out, and faced with multiple deep threats. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones should be able to do damage down the field if they’re not dropping the ball. The 5-wide set wreaks havoc with the Bear defense for a few reasons:
a. It forces them out of their base and into Nickel or Dime. Briggs and Urlacher are at their best in zone coverage. If you put them in a position where they’re rushing the passer or, even better, chasing a WR, you are neutralizing one of their strengths.
b. It forces inferior DBs onto the field. The Bear secondary isn’t a strength, and the more backups you can force onto the field, the better it is for you.
c. Aaron Rodgers is at his best outside of the pocket in the 4/5 WR sets. There is typically more room for him to run should it come to that, and with only 4-5 rushers and a lot of space, he can also buy time. If you give Jordy Nelson 7 seconds he will come open against a Nickel defender.
Soldier Field injects a lot of randomness into Bear home games. The wind is often howling off the lake which makes it colder and more difficult to pass effectively. The field is famously terrible ad players routinely slip and fall. The Packers would like nothing more than a nice calm day. If weather makes it difficult to throw the deep ball, the Packers will be in big trouble.
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