Bears in good shape with Rodgers in Minnesota

971959.png

Bears in good shape with Rodgers in Minnesota

The Bears will need to take care of business first, but if they can get past the Lions in their season finale Sunday afternoon they stand a better than decent chance of making the playoffs.
That's because the second half of their "needs-to-happen scenario" involves Aaron Rodgers playing at 3:25 in Minnesota, where he has played as well as any venue, Lambeau Field included, the last three seasons.
Rodgers, who quietly is putting together an MVP-caliber season, leads the NFL in passer rating (106.2), is second in touchdown passes (35) and ninth in passing yards (3,930) despite being sacked an NFC-high 46 times.
He is 6-3 as a starter against the Vikings, including wins in the last five meetings; he's also gone on the road to beat Minnesota in each of the last two seasons. And in the last three contests against his division foe to the north, Rodgers has averaged 340 yards on 73 percent passing and nine touchdowns to just one interception, good for a scorching passer rating of 133.0.
The Packers have averaged 29 points in those three games, and it's Rodgers' poise and ability to exploit defenses on a fast surface that has led the way. In fact, Rodgers has played 17 games indoors in his eight-year career and has a passer rating of 114.7, more than 12 points higher than his passer rating outdoors (101.9).
Earlier this year, the Packers' defense forced two red zone turnovers against Christian Ponder to help them hang on to a 23-14 home win. The Vikings will grab the NFC's No. 6 seed with a win, while the Bears (assuming a win over Detroit) would earn the seed if Rodgers takes care of business.
The Packers have a stake in Sunday's game as well. With a win or a 49ers loss, Green Bay would secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a bye to the Divisonal Round. San Francisco also plays late (vs. Arizona), so the Packers won't know whether they have their seeding locked up when they take the Metrodome field. The Packers and Bears can not play until the NFC Championship game.
Lovie Smith and the Bears have noted all week that they are solely focused on their own matchup, and rightfully so. The Packers-Vikings result won't mean anything if the Bears can't shut down Calvin Johnson and co. on the road. But if they do pick up a road win and move to 10-6, the last game they need to fall right will be led by a red-hot Rodgers playing in one of his most successful venues.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.