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James Jones rocks in first game back
By CHRIS HAVEL
The Packers relied on a couple of trusted difference-makers Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
First, there was James Jones snaring two touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers in the Packers’ 31-23 victory over the Bears. It was as if the pitcher-catcher duo had never been separated for a year.
And then there was Jay Cutler, the Bears’ self-destructive quarterback, crumbling at the most inopportune moment. Cutler’s fourth-quarter interception on a pass intended for tight end Martellus Bennett at the Green Bay 20, and Clay Matthews’ subsequent 48-yard return, effectively sealed the Bears’ fate.
It was Bears head coach John Fox’s first foray into the Packers-Bears rivalry and it merely confirmed what he suspected.
“Green Bay is a pretty good football team,” he told reporters. “We were going to have to be near flawless to beat them and we didn’t quite reach that. I think there were a lot of positive things that we’ll be able to build on as a football team moving forward as we get ready for Arizona.”
The Bears (0-1) proved themselves to be a dangerous team, especially when Matt Forte (141 yards rushing, including 105 yards in the first half) is on top of his game.
Clearly, though, Chicago is in rebuilding mode. The Packers, on the other hand, are in “full speed ahead” mode.
Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy implored his team to get off to a fast start this season.
“This is our starting point,” McCarthy said Sunday. “This is who we are as a team today. A lot of good things to go off of, a lot of things we can learn from.”
Here are several key “learning points”:
The Packers’ front seven was a little softer than hoped for against the run. Forte is an excellent ball carrier, but the Packers’ defense needs to step it up with Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles coming to Lambeau Field.
Run defense is like an accordion. It expands or contracts (sideline to sideline) depending on what the offense does. Maintaining gap integrity means the defenders slide in unison leaving the ball carrier only a minimal gap to run through. In turn, the linebackers and/or safeties are supposed to meet the ball carrier in the gap and strike a blow. If the gap gets too wide, or in some cases too narrow (defenders bunched up), a great running back will split the defenders and be off to the races.
It happened too frequently with Forte, but bear in mind the Pack was without four defensive starters for all of most of the game. Morgan Burnett, rated as one of the best run-stopping safeties in the NFL, was a game day scratch and Sam Barrington went out early with an ankle injury. Couple that with two DL out on suspensions, and you can see why the D was not hitting on all cylinders.
Datone Jones’ return from a one-game suspension will help shore up the defensive line, as will Letroy Guion’s return when his three-game suspension is up.
The Packers’ inside linebackers did a credible job in pass coverage, highlighted by Matthews’ mammoth interception. However, they need to step up their effort against the run, by reacting quicker and becoming more impactful.
The Packers’ offense proved it can function at a high level without Jordy Nelson. Jones’ return was critical for Green Bay. He is a reliable receiver who shares great chemistry with the quarterback. And the icing is that he is playing like a man with something to prove. The Raiders and Giants gave the Pack an early holiday gift by cutting him loose for Green Bay to scoop up at a most opportune time.
Randall Cobb showed once again why pound-for-pound he’s one of the toughest men in the NFL. He fought through a painful shoulder injury and still managed to be very effective.
Davante Adams was strong and Ty Montgomery showed his mettle on special teams with a terrific kick return.
*Speaking of special teams, the Packers’ units were better than last year’s disappointing outfit. The ball-control Bears only punted once and the Packers only punted twice, so punt return/coverage wasn’t a factor. Perhaps McCarthy’s interest and influence on special teams will be the glue that leads to consistency and respectability.
Aaron Rodgers is amazing. Rodgers threw for three touchdowns to raise his win-loss record to 13-3 versus the Bears. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 189 yards and was in control throughout. Rodgers also picked up a few first downs by rushing for another 38 yards.
Mr. Rodgers spread the ball around nicely, finding Jones four times for 51 yards and two TD’s and allowing Cobb, Adams and Montgomery to stay in their pre-Nelson injury roles.
“Like many other guys that have gone elsewhere and come back, there is a comfort in this offense for guys who have flourished in it at times,” Rodgers said. “And I think James is one of those guys that really feels comfortable in this offense.”
Julius Peppers remains a big-game player. He rose up to get 1 ½ sacks and looked frisky throughout. He seems to get a little more juiced fir the Bears.
Eddie Lacy rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown with a familiar combination of power and niftiness. And throw in a circus catch and run for a first down in quarter one.
Richard Rodgers was solid at tight end. He caught everything that was thrown his way and he blocked fine. He’ll keep getting better.
Now, the Packers must prepare in earnest for the Seahawks, a 34-31 overtime loser at St. Louis in their season opener. Beat Seattle and the Pack have a great advantage over them in the NFC early, two games up plus the tie-breaker for playoff seeding (the thing they didn’t have last year sending them to the west coast rather than playing at Lambeau in the Championship game). Lose and we may be headed there again this January.
As Week 2 matchups go in the NFL, Sunday night’s Seahawks-Packers game is about as good as it gets. Let’s get the win!
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.