Thu, 28 Jan 2021

Chicago ranks best on third down and in red zone, but run defense is middle of the pack Mike Spofford

GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur has a foolproof plan for success against Chicago's top-ranked third-down defense.

"Stay out of third down," the Packers head coach said with a laugh on Wednesday.

That would be ideal, but the Packers of course won't be able to do that for four quarters Sunday night.

Inevitably some key third-down situations will present themselves between the Bears' No. 1 unit in terms of defensive efficiency (33%) and the Packers' No. 4 group on the offensive side (47.9%).

LaFleur believes the Bears' success on third down stems in part from a "challenging" mentality, suggesting Chicago is less about tricks and disguises and more about matching up physically in certain spots.

"They're not afraid to get up in your face and press you and play man coverage," LaFleur said. "You're going to have to win one-on-one battles."

That goes for up front as well as on the perimeter, and how healthy the Bears will be remains up in the air.

Star defensive tackle Akiem Hicks injured his hamstring in the Bears' last game, before their bye week, and did not practice Wednesday. Also, Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, though he has a chance to be cleared by Sunday.

To quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the strength of the Bears' defense in general - not just on third down - is the combination of the pass rush with "smart, intelligent, savvy players" in the secondary.

Khalil Mack and Hicks are in their third year together as a dynamic inside-outside pass-rush duo, while Kyle Fuller is the veteran corner anchoring the secondary along with Jackson.

Overall, the Bears are ninth in yards allowed and sixth in points. Along with ranking first on third down, they're also tops in the red zone, allowing TDs on 44.1% of possessions inside the 20, the only team in the NFC under 50%.

But if there's one area statistically that surprisingly hasn't been as stout, it's their defense against the run.

Chicago is ranked 14th in the league (one spot behind Green Bay), allowing 115 yards per game. Some of that has grown from the Bears' current four-game losing streak, with opponents protecting leads and running the ball frequently in the second half.

But if there are some cracks up front the Packers can attack, it would help set up manageable third downs as well as a play-action game to protect Rodgers from the pass rush and get him in a rhythm.

It's been three weeks since the Packers topped 100 yards rushing as a team in a game, and the 1-2 backfield punch of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams hasn't rediscovered its early-season form since Jones' return from a calf injury.

"For us to be at our best offensively, we've got to get the run game going," LaFleur said. "Those are explosive players. We've got to give them the touches.

"I think we still gotta be persistent and continue to grind away at that."

LaFleur is the first one to admit he hasn't stayed committed to the running game as much as he needs to at times. Also, some of the offense's quick flare passes to the outside are checks at the line out of a running play based on the defensive look.

Those are important to avoid running into a loaded box, but then the lack of running plays minimizes the impact of play-action and other routes out of the bunch and stack formations that can keep defenses on their heels.

"We've got to kind of get back to running the football a little better to continue to free up some of those other things we like doing," Rodgers said.

So while the best answer against the Bears on third down might be to convert on second down as much as possible, the more realistic one might be banging away with Jones and Williams.

And if it doesn't work right away, keep after it until it does. If the Packers' defense can hold down the Bears' struggling offense, there should be plenty of opportunity to find the ground game the Packers need.

"We're going to stick with it," LaFleur vowed. "We're going to keep fighting, scratching, clawing to figure out how to get this thing going because we have a lot of faith in our runners."

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