Can Bears new weapons on offense keep pace with Packers?
Linebacker Clay Matthews and his Packers teammates will see a new offensive look from quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears Thursday in Green Bay, Wis.
The comparisons among the Bears' Jay Cutler, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Lions' Matthew Stafford are inevitable and will continue as long as they all reside in the same division.
The Vikings hope Christian Ponder will soon be included in the discussion of franchise quarterbacks of the NFC North, but he's got a ways to go before he joins the club.
The Cutler-Rodgers comparison will be front and center in Thursday night's nationally televised game at Lambeau Field. And, for the first time, it will be a valid comparison. That's because, for the first time, Cutler and Rodgers have a similar set of weapons.
The Bears' QB is 1-5 vs. the Packers. But in those first six games, Cutler was armed with a Daisy Red Rider BB gun, while Rodgers brandished an Uzi. Now it's a fair fight.
The Packers had five players last season with 6 receiving touchdowns. The Bears had none.
However, with the addition of king-sized wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery the playing field has been leveled for Cutler. Marshall had 23 TD catches in his three seasons as a starter in Denver, two of them with Cutler as his quarterback. Jeffery caught 23 TD passes in his three years at South Carolina. Each player had a TD in the opener.
"I think they definitely have a chance to be a complete offense as far as the run and the pass," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "They have the ability to challenge you both ways."
The Bears also have the versatile Matt Forte, who gained 120 combined rushing-receiving yards against the Colts.
Add to that running back Michael Bush, who rushed for a pair of TDs and gained 42 yards.
Rodgers had the luxury of throwing to one of the deepest receiving groups in the NFL last season. Greg Jennings "slumped" to 67 catches for 949 yards and 9 touchdowns, the first time in four years he didn't have at least 1,100 yards. Nelson had one of the biggest breakout seasons in recent years with 68 catches for 1,263 yards, an 18.6-yard average and 15 TDs. Tight end Michael Finley and wide receivers James Jones and Donald Driver, the "other" guys, scored 21 touchdowns and averaged a combined 14.2 yards per catch.
Johnny Knox was the only Bears receiver who averaged more than 14.2 yards per catch in 2011. No Bears wide receiver caught more than 37 passes.
Rodgers' uncanny accuracy, decision-making and arm strength clearly helped his receivers put up impressive numbers. The fact that the Packers often ran the ball only as a last resort also helped elevate the passing numbers. And, just as clearly, the Bears' aerial numbers suffered with Cutler missing the final six games.
But comparing the two passing offenses last year was like comparing apples and oranges.
It won't be as easy this year for Packers defensive backs to disrupt routes, which they were able to do in the past against the Bears' undersized wideouts. There have been other factors that have prevented the Bears from scoring more than 20 points in any of their last nine games against the Packers, but Cutler believes they have been addressed.
"Protection was another one," Cutler pointed out. "Just general scheme was another reason. There was a whole row of things we could go down of why we struggled against them. (Now) I think we've got a good idea. I think we've got a good scheme in a short amount of time, and we've got some players that can make some plays. So, hopefully it all adds up."
Thursday would be an ideal time for Cutler to build on his Week One numbers, especially against a team he's struggled against. He's thrown 11 interceptions in six starts vs. the Packers and just 7 TDs for a 67.5 passer rating, 17.0 points below his career mark.
But, with a level playing field, he'll at least have a fair chance of competing with the NFL's MVP.
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