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The Green Bay Packers are as determined to keep Devin Hester from beating them as Hester is to pull off the trick. Hester has the ability to take over Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, but sadly, Green Bay will have a say in whether he gets the chance. Odds are they won’t give him an opportunity.
‘‘[Seattle coach] Pete Carroll said they were going to kick to me, but unfortunately they didn’t,’’ Hester said with a weak smile. ‘‘It’s been happening for a while, so I don’t know what [Green Bay] will do.’’
Sky punts make sense
It’s fun, at least for a team like the Bears, to imagine an NFL in which teams were forced to punt inbounds. It’s one of the most exciting plays in football, especially for a team with a player like Hester. Teams give up field position if they kick off out of bounds, but working the sidelines in the punting game is not only allowed, it’s encouraged.
And that has been one of the strategies used against Hester all year. Last week, Seattle changed up a bit and concentrated on sky punts, trying to force Hester into a fair catch. Hester is better as a natural return man than a decision maker, and the idea is to make him field the ball on a fair catch. On one such play against Seattle, he collapsed to the ground after catching the ball. His only good return came when the Seahawks tried to pin him on the sideline. They would have preferred to kick out of bounds, but that’s not always the easiest thing to do at windy Soldier Field.
That’s why sky punts make sense, especially when coupled with a rugby-style kick that features the nose of the ball down on contact to create an end-over-end effect that is harder to read and field.
‘‘Seattle’s idea was to get as much hang-time as possible,’’ special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. ‘‘[Green Bay] might try the same thing because Seattle had success, no doubt about it.’’
Green Bay special teams coach Shawn Slocum said it takes a village to stop Hester, including an excellent day by the punter.
‘‘We had two — actually four — punts inside the 20, I guess, and two of them were inside the 5,’’ Slocum said. ‘‘That was really good production. The objective, when you’ve got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can do that, is you’ve got to limit, No. 1, the space that he has to operate in and, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities.’’
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the thing that i love about aaron rodgers, that tom brady does not possess, is when the OL breaks down and the play breaks down, i love how mobile he is and how well he can throw on the run passes. IMHO, if rodgers can win a SB this year, he is bound to win one more. His team, if it stays intact, is so stacked its unbelievable. I also love AR'S swagger and how accurate yet powerful his passes are.
I can’t get past Aaron Rodgers, and I don’t believe the Bears can, either.
It’s not just that Rodgers is on fire. To say he’s on fire is to imply that it’s a fleeting thing. And it’s true that the crazy numbers he put up inside the temperature-controlled Georgia Dome last week probably aren’t going to be seen at cold Soldier Field on Sunday. But underneath his flame-retardant uniform is as smart and talented a quarterback as there is. And, yes, I’ve heard of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They can’t run like he can.
I know what to expect out of Rodgers. I don’t know what I’ll get from Jay Cutler. Even in the Bears’ playoff victory over Seattle — one of Cutler’s best games of the season — there were two, maybe three passes the Seahawks could have picked off. Could have, but didn’t. Will Cutler be so careless and lucky against the Packers?
You’ll often hear quarterbacks say they’re playing against the opposing defense, not the opposing quarterback. But this is as close to a cage match of two QBs as you’re going to get. Rodgers the wise, skilled operator vs. Cutler the physically gifted, mercurial question mark.
The Packers have gotten through their share of injuries and are playing their best football of the season.
The Bears are a good football team, and, more important, they’ve improved as the season has gone along. In terms of injuries, they’ve been incredibly fortunate.
The Bears are capable of winning.
The Packers should win.
You can call that an unfortunate case of doubt, if not treason, if you want. I prefer to think of it as an absence of that last little bit of belief necessary to see the Bears through. I don’t have it. Maybe it’s because I have windburn from all the times I let the bandwagon blow past me this season. When they beat the Eagles at the end of November, they proved they could play with anybody (except, as it turned out, New England). But the Philly victory didn’t give them a police escort to the Super Bowl.
Bears fans can take consolation in the fact I’ve been wrong often this season. The team has surprised me at almost every step, and it might surprise me again Sunday. But I don’t think so.
I know all the arguments for a Bears victory. Their defense is better than the Packers’ defense. The Bears’ offensive line has come a long way. Of the three other teams left in the playoffs, the Bears have beaten two of them: the Packers and the Jets.
And then there’s this: The two Chicago-Green Bay games this season were close — 20-17 Bears at Soldier Field in Week 3 and 10-3 Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17.
This is anybody’s game, but Rodgers isn’t just anybody.
Soldier Field is going to be a madhouse Sunday. It’s so much more exciting when a team arrives unexpectedly. There is going to be so much appreciation in the air for what the Bears have accomplished this season.
But Rodgers is too hot, and even if the Bears are able to lower the burner on his stovetop a bit, he’s still too good.
Oh, and Cutler’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. A jinx can’t help.
And they will — if history, heart and good fortune have anything to do with it.
The Bears have talent.
The Bears are 12-5, and you don’t win 12 games with walk-ons.
That they played the weaker-than-water 8-10 Seahawks in Chicago in the divisional playoff game is not their fault. That they have had good breaks all along, including getting home-field advantage throughout the postseason is, again, not their fault.
That the Bears whipped the Cowboys 27-20 down in Arlington, Texas, in the second game of the season — back when everybody thought the Cowboys were Super Bowl-caliber — is not their fault.
This thing called luck is what happens in the NFL. No unlucky team has ever won anything.
If you don’t get some breaks — like having teams punt to Devin Hester — you’re screwed. But then, if those teams don’t kick to Hester, they lose field position by aiming out of bounds or maybe even shanking punts. Their bad luck? No, your talent.
The Bears have a quarterback, Jay Cutler, who may not be quite as good as Rodgers, but who has similar size, style, running ability and ‘‘escapability.’’
Not as good as Rodgers, but close. And that’s high cotton.
If Cutler is in sync with offensive play-caller Mike Martz, and the Bears run the ball about half the time and Cutler doesn’t force passes — why can’t the Bears win?
Remember how Cutler cut up those Cowboys that September day in their glorified Vegas casino, completing 72 percent of his passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 136.7 passer rating?
He can do stuff like that.
He can do it again. He can match Rodgers zip for zap.
Fox Sports studio analyst Michael Strahan, appearing on the "TOCHO Show," was asked by host Terrell Owens which of the four remaining quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs was the easiest to rattle.
"I'd say (Mark) Sanchez and (Jay) Cutler," said Strahan, a former New York Giants defensive end. "Probably on the same boat, man. Sanchez is young. None of these guys like to be hit. Sanchez is young. And Cutler, I think if he gets under pressure, he'll just start slingin' that sucker around like free loaves of bread in the 'hood, man. I don't think he's going to sit back there hold it and be cool with it."
Said Owens: "I feel like the guy is color blind. Just going to be tossing it, slinging it everywhere. At some point he is going to be the Jay Cutler that we all know . . . . When he just throws the ball anywhere."
CBS-TV's Phil Simms during a conference call with reporters on Thursday was asked to rate the four quarterbacks in the NFL championships games Sunday in a variety of categories.
Simms was asked about what Cutler does the best.
"It's evident," Simms said. "He can throw that ball. I mean, Jay Cutler, coming out of Vanderbilt, (people said) throwing is overrated. I laughed. Really? Tell me about that. How overrated are these throwing arms now? We've got four guys left in the playoffs who can flat out throw it. . . . Basically, when the offensive coordinator goes in there on Monday, they have no limitations. When they draw the play up, they know their quarterback has the ability to make that play. You can't say that about all NFL quarterbacks. Sanchez - one day it will be all about him with the New York Jets. But it's just not there yet."
Simms was asked if Cutler's arm was stronger than any of the other three quarterbacks.
"Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers are at the top, and I would probably give Aaron Rodgers just a little bit of a nudge if we are just talking about really letting it go and who can throw it the hardest," Simms said.
That's because Williams really identifies more with being a hard worker. And that's no gift.
That's a choice.
And he chooses - after a full day of practice, classroom work and weightlifting - to come home to his wife, Shantrell, a former standout basketball player, and their infant son. And he chooses, after spending time with them, not to zone out in front of the TV or play around on the computer, but to disappear into his home office, where he studies film for three hours, sometimes until 1 a.m.
"The time flies when I'm watching film," Williams said.
"I've always put effort into studying," Williams said. "I study about three different ways. Each way you learn something different. That's what's been helping me out."
Williams was a first-team all-district player at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, La. But, in an area known for its bayous and sugarcane, he worked odd jobs - like stocking shelves at the supermarket; shoveling coal and cleaning machines at the plant; and welding, cleaning tractors and planting the spring crop on his uncle's farm.
He even worked for a construction company that put up a building on the Louisiana State University campus.
He did not think football was his path to success, so he went on to Louisiana Tech to pursue an electrical engineering degree.
But that first semester at Louisiana Tech, he happened to attend a football game against Boise State.
"I watched the DBs and I was like, 'I could go out there, you know what I'm saying?' Williams said.
Williams tried out for the team the next spring as the only walk-on. Former Tech coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was walking by when he saw him take the vertical leap test (charted at 42.5 inches later at his Green Bay tryout).
"I just stopped dead in my tracks," Bicknell said in 2008. "I said, 'Let me see that one more time.' I just grabbed him and said, 'Now what exactly is your name, son?'
But after he had heard he might go in the third or fourth round, no one called draft day.
He spent the summer of 2006 with Houston as a free agent but got cut. He was brought onto the Packers' practice squad in late November that year, where he spent the rest of season.
In 2010, Williams showed up to play even though the Packers only signed him to a one-year tender. It turns out that at times he's outplayed last year's defensive payer of the year, Charles Woodson. Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said often that Williams has had a Pro Bowl-deserving year, but he is also impressed with his film study.
"The smartest players in this league are always the your best players," McCarthy said. "Tramon's the guy that's always in the front row with his book taking the notes. He's been doing that since he arrived. He has a total understanding of the defensive system. What's exciting about Tramon: He still has a lot of football growth in his game ahead of him. He's still relatively young."
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. picked a few players from each of the remaining NFL playoff teams he thought would be X-factors in the championship games. These are players apart from the stars on each team.
The Packers he selected were cornerback Tramon Williams, fullback John Kuhn, wide receiver Jordy Nelson and nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Some of Horton's comments about each player:
Williams: "Has become a terrific ball hawk in this aggressive defense and will take some chances to make the big play. . . . His emergence will give cornerback Charles Woodson freedom to blitz more."
Kuhn: "He can be productive in short-yardage and goal-line situations, in the bone formation, on cover teams and even as a receiver out of the backfield."
Nelson: "Not overly flashy, but he has size and good route-running skills. He is effective out of the slot versus Cover 2 and just know how to get open."
Raji: "Has been almost unblockable in the 3-4 or 4-3 and can bring the inside pressure the QBs hat with his power and quickness. He frees up linebacker Clay Matthews for some inside blitzes."
The Bears Horton picked were tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Johnny Knox, cornerback Charles Tillman and wide receiver Earl Bennett.
Horton's comments on those players:
Olsen: "Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has not often used tight ends in the passing game, but Olsen is really effective on seam routes when he releases after an initial block."
Knox: "A legitimate deep threat in this offense, and in addition to his great speed, he will go over the middle and turn a short catch into a long gain."
Tillman: "He is an old-fashioned physical cornerback with the size to match up with big receivers. He can reroute them at the line of scrimmage and hold up in coverage when the Bears blitz."
Bennett: "Excellent third-down option and a solid chain mover. When Knox goes deep, he has good room underneath."
Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders wrote a story for ESPN Insider about the issue of injuries the Packers suffered this season compared to the Bears.
Football Outsiders has a metric called Starter Games Lost (SGL), which it keeps for each team in the NFL. It counts the number of games missed by players who would have been in the starting lineup if they were healthy.
By this count, the Packers starters missed 83 games this season, second in the league only to Indianapolis, which had 89.
The Bears' SGL count is just 11, tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the fewest in the NFL.
I've spent most of Smith's tenure in Chicago complaining about his emphasis on stripping the football rather than tackling the person with the ball. It has seemed to me the game was tackle football, not strip football.
Forget all that. The Bears must try to knock the ball loose at every chance.
We can safely assume that Rodgers is going to be as efficient as an ATM on Sunday because he almost always is. The Bears' defense is set up to not allow the long gain. It's set up to bend and make the offense break with a fumble or an interception.
It's almost a given that Rodgers is going to be able to pick apart the secondary with smart passes. But it's time for Charles Tillman to do his thing and rip the ball loose after one or two of those completions. The Bears have a blueprint of how to beat the Packers, and they need to attempt to follow it. They won that September game, 20-17. They took advantage of a fumble and some stupidity.
Smith won't have to go far looking for ways to motivate his players. Most experts are picking the Pack to win. He can hold up Monday's Green Bay Press-Gazette and point out that in a headline, the paper spelled "Chicago" as "Chicaco." Such disrespect!
Weight stories are tough. They're just so personal. No one wants to talk about what they're draggin' in their wagon. Those weights listed on the Packers roster for some guys are probably about as accurate as what we put on our driver's licenses.
But get a load of Green Bay's defensive line:
Left end Ryan Pickett, 340 pounds.
Nose tackle B.J. Raji, 337 pounds.
Right end Howard Green, 340 pounds.
That's 1,017 pounds up front - the largest 3-4 defensive line in the NFL.
"There are few guys in the league who have the size and ability to take on double teams, hold the position and hold your ground and not get knocked off the ball," Green said. "And that's really what it's all about."
All of the linemen, including Cullen Jenkins, Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson, bring their own strengths to the table.
Green and Pickett are the brute strength guys. When Green came out of Louisiana State six years ago, he could bench press 495 pounds, he said.
But Raji is explosive and quick, with the bottom half of his body even stronger than his top.
"J.W. also has great upper-body strength," Raji said. "Other guys are more lower-body strength. Cullen is more of a quick-twitch guy, so he's not lifting as much weight in the weight room but doing a lot of fast reps just to get his muscles going."
The key to their size and great weight is balancing it with the necessary athleticism to play in the NFL.
"You want to keep your weight in an area where you can play and be physical and still keep your strength," Green said. "And not be out there just wobbling around."
The linemen say the best advantage for all that size up front is when the Packers stay in their base defense and defend the run. Green Bay allowed six rushing touchdowns in the regular season, No. 3 in the NFL. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Atlanta's Michael Turner are the only backs to have 100-yard rushing games against Green Bay since Week 3 of 2009. In the playoff game Sunday, however, Turner was held to 39 rushing yards.
"Opposing guys are probably not going to run through us. They're going to have to run around us, and that's how teams have been attacking us with the run game," Pickett said. "They try to get it to the outside. It's tough making a living running inside the tackles against us."
Green Bay's Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk lead the middle of the Packers' fifth-ranked defense.
Chicago's Lance Briggs, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Brian Urlacher fortify the No. 9 Bears.
Hard-charging and hard-headed, they all expect to make an impact. So give a respectful nod to the standout defensive lines. Look for game-changing plays and potential matchups in both secondaries. But in the biggest clash between these two teams in their long history, do not forget the middle men.
"Urlacher in Chicago and with myself in Green Bay, there's so much history," said Matthews. "Nitschke and other great players . . . it's only my second year, but we can take another step in the right direction with a win this weekend."
Pick a category from the regular season statistics and the contributions from the linebackers show up everywhere.
Matthews, Bishop, Briggs and Urlacher all have two forced fumbles each.
They all have at least one interception. Briggs has two. Hawk has three.
Matthews and Bishop both have interceptions returned for touchdowns.
The Bears linebacker are exceptional at defending passes - Urlacher has 10 defensed, Briggs has seven; Bishop and Matthews have eight and four, respectively.