The Opposite Sideline: Bears believing

Stu Courtney
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Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) shouts instructions to his teammates at the line of scrimmage during the season against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

When Green Bay opened the 2015 regular season Sept. 13 at Chicago, it was the same old story: Jay Cutler threw a costly interception, and the Packers came away with a 31-23 victory.

Same old Jay.

But since then, it has been a different story for Cutler under new coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Cutler’s mistakes have been greatly reduced. In nine games played, he has thrown only six interceptions, taken 14 sacks and fumbled five times. He’s on pace to finish much better than in 2014, when he ended up throwing 18 interceptions, taking 38 sacks and fumbling 12 times.

The Bears are showing steady improvement as well. Since losing 26-0 at Seattle in Week 3, the Bears have gone 4-3 and been in every game till the end (their largest margin of defeat has been three points). This despite losing running back Matt Forte (who burned the Packers for 166 total yards in the opener) for three games to a sprained MCL and having wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (groin and shoulder injuries) available for only five games.

We asked beat writer Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect in Thursday’s rematch with the Bears at Lambeau Field:

What’s the biggest difference in the Bears now compared to what the Packers saw in the opener?

DW: “Of the 22 guys the Bears started on offense and defense in Week 1, only 11 started last Sunday against the Broncos. So they’ve had a lot of turnover. … In general, it’s a tougher, more cohesive, more confident bunch than the one that took the field for the season opener. They’re very much in belief in this coaching staff, and they’re very much in belief of each other.”

How is Jay Cutler doing under the new coaching staff?

DW: “It’s been a good year. They’ve done what they said they were going to do. They gave him a running attack that they prioritize even when it’s not going well. They stay committed to it. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has been really good about keeping him out of unfavorable situations and reducing the sack and turnover numbers. If you look at those compared to last year, it’s eye-opening. Those are the two numbers that are most dramatically improved from last year, and the biggest reason why everyone’s perception is that he’s playing lights out. He’s just not making bad decisions.”

What is Matt Forte’s status and do they miss him much, given what Jeremy Langford has done?

DW: “Forte did say he’ll play so obviously that will be a major boost to their running game. And given what they did against the Packers in Week 1 when they were able to control the clock with the ground game in the first half and keep it close, that’s a big deal for their game plan. Langford has been really, really good, not just as a runner but as a pass catcher and in pass protection as well. They’re feeling good about using the 1-2 punch of those guys this week. … It’s definitely not a position of weakness anymore when you have two guys who can give you so much in so many different ways.”

Alshon Jeffery has been a handful when he has been able to play. What’s the outlook this week?

DW: “That’s one that probably will go right up to 90 minutes before kickoff. He wants to play, and they’re a much better offense when he’s out there. He gives their passing attack so much more of a vertical threat and Jay a chance to take some shots at man coverage and make some plays. Jeffery has played in half the games, and he’s missed half the games, so it truly has become sort of a 50-50 proposition.”

What have been strengths and weaknesses of the defense, and how will they try to handle Aaron Rodgers?

DW: “(Defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio has been the biggest strength of this defense. When you look at the personnel he has at his disposal and the way they’ve been able to perform, particularly in the last five-six weeks, it’s a team that’s really well-prepared every week. … They understand what part of the opponent’s attack they need to take away and they really have been dialed in at doing so. They’re still not getting consistent enough pressure to really scare you, and with Rodgers, you need to get some of that and you need the corners to play really well to disrupt those Packers receivers so that Rodgers shows some of that uncertainty ... it seems like he’s been a little discombobulated this month. … (Cornerback) Tracy Porter wasn’t fully healthy in Week 1. He’s really been a boost for the pass defense. A lot of savvy, a lot of competitiveness and he’s done a really good job in taking the big plays away from other teams.”

Seeing signs that John Fox has the Bears on the right track?

DW: “No question. Even the games they’ve lost have been right down to the final minute in the last two months since Week 3 when they lost to Seattle 26-0. They’ve played nothing but close games, and he’s got them right there. It’s an obvious indication that they’re well-prepared when, even though they’re undermanned with all the injuries and the lineup shuffling they had to do, that they don’t flinch or feel sorry for themselves and they just go out there and try to stay in games with toughness. And they’ve done that for seven weeks in a row now.”

Do Bears fans seem willing to allow some time for a rebuild?

DW: “I think there’s excitement over the progress. Thursday night will be a good test because you’ll remember the last trip up to Lambeau Field, they gave up six touchdowns in the first half and were down 42-0. It was one of the worst losses in history. The fans know they’re going to be a lot more competitive and even more than that, this team has given them reason to believe that things are pointed in the right direction.”

— and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt.

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