Packers can't afford to have defense go cold

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) tries to tackle wide receiver Cameron Meredith (81) by the shirt against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field Sunday, December 18, 2016.

CHICAGO – The Green Bay Packers moved one step closer to making the playoffs and maybe one step further from doing anything once they get there.

If the Packers' defense is going to finish games the way it did Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, they may be headed for another one of those late-game, heartbreaking exits from the postseason.

“This is NFC football,” nose tackle Letroy Guion said. “It’s not over until 60 minutes tick off the clock. It was just an up-and-down game. We did good and then we didn’t. They fought us the whole way. Give them credit.

“But we have to step on their throats and finish then off. We can’t relax. We have to keep the pressure on them and get the win right away.”

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The Packers should be tired of giving other teams credit when it comes to postseason play, so if they’re going to even make it past the regular season, they’re going to have to be more ruthless against the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions the next two weeks than they were against the Chicago Bears.

When running back Christine Michael scored on a 42-yard run with 1:03 left in the third quarter, the Packers were ahead, 27-10. They already had forced Bears quarterback Matt Barkley to turn the ball over four times — three on interceptions — so it looked like they were on easy street.

All they had to do was put on their jet packs and get after Barkley.

“You have to understand coming in, it’s not going to be an easy game,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “It’s not going to be a blowout. This is a division rival. It’s one of the best rivalries in the NFL. We had to keep fighting.”

But that was the opposite of what it looked like.

Thanks to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s two interceptions and Julius Peppers’ strip sack, the Bears were barely breathing at the end of three quarters. Barkley was 15 of 23 for 196 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions (66.8 rating) and the running game had produced 54 yards.

The previous week against Seattle, the Packers finished strong. They got after quarterback Russell Wilson with their pass rush and attacked his wide receivers. They took advantage of a poor Seahawks offensive line.

Against the Bears, the Packers’ pass rush disappeared.

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A huge problem was the ineffectiveness of outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who did not post a single stat while playing a limited role as a dime rusher. Since injuring his shoulder against Philadelphia, Matthews has been a non-factor.

Throw in the absence of Nick Perry (hand), who was inactive, the loss of outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott to a hand injury early in the game and the recent inconsistency of defensive end Mike Daniels and linebacker Datone Jones and the Packers put almost no pressure on Barkley.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers wasn’t in the mood to blitz a lot given the big lead and like a storm brewing off the shores of Lake Michigan, a pall swept through Soldier Field and nearly engulfed the Packers.

“We’ve got to find a way to play all four quarters,” Clinton-Dix said. “We’ve got to keep going. We got a little too comfortable. We have to finish ballgames. We won the ballgame. I believe in our players and I know we’ll learn from it.”

After bottling up the Bears’ top receiver, Alshon Jeffery, who was making his first appearance after a four-game suspension,Capers seemed to back off from heavy double coverage and played things straight up.

Perhaps figuring the clock was the Packers’ biggest enemy, he played a soft zone coverage that seemed to play right into Chicago’s hands. Jeffery didn’t have a catch through the first three quarters, but in the fourth he caught six for 89 yards and a touchdown.

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“I think just the way they were playing — they were rotating to his side,” Barkley said. “They were playing some different looks, and that was one of my reads where I was going (away from him). (But) he was making plays when the ball came to him.”

Jeffery caught three passes for 58 yards and a touchdown and drew a defensive holding penalty on the Bears’ first possession of the fourth quarter. The Packers played zone most of the way and Barkley hit Jeffery in the middle for 23 yards and then between linebacker Matthews and cornerback Quinten Rollins in the seam for 27 more.

One play later, Barkley threw between linebacker Joe Thomas and cornerback Damarious Randall in what appeared to be another zone call for an 8-yard touchdown.

On the next series, Capers removed Randall from the game and replaced him with Rollins. Randall, who had two interceptions the previous week against Seattle, had missed several tackles and was run over at the 5-yard line by 6-foot, 211-pound receiver Josh Bellamy in the second quarter on the Bears’ first touchdown.

Asked if he was playing hurt, Randall said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the coaches?”

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On the next series, Barkley, with a nice rhythm playing no-huddle offense, proceeded to march the team 78 yards on nine plays for another touchdown. In those two scoring possession, Barkley completed 8 of 10 passes for 103 yards, completely bedeviling the Packers' defense.

“We were doing some of the things we were doing throughout the game,” cornerback Micah Hyde said of the fourth-quarter strategy. “They were just making plays. They get paid a lot of money, too and so they make adjustments.”

Just as the Packers were about to be swept over, Hyde came up with a critical pass breakup on an unusual play. The Packers got caught with 10 players on the field on third and goal at the 4 with 1:27 to go and no timeouts left.

Guion, the 11th man, sprinted down the sideline, staying out of bounds until he was onside, and then cut through the end zone in an attempt to have some sort of effect on the play. Barkley saw the Packers only had 10 on the field and snapped the ball quickly, but with Capers bringing a blitz, Barkley threw to his hot read in the flat.

Hyde was there to break up the pass to receiver Cameron Meredith and save the day. Bears coach John Fox chose to kick a field goal rather than go for the win, setting up quarterback Aaron Rodgers' and receiver Jordy Nelson's heroics, which bailed out a thankful defense.

"This is December football,” Guion said. “We’ll all playing for that big trophy. It doesn’t matter who lost the week before. We show up the next week ready to go. It’s 0-0. This win is great, but let’s get it behind us and get to the next one.”

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