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Patchwork line must protect Rodgers

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Associated Press
December 23, 2011
— With Aaron Rodgers trying to help the Green Bay Packers secure a No. 1 playoff seed against a sputtering Chicago Bears team missing its two best offensive players, the NFL's most storied rivalry is looking pretty lopsided these days.

Going into a Sunday night matchup at Lambeau Field, the Packers can clinch home-field advantage in the NFC with a win, with the added bonus of knocking their rivals out of the playoffs and beating them for the fourth—yes, fourth—time in 2011.


The Packers may have lost their shot at a perfect season with a loss at Kansas City last week, but probably won't need a perfect performance to beat a team that has turned to Josh McCown at quarterback.


Green Bay does have one major concern, though: Can an offensive line depleted by injuries keep Rodgers from taking too many big hits from a still-dangerous Bears defensive line?


Rodgers conceded that the Packers may have to adjust their offense to compensate for a reshuffled line.


"Depending on who's playing where, you might have to tweak a few things because those guys are used to playing in certain spots," Rodgers said. "If they have to move around a little bit, it's going to take getting used to. We feel confident about the guys we're going to line up, and there's an expectation that they're going to play and play well. But you've got to be smart with the personnel you've got as well."


Kansas City got good pressure on Rodgers, including four sacks, and the Bears hope to do the same.


"We're lucky we're athletic up front," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We've got some guys who can rush the passer with four, which has helped us quite a bit. And we're pretty athletic in the back end as well, so we run around. But there's really not a whole lot you can do against him. He's going to make his plays. Hopefully we can make some as well."


The Packers could be without three of their top four offensive tackles on Sunday after injuries to starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga and backup Derek Sherrod. Bulaga sprained his left knee and has been ruled out for Sunday, while Sherrod broke his right leg and is out for the season.


Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton returned to practice this week, but it's not clear when he'll be ready to play. Clifton hurt his hamstring in the Packers' Oct. 9 victory at Atlanta, then hurt his back during the rehabilitation process.


The Packers could play Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard, Scott Wells at center, Josh Sitton at right guard and T.J. Lang at right tackle. In that scenario, Wells and Sitton would be the only starters playing their natural positions.


Even before losing Bulaga and Sherrod on Sunday, the Packers have been allowing too much pressure on Rodgers the past few weeks. Rodgers has been sacked seven times in the past two games and taken several other big hits.


"Obviously, everybody knows the sacks and the hits, problems that we've had the past few weeks," Lang said. "It's never good to watch a quarterback get hit as many times as he's getting hit. ... Our mentality is, whoever's playing, your No. 1 job is to protect the ball carrier, protect the quarterback."


Packers receivers also struggled to make up for the absence of Greg Jennings, who has a left knee sprain and is expected to return for the playoffs. But Urlacher said Rodgers' play can cover up a lot of other issues for the Packers' offense.


"No. 12's still playing quarterback, so that's all that matters in that offense," Urlacher said. "He gets rid of the ball of the football so fast and knows where to go with the ball. It may be a little bit of a weakness for them, but he's still playing quarterback for them, so they're still dangerous."


But even if the Bears deliver a typically good performance on defense, they still might struggle to score.


Jay Cutler broke his right thumb against San Diego on Nov. 20, when the Bears were 7-3. Running back Matt Forte then sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a loss to Kansas City Dec. 4, leaving the Bears without their two most critical players on offense.


Backup Caleb Hanie took over for Cutler and struggled, throwing nine interceptions in four starts, all losses. Now the Bears are turning to McCown, who hasn't started a game in four years.


McCown said trying to learn the offense in a short timeframe isn't ideal, but doesn't want to use that as an excuse.


"For anybody in any offense, it's not ideal to come in this late," McCown said. "But at the same time, like I said, as a competitor and you understand where the other guys are at is you've got to get yourself up to speed and get ready to play. Everybody expects you just to go play and play well."


The Bears already have lost to the Packers three times in 2011—the 2010 regular-season finale, the NFC title game and earlier this season at Soldier Field—and certainly don't want to make it four.


And while the playoffs aren't looking likely without Cutler and Forte, Urlacher said the Bears "need something" to at least have a shot at saving their season.


"Our offense, we're up and down," Urlacher said. "We still ran the ball pretty well. But defensively, we've just got to get more takeaways to help the offense out in the situation. Without Jay being in there, we're not the same team as we were before, so we have to compensate for that by making more plays on defense."



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