Packers 31, Bears 23: 2-minute drill

Packers 31, Bears 23: 2-minute drill

Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 31-23 season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field, where the Packers extended their success against their southern rivals to 10 victories in their last 11 meetings, including five in a row in the Windy City:

Thumbs up: Remember what Aaron Rodgers looked like at the end of last season? Gimping around with a torn left calf, the Packers quarterback still did enough in the final two weeks of the regular season and in a pair of playoff games to have his team on the cusp of Super Bowl XLIX, but he knew he wasn’t his NFL MVP self without the ability to not only get out of the pocket to extend plays but also his remarkable knack for eluding rushers and trash inside a collapsing pocket.

While the Packers got a glimpse of an on-the-move Rodgers in the exhibition opener at New England, when he played a preseason-high 33 snaps, it wasn’t until Sunday’s victory over the Bears that everyone was reminded what a different player Rodgers is when he’s able to do what he does best: Escape pressure, extend plays and drive defenses crazy with his legs.

“That’s huge,” Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb said of Rodgers being back to normal. “We know how much that helps us as an offense, those extended plays. We’ve been great on them over the years, and we’re just continuing to try to do that.”

At 31, Rodgers may have one of the NFL’s best arms, but he’s not ready to be the stay-in-the-pocket quarterback he was relegated to being late in the year after he injured his calf on Dec. 21 at Tampa Bay, reinjured it against Detroit in the regular-season finale the following week and then was clearly affected by it in playoff games against Dallas and Seattle.

“It’s a different offense when I go do some of those things,” said Rodgers, who was 18 of 23 for an efficient 189 yards with three touchdowns (140.5 rating) but also had eight rushes for 35 yards – one of which was a 2-yard QB sneak and the other a game-ending kneel down.

Rodgers had a nifty quasi-option run on which he scrambled and flipped the ball to tight end Richard Rodgers, but his best on-the-move play came during the Packers’ remarkable 9-minute, 31-second drive in the second half, when he was unaccounted for against man coverage and ran for 12 yards on third-and-8 to keep the drive alive. A few plays later, he took off again for a 15-yard gain and another first down.

“If you want to play some two-man and not have a guy on me, that’s the risk you take,” said Rodgers, who early in the game had a rollout to his left that temporarily led to an 8-yard touchdown strike to James Jones – until it was nullified by a holding penalty. “We had some conversions there with my feet.

“As long as I’m able to do those kind of things, it gives an extra element to our offense. That’s what I train so hard in the offseason for, to be able to extend plays like that. I like to throw it a lot of times when I’m out there but every now and then you can bust out a run like that and it can really change the defense’s calls moving forward, as they really have to put a guy on you.”

Thumbs down: Give credit where it’s due: The Packers defense was able to deliver some key stops during the fourth quarter, stopping the Bears with a goal line stand (why Bears coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase didn’t run the ball at least once after being first-and-goal at the Green Bay 6 was baffling) and with Clay Matthews’ victory-clinching interception late. But the truth of the matter was that the group didn’t look good for much of the game – No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields had a particularly horrible day – and the defensive players knew it.

“It’s the first game,” veteran outside linebacker and ex-Bear Julius Peppers said. “We definitely need to get better, not only against the run but in all areas. I’m pretty confident we’ll do that.”

The run defense was the problem early, as Bears running back Matt Forte surpassed the 100-yard mark before halftime (16 carries, 105 yards). Forte finished with 141 yards on 24 carries – an alarming number that harkened back to the Packers giving up 153 yards per game as the league’s worst run defense during the first half of last season.

“We had an inclination that they were going to try to run the ball,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “He’s just a good player. We have to do some things better, clean some things up, but a guy like that you can’t necessarily say you can’t stop him for the whole game.”

Shields had a costly offsides penalty on a Robbie Gould field goal that led the Bears to take points off the board and eventually led to a touchdown, and was also badly beaten for a 50-yard Cutler-to-Marquess Wilson gain and a 10-yard Alshon Jeffery gain on the next play. Only the goal-line stand prevented the Bears from potentially tying the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

“For as many yards as they got, outside of that last drive, we held them to one touchdown,” defensive end Mike Daniels said, pointing out the Bears’ 402-yard day. “We need figure out what we’re doing better down there in that red zone and make sure we translate that to open field.”

Player of the game: At kickoff, it had been exactly seven days since James Jones’ Delta flight had landed at Austin Straubel International Airport. Three hours later, there was no doubt why the Packers were so adamant about adding the ex-Oakland Raider, ex-New York Giant and, yes, ex-Green Bay Packer.

“It was fun man, just to get back out here with the guys and get back out here with an offense that I’m familiar with and continue where I left off,” said Jones, who caught four passes for 51 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. “It just felt good to get out there and get in the groove of things. A lot of work to do.”

The 31-year-old Jones caught 310 passes for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first seven seasons in Green Bay, playing one season with Brett Favre and six with Rodgers. In Oakland, his quarterbacks were Matt Schaub, Matt McGloin and Derek Carr and he caught a career-best 73 passes but was still cut in May. Jones then led the Giants in receiving this preseason and was cut again.

“Amazing. Amazing. I was excited to have him back and see him make the plays that he made,” wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “You’re just amazed to know a guy like that has been cut by two teams in five months.”

Play of the day: “That was the play of the game, no doubt about it,” Julius Peppers said. Who are we to argue? The Packers veteran outside linebacker was of course referring to Matthews’ interception, on which he stepped in front of a Jay Cutler pass intended for tight end Martellus Bennett and snared it. His ensuing 48-yard return set the Packers up for Eddie Lacy’s 2-yard touchdown which pushed their lead to 31-16.

Asked what his responsibilities were supposed to be on the clinching play, Matthews replied tongue-in-cheek, “Getting an interception. … Drop into coverage. … Make a pick. … Be the hero.”

Inside slant: While they had four dry runs in preseason, this marked the first regular-season game in which Packers coach Mike McCarthy was not the offensive play-caller since he was the Packers’ quarterbacks coach in 1999. From 2000 through 2004, he called the New Orleans Saints’ plays as their offensive coordinator; in 2005, he did the same for the San Francisco 49ers in that role. He then called his own plays from 2006 through 2014 with the Packers before ceding the job this offseason.

McCarthy revealed during the week that he actually was planning to give up the job in 2012 and hand it off to offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, but Philbin left after the 2011 season to be the Miami Dolphins’ head coach.

McCarthy said he was pleased with how the logistics of the new setup went, and he didn’t seem to miss the job.

“It’s all about communication,” McCarthy said. “Obviously the game-planning that goes on and the connection that the quarterback and the veteran players have with our offensive staff, all those things are factors that we don’t talk much about. We’ve got a group of men that have spent a lot of time together. I was really never concerned on the operation, the game-planning, the communication network. All that worked out pretty darned good today.

“Yeah. It’s different, but I enjoyed it. Winning’s great.”

Rodgers, who had associate head coach/offense Tom Clements in his ear instead of McCarthy, also felt the system worked well for the first real time out. He also said that the Packers have reconfigured their bench area so when the defense is on the field and the offense is on the sideline, the entire offense is at one end of the bench instead of being scattered by position group.

“I think that has definitely helped communication during the game,” Rodgers said. “Now it’s the offensive line, and then basically us, the receivers, the running backs and the tight ends. We’re trying to increase communication during the game and I think it was very positive.

“We had a couple of things we kind of drew up on the sidelines that worked for us. It was a good process for us today. We’ve got to keep improving, but I think it was a good start.”

By the numbers:

Jay Cutler’s 13 career starts against the Packers (1-12 record):
Oct. 29, 2007: Packers 19, Broncos 13 – 21/34, 264 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 95.7 rating.
Sept. 13, 2009: Packers 21, Bears 15 – 17/36, 277 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 43.2 rating.
Dec. 13, 2009: Packers 21, Bears 14 – 23/36, 209 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 74.9 rating.
Sept. 27, 2010: Bears 20, Packers 17 – 16/27, 221 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 82.5 rating.
Jan. 2, 2011: Packers 10, Bears 3 – 21/39, 168 yards, 0 TD, 2 INTs, 43.5 rating.
Jan. 23, 2011*: Packers 21, Bears 14 – 6/14, 80 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 31.8 rating.
Sept. 25, 2011: Packers 27, Bears 17 – 21/37, 302 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 78.9 rating.
Sept. 13, 2012: Packers 23, Bears 10 – 11/27, 126 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 28.2 rating.
Dec. 16, 2012: Packers 21, Bears 13 – 12/21, 135 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 72.5 rating.
Dec. 29, 2013: Packers 33, Bears 28 – 15/24, 226 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 103.8 rating.
Sept. 28, 2014: Packers 38, Bears 17 – 22/34, 256 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 82.5 rating.
Nov. 9, 2014: Packers 55, Bears 14: 22/37, 272 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 68.7 rating.
Sept. 13, 2015: Packers 31, Bears 23: 18/36, 225 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 67.5 rating.
* – 2010 NFC Championship Game.
Quote, unquote: “It’s good to be 1-0.” – McCarthy, on winning the team’s first regular-season opener since 2011.

Injury report: The Packers lost inside linebacker Sam Barrington, who was questionable for the game with an ankle injury, during the first half when he aggravated said ankle injury. His was the only injury the Packers announced after the game. Nate Palmer took his place. Safety Morgan Burnett (calf) was inactive. Wide receiver Randall Cobb (shoulder) played in pain as the game wore on but was able to continue without coming out.

Up next: The Packers and Seattle Seahawks renew acquaintances from their NFC Championship Game battle next Sunday at Lambeau Field.