For once, the Packers may have dodged a bullet on the injury front.
That was the phrase used by team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie when he spoke to Head Coach Mike McCarthy after Sunday’s game following his examination of right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s knee.
Bulaga’s leg was rolled into by a Chicago defender, knocking Bulaga out of the game in the first quarter. One possibility on such a play is always an ACL tear, which is a season-ending injury, but for now it’s been classified as a sprained and bruised knee. McCarthy said he expects to get more information in a day or so, and he didn’t give a timetable for Bulaga’s return, but he didn’t rule him out of this week’s game against Denver.
“I’ll have a better idea on Wednesday,” McCarthy said. “We’ll see what the doctors have to say after they get through all the scans.”
Running back Ryan Grant’s status for this week is also up in the air after being diagnosed with a kidney bruise. Backup outside linebacker and special-teamer Brad Jones also has a hamstring strain, though he finished the game. McCarthy didn’t speculate on the severity of either injury.
If Bulaga is sidelined this week, second-year lineman Marshall Newhouse will take his place, as Newhouse did on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The coaches were pleased with Newhouse’s performance at right tackle, particularly because he gets most of his practice reps on the other side, at left tackle when Chad Clifton is resting. Newhouse had to react in a hostile road environment to all the stunts and games the Bears like to play with their defensive linemen, and he responded.
“They twisted a good bit,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said. “They did a lot of line moves, and I thought overall, for the most part, he handled that very well. In the running game, there were a couple of things here and there he needs to do better, but I thought for getting thrown into that situation, he did well.”
Two other things the Packers did well in their victory over the Bears was running the ball and stopping the run.
Grant gashed the Bears for 92 yards on 17 carries, with seven runs going for between nine and 14 yards. On the film, Philbin liked both the patience and aggressiveness he saw from Grant as he cut back, saying he “looked like the old Ryan Grant.”
The coaches also liked the way Grant lowered his pads and took on defenders.
“He’s a bull,” McCarthy said. “You have to give him the ball. He gets better as the game moves forward. He’s an excellent north-south runner. I don’t think the defensive players probably enjoy tackling him a whole lot, because it’s a blow-for-blow running style.”
The Packers got the better of those blows against the Bears’ running game, too, limiting Matt Forte to just two yards on nine attempts.
Most notable is the fact the Packers were shutting down the Bears’ ground game with a nickel defense, which employs only two down linemen up front. The two outside linebackers act as the defensive ends in the nickel, and Clay Matthews and Erik Walden both attacked with fervor.
McCarthy said he believes Matthews is playing the run the best he has in this three seasons in the NFL. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said Matthews was simply beating Chicago’s pulling guards with his athleticism to get in the backfield and make stops, more than one of which was behind the line of scrimmage.
“Most people, when they see you trot nickel out there, they say, ‘Well, let’s run the ball against it,’” said Capers, who always feels that stopping the run early is the key, because offenses will get impatient and abandon it. “If we can’t play the run out of nickel then we won’t play it nearly as much as we do on first and second down.”
The two down linemen in that package – normally B.J. Raji and either Ryan Pickett or Jarius Wynn – have been so stout that inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk have rounded out what’s becoming a “front six,” with cornerback Charles Woodson not needed as much in run-support as expected.
“Our inside guys are just anchors, and they’re doing a good job absorbing two (blockers) and letting Bishop and A.J. run to the ball,” McCarthy said.
The success stopping the run kept the “sticks” in Green Bay’s favor all game. On Chicago’s 12 third downs, only once did the Bears need less than five yards to convert, and seven times they needed 10 or more yards.
That said, there are still issues on both sides of the ball the coaches want cleaned up.
For as productive as the ground game was, Philbin wasn’t pleased with the number of stalled runs and would like to see more consistency. On the combined 15 carries for Grant and James Starks in the second half on Sunday, 10 went for one, zero or negative yards. The offense also had five false starts and two delay-of-game penalties, the type of pre-snap infractions that McCarthy noted have become a problem at Soldier Field.
On defense, Capers felt his unit gave up too many big plays and still missed too many tackles. The Bears had pass gains of 37, 24, 40 and 28 yards in a span of 10 snaps in the second quarter, and three tackles were missed on tight end Kellen Davis’ 32-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter.
“The way you score points in this league is making big plays, and I just feel if people don’t make many big plays against us, they’ll have a hard time scoring points,” Capers said.
Still, the Packers are one of only three teams in the league at 3-0, with Washington trying to become the fourth on Monday night. It’s precisely where coaches love to be – unblemished but by no means flawless.
“We have a lot of work to do,” McCarthy said. “We’re 3-0. It’s a good place to be in, knowing you won all your games, but you know you’re not scratching the surface of how good you can be as a team.” Additional coverage - Sept. 26