Green Bay has prided itself on taking the ball away since McCarthy took over in 2006, dedicating a portion of every practice to ball security. That focus has paid dividends as the Packers rank No. 2 in the league with 159 takeaways since ’06, including 30 this season (tied for No. 6 in the NFL). The only team ahead of Green Bay in the category since 2006? The Chicago Bears, with 170.
“Definitely they are very good,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think they are third or fourth in takeaways in the league (this season). We do a very good job of it. It’s something that we practice every single day.
“The design of their defense, the vision that they play the ball with pretty much everybody in the back end, they have been doing a very good job of it for a number of years. It’s emphasized. It’s the first thing we put up in the offensive meeting and I talked about it in the team meeting. Zero giveaways will be an important statistic this week.”
The Packers haven’t been quite as stingy as last season when they led the league with a franchise-record 16 giveaways, but Green Bay ranks No. 8 this season with just 20 turnovers. The high point of the season came in a stretch starting with the Week 8 contest at the N.Y. Jets to the Week 13 matchup with the 49ers when the Packers turned the ball over just one time, the first time in franchise history that Green Bay had one turnover over a five-game span.
Green Bay took a step back the next two weeks, giving the ball away a combined five times in back-to-back losses at Detroit and New England, but bounced back with just one turnover in last week’s 45-17 win over the N.Y. Giants.
The season finale brings a Chicago defense that is tied for No. 3 this season with 33 takeaways, the most by a Bears team since they posted the same number in 2007. Their turnover total includes 20 interceptions (No. 5) and 13 fumble recoveries (tied for No. 6). Chicago has three players with at least four interceptions, with safety Chris Harris leading the way with five and cornerbacks Charles Tillman and D.J. Moore each posting four. The Bears’ 233 takeaways since head coach Lovie Smith took over in 2004 lead the NFL.
“Ever since Coach Smith got here, he has preached taking the ball away,” said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher earlier this week in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters. “It’s a mindset. We go for the ball all of the time. We’re always thinking about stripping the football somehow. As long as we’ve got the tackle secured, we’re going to try to strip the football.
“And the picks, I think that is a lot of tipped balls. Running to the football helps get tipped balls and we have done that this year.”
Green Bay’s defense is coming off a season-high six-takeaway, four-interception performance against the Giants, and has picked off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler seven times in three matchups over the past two seasons. But he has significantly improved in that area this season, cutting his interception numbers from a league-high 26 last season to just 14. Cutler has posted four 100-plus passer rating outings in his last five games, throwing 11 touchdowns to just four interceptions. The Bears as a team have turned the ball over only 11 times in their last eight games, with four coming in their lone loss over that span, a 36-7 defeat to New England in Week 14.
“Obviously all quarterbacks are going to make mistakes if you put them in a situation to make mistakes,” said cornerback Tramon Williams, who leads the Packers with a career-high six interceptions. “For the most part this year (Cutler) hasn’t been making those, so our job is to get him to make those mistakes and hopefully that’s what we do.”
Neither team has lost this season when coming out ahead in the takeaway battle, with both the Packers and Bears recording 7-0 records when they have the edge in that category. In the Week 3 matchup in Chicago, a Green Bay turnover loomed large in the final outcome. With less than 2:30 remaining and the game tied at 17, Urlacher forced a fumble by wide receiver James Jones near the sideline on a short reception, and the Bears recovered at the Green Bay 46 to help set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning 19-yard field goal in the closing seconds.
“They flow to the ball well,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said. “One guy hits you and holds you up and everyone else is pretty much instructed to strip the ball away, kind of like our defense and the way we get takeaways.
“They take pride in what they do as far as getting the ball back to their offense. We’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that we can’t allow them to do that because this is our win-or-go-home game again.”
What to watch for
Heading into Sunday’s season finale, the Packers are on the verge of some team and individual marks.
Wide receiver Donald Driver needs 83 receiving yards to become the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving yards. He currently ranks No. 2 with 9,574 yards behind James Lofton (9,656, 1978-86).
With 505 career points, kicker Mason Crosby is tied for No. 2 in NFL history for the most points scored by a player in his first four seasons. He is currently tied with Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller (1988-91) and trails only New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski (513, 2006-09).
Jennings needs one more touchdown catch to top his previous career high (12 in 2007) and 125 yards to best his previous career mark (1,292 in 2008).
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers enters the game with a 101.9 passer rating on the season. Having posted a 103.2 rating last season, he could become the first quarterback in team history to record back-to-back 100-plus passer rating seasons.
Rodgers is also 307 yards shy of 4,000 for the season. He could become the first quarterback in NFL history to post 4,000 yards in each of his first three seasons as a starter.
The Packers rank No. 2 in the NFL in scoring defense at 15.9 points per game, which puts them on pace for their lowest mark since 1996 (13.1). If they hold the Bears to 28 points or less on Sunday, it would be the second-best scoring-defense mark since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Green Bay needs 22 points for its fourth straight 400-point season. It would be only the second time in franchise annals that the Packers accomplished that feat (1995-98).
Safety Atari Bigby (groin) and fullback Korey Hall (knee) were ruled out earlier in the week, and on Friday defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) and linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) were also ruled out for Sunday.
It will be the fourth game in a row missed for Jenkins and the third for Zombo. McCarthy said it was too early to speculate on their availability for next week if the Packers advance to the playoffs.
“When the doctors will come up and tell me they’ll be back in seven days, I’ll be glad to walk in here and say hey, they’ll be back in seven days,” McCarthy said. “That’s not the information that I’ve been given. They’re both doing all the extra treatments, going through the rehab. I’m hopeful they’ll be ready for next week.”
Tackle Chad Clifton (knees), safety Nick Collins (ribs), linebacker Clay Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle), cornerback Sam Shields (knee), linebacker Erik Walden (quadriceps), center Scott Wells (back) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) are all probable.
Shields was a full participant on Friday after not practicing on Thursday, and McCarthy said he anticipates him handling his normal nickel-cornerback and kickoff-return roles against the Bears.
For Chicago, Earl Bennett (ankle) was a limited participant on Friday and is questionable. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who had been listed with a knee injury, was taken off the report.
Additional coverage - Dec. 31