CHICAGO—The Packers defense is getting healthy and rounding into playoff form.
The defensive effort on Sunday rivaled the first one this season against the Bears, only this time more was at stake. In a 21-13 NFC North-clinching victory at Soldier Field, the Packers held the Bears to 190 yards, shut them out on third down, sacked quarterback Jay Cutler four times and intercepted him once, and limited the talkative Brandon Marshall to just 56 yards receiving.
It marked the second time this year the Bears gained less than 200 yards against the Packers, and in a more physical, pushing-and-shoving kind of game, Green Bay won a playoff-like battle.
“I think we’re hitting our peak at the right time,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said.
The Packers were at their best Sunday in tough spots. Protecting a two-score lead in the second half, twice the Bears were in the red zone but came away with only field goals.
On the first one, the Bears ran Matt Forte twice from the one-yard line, but the Packers stuffed him. A fourth-down pass to receiver Alshon Jeffery resulted in an offensive pass interference call, and the Bears kicked.
Then, after the Packers turned the ball over on an ill-advised, botched trick play, the Bears had a first down at the Green Bay 16 but went nowhere. Another try for Jeffery in the end zone was broken up by Sam Shields, and the ensuing field goal kept the Packers ahead by a full TD, 21-13.
“Sometimes you can’t help how a team gets down there, but we were able to come through,” Raji said. “We take pride up front.”
Shields had his pride challenged multiple times by Jeffery and the Bears. In the third quarter, Shields was called for illegal contact trying to run with Jeffery down the sideline when Jeffery actually grabbed his facemask and threw him aside.
After that, however, the officials were watching the rookie Jeffery closely, and he was called for three offensive pass interference penalties – the aforementioned one in the end zone on fourth down, and two others on deep balls down the sideline. The Bears weren’t happy with the calls, but they looked legit, and Shields, who has been on the wrong end of several iffy calls this season, will certainly take them.
“He was looking like, ‘Why’d they call it on me?’” Shields said. “But everybody (could) see it. He really pushed me. I just went to the next play.”
One last fight between Jeffery and Shields went Shields’ way, too. With the Bears facing fourth down from their own 45 with just over two minutes left, Cutler tried one more lob to Jeffery, but Shields broke it up. He may have grabbed a little jersey as the ball came down, but Jeffery’s arms had a clear shot, and he couldn’t come up with it.
Jeffery, who drew a pass interference call on safety Morgan Burnett to get the Bears into the red zone in the third quarter, ended up without a catch and had only one reception in two games against the Packers this season.
“Matching up with him last time (in Week 2), it wasn’t like that,” Shields said. “It wasn’t so much pushing, shoving. I guess their game plan was to be aggressive, that’s what he did and he got caught.”
Cutler also got caught in the Packers’ grasp a handful of times. Clay Matthews, returning from a four-game absence, had two of the four sacks, getting both on stunts with Raji and defensive lineman Mike Neal.
Neal added 1 ½ sacks, and the pressure on Cutler was a big reason the Bears were 0-for-9 on third downs.
“Getting Clay back is a big deal for us,” said rookie cornerback Casey Hayward, who had his sixth interception on the season, helping the Packers take the lead for good by halftime. “I’m glad he’s back.”
Matthews added: “We’re definitely going in the right direction when we need to be.”
The defense’s health may only improve from here on out, too. Charles Woodson could return to the secondary as soon as next week, as the Packers will be fighting for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye over their final two regular-season games.
“To add a guy like Charles with his playmaking ability to our defense, it’s only going to help us out,” Matthews said. “Hopefully that’s the case, having some time to sit back, watch this defense, get him little hungry – I know I was out there today – to make some plays.”
Additional coverage - Dec. 16