Monday, September 14, 2009

Aaron Rodgers’s late bomb completes Packers comeback

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers...
Photo by AP
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reacts after throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
By Bob McGinn
/ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers slammed the door on his few remaining doubters Sunday night, unloading one pinpoint pass in the nick of time as the Green Bay Packers overhauled the Chicago Bears, 21-15, in the 177th regular-season meeting between the National Football League’s oldest antagonists.

Facing third and 1 and down by two points in the opener at Lambeau Field, Rodgers made a beautiful play-action fake and then threw a downfield strike to Greg Jennings between two defenders for a 50-yard touchdown with 1:11 remaining.

Last season, when the Packers finished 6-10, they lost eight times after either leading or trailing in the fourth quarter by no more than one score.

Rodgers deserved his share of the blame for the team’s inability to finish. This time, after being limited to a long completion of a mere 14 yards through nearly 59 minutes by a resourceful defense directed by coach Lovie Smith, Rodgers made the play to win.

"It was a gutsy call, they executed it, made a big play and won the game," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "Testament to Green Bay. They hung in there."

The Packers were kept off-balance all night by a Bears defense that mixed pressure with soft but well-coordinated zone coverages. Allen Barbre leaked oil all night in his debut at right tackle, compromising the game plan.

In the end, Chicago outgained Green Bay, 352-226.

"You’ll have nights like this," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is what good teams do. You find ways to win games."

McCarthy said the defense of coordinator Dom Capers "was the key to the victory. Our failures in the pass game started with pressure tonight."

Under Smith, the Bears owned a 4-1 record at Lambeau Field. They were beaten primarily because Jay Cutler was careless with the football and suffered four interceptions, leading to Green Bay’s plus-4 in turnover differential. His passer rating was 43.2.

"He was very reckless with the ball," Angelo said. "It’s one thing to try to make plays, but you’ve got to be smart about it.

"Without seeing the tape, I don’t know what he was looking at. Watching the game, it didn’t look good, obviously. When you throw across your body, bad things happen. Interceptions just killed us. Two were in the red zone.

"It comes down to not beating yourself. We beat ourselves. You don’t do that on Sundays and win many games in this league."

After a timeout, McCarthy decided to go for victory on third and 1 knowing he had a fourth-down opportunity if the play went awry. Expecting man-to-man coverage, the Packers instead got a three-across zone.

On the play side, cornerback Nathan Vasher didn’t get a jam on Jennings and then was hopelessly overmatched in terms of speed trying to give chase. Kevin Payne, the free safety, was in the middle of the field but had no chance to get over.

Jennings made the catch in stride at the 12 and romped in. His touchdown represented the last of four lead changes in the second half.

"Everybody was answering; they had the ball last and did what they had to," said Angelo. "I commend them for it. We played good defense until that last drive."

The Bears hung tough defensively despite losing two starting linebackers, Brian Urlacher (wrist) and Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee), in the first half.

The first half was a nightmare for Cutler. He fired three interceptions, had two others dropped by Tramon Williams and left with a passer rating of 16.9.

On the Bears’ second possession, Cutler attempted to throw an out route to Earl Bennett at the Green Bay 14, but the ball went to Williams, who couldn’t hang on with an open field in front of him.

Then, on the next play, Cutler threw a short pass to Bennett. The receiver stayed inside, the ball went outside and Williams let another interception slip off his fingers.

One play later, Cutler flung up another ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Nick Collins.

The Bears struggled running the ball as Capers changed up his fronts and run-support assignments. At the same time, Capers came at Cutler with a dizzying array of fire-zone blitzes that kept the former Broncos quarterback completely off balance.

Meanwhile, the Packers made little headway on offense. After Mason Crosby missed a field-goal try from 49, Rodgers was sacked when Adewale Ogunleye beat Barbre around the corner and then Donald Driver dropped a third-down seam route 29 yards downfield at the Bear 31.

It was the second of two sacks that Ogunleye registered against Barbre. Much of Ogunleye’s pass-rush ability, according to scouts over the years, stems from his advanced use of hands and his slipperiness to get off blocks.

Ogunleye also had several pressures against Barbre, who was making the first start of his three-year career.

"Ogunleye is a good player," general manager Ted Thompson said. "He got outside of us a couple times."

Under far more harassment than he had been all summer, Rodgers was off target. On the third series, Driver got the matchup the Packers were looking for with Payne trying to cover him deep from the right slot.

Driver easily ran by Payne but Rodgers overthrew him by several yards on what would have been a 52-yard touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, Rodgers had Jennings open deep behind Danieal Manning and Payne but the pass came up short and it was knocked away.

"He missed Donald on the first and then he was thinking a little bit and underthrew Greg," said Thompson. "They’re an attacking defense. They’re a good defense. Always have been."

Early in the second quarter, Ryan Grant rushed three times for 24 yards and a first down at the Bears 33. On the next play, Grant burst free inside for 25 yards to the 8, but the play was brought back when center Jason Spitz was detected holding. Crosby was good from 52 and Green Bay led, 3-0. Rookie Johnny Knox, who ran 40 yards in 4.31 seconds at the combine in February, demonstrated that speed by burning past Charles Woodson on a take-off for a 68-yard gain. Woodson, however, managed to shove Knox out of bounds at the 8.

"Knox can really fly," Thompson said. "That was a great play by Charles getting him out of bounds."

Two plays later, the Bears tried a middle screen to Forte. Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly read it at the last instant, abandoned his rush and fell back in front of Forte. Jolly pulled in the pass with one hand and then secured the interception as he was falling to the turf. "Marvelous play," Thompson said. "He’s one of our best basketball players. Really."

Two plays after Jolly’s takeaway, the Packers blew a blitz pickup, and Manning, the slot defender, came tearing in and tackled Rodgers for a safety.

On third and 8, Cutler threw an amateurish pass in the vicinity of Knox that was picked off by Williams, who weaved his way 67 yards to the 1. Grant plowed over and the Packers’ lead at halftime was 10-2.

Cutler warmed to the occasion in the second half, driving the Bears 79 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. He found Devin Hester for a 36-yard score when Nick Collins was late getting over the top in zone coverage.

The Packers left the seam open in their zone coverage between A.J. Hawk and Aaron Rouse later in the third quarter, and Cutler found tight end Desmond Clark for 23 to the Green Bay 18. Robbie Gould’s 47-yard field goal put the Bears ahead, 12-10.

Early in the fourth quarter, Smith took an astonishing gamble. Faced with fourth and 11 from the Chicago 26, Smith tried a direct snap to running back Garrett Wolfe, but wide receiver Brett Swain, in his first game, stayed home and made a jarring tackle after a 5-yard gain.

Crosby’s 39-yard field goal put the Packers back in front, 13-12.

Cutler drove the Bears 69 yards in 14 plays for the go-ahead field goal, this time from 21 yards by Gould. The Packers stopped two runs by Matt Forte inside the 5 and then hurried Cutler into a third-down throwaway.

"I think we were trying to eat up the clock," Angelo said. "Obviously, then take our shot on third down. That was our mind-set."


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