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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Bears' passing game has come a long way this season, evolving into a more effective and efficient unit with each passing game.
Last Sunday's divisional playoff win over the Seahawks saw Bears QB Jay Cutler operating on a very efficient level.
But this Sunday's NFC championship game will be Cutler's biggest challenge yet, even though it's a team that he, the receivers and offensive coordinator Mike Martz know very well.
It will be the teams' third meeting of the season, and the second in a month against a Packers secondary that might be the best in football. Although it's widely hailed as a 3-4 defense, the Packers operate a majority of the time in their nickel package. And the five defensive backs they play might be the best "starting" five in the NFL.
You've got the figurehead, Charles Woodson, at corner. He can cover on the outside or in the slot, and he's a blitz threat from the latter. He stops the run well and has as good of a knack for stripping the ball as almost any DB around.
"There are two players that I would single out in the league that can strip the ball away from an opponent as well as anyone — of course our Charles Tillman and Charles Woodson for them," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said Wednesday. "But whether he's in the slot, blitzing, dropping into coverage or playing outside at the cornerback position, we're talking about the defensive MVP of the league last year, and that's the type of player that he is. We'll have to know where he is at all times. I definitely respect his game."
Cutler also believes that Woodson — even more than OLB Clay Matthews — is the Packers' defensive ringleader.
"I think Charles (Woodson) sets the tone over there for those guys, especially when he gets in nickel, he gets in the slot," Cutler said. "He's going to take those guys away, he's going to be all over them in those five yards. And even down the field they are still going to bump you, they're going to make it tough. Our guys have to be aware of that."
But the player most everyone is talking about these days is CB Tramon Williams, who might actually be the best cover guy on the Packers' defense right now. His three interceptions are tops in the postseason, including his knockout-punch INT at the end of the half in Atlanta, baiting Falcons QB Matt Ryan into throwing a pass Williams knew he could get his hands on. He did that — and ran it back 70 yards for a momentum-tipping and, really, game-changing play.
"Good player. Really good player," Cutler said of Williams. "Has had a lot of one-on-one matchups that he has won. Teams are kind of shying away from Charles (Woodson) and those other guys and trying to attack him and he's responded. They gave him a big contract and he's going out there and playing well."
The scary thing for Martz is knowing that the Packers love to pressure but also that they can create havoc simply by rushing four. The Packers don't have to send five- and six-man pressures and put their corners on an island if they don't want. But they can if they want because of Woodson and Williams' coverage skills. It presents a tricky obstacle when it comes to calling plays, even if the Bears offer speed at wideout that the Packers haven't seen since the last time they faced the Bears.
"That's a premise for the entire league," Martz said. "When Rod (Marinelli) and Lovie (Smith) were down in Tampa Bay the pressure … they could (get pressure with four rushers) and it created a lot of problems for you. You have to chip and help in all kinds of places. You need to put pressure on the quarterback or rushers — that's very significant. You can clamp down on receivers and make quarterbacks hold the ball a little longer."
Of course, the man who makes this all possible has been rookie Sam Shields. The little-known corner from Miami (Fla.) wasn't even drafted last April, but he quickly found himself in the mix at corner in training camp and was thrown into the starting lineup as the outside guy. Woodson moves inside to the slot.
Even more so than Williams, opponents have tested Shields, who was called for his first pass-interference call of the season in Atlanta. He has held up remarkably well for a player who was blessed with rare speed but didn't play regularly in college and was supposedly light years behind in terms of technique.
Having quality safeties, even with all of the man defense that the Packers play, has been a big boon. Nick Collins has had a good season, and he will be a man in the spotlight Sunday. Cutler has had a habit of throwing passes up for grabs — especially in the two prior Bears games this season — and Collins must take advantage of this. He also likely will find himself matched on Bears TE Greg Olsen, who torched the Seahawks' safeties for 113 yards and a TD on three catches last week and will be a big part of the game plan once more.
Throw in Charlie Peprah, who has improved with each game since entering the starting lineup because of injuries, and the back five is a good group from top to bottom, even if the names aren't all as well known as Woodson's and perhaps now Williams'. Martz said a lot of the credit should go to Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers for his work with this group within the scheme of what he wants to do defensively.
"When you look at (Capers') football teams, every position, the fundamentals within the scheme of what they do is outstanding," Martz said. "You can't get them out of position. They're just so well schooled and everything. He's a terrific teacher. He understands this game as well as anybody defensively. I have great respect for him."
There are a dozen or so key matchups when the Bears meet the Packers on Sunday. Each will play a part in dictating the outcome. But at some point Cutler must throw and throw well against a secondary that is just now appearing to hit its stride. It could end up being the matchup of the game.