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Dougherty: Hard to get a read on a Packers' defense that is going to face much tougher challenges ahead


CHICAGO - This is what happens when there’s a mismatch at quarterback in the NFL.

The Green Bay Packers on Sunday were badly banged up on defense and were facing a Chicago Bears defense that has its usual formidable front seven. If you look at the lineups across the board, not that much separated these two teams.

Yet, the difference between experienced and sophisticated Aaron Rodgers, and the raw and callow rookie Justin Fields meant a Grand Canyon at quarterback separated these teams on this day.

In the end, the Packers’ 24-14 win will be remembered more than anything for Rodgers’ “I still own you” taunt to the ringside Bears fans in the southwest corner of Soldier Field, and rightly so. Whereas the Bears had to contend with Rodgers’ myriad talents and hard-won knowledge from 17 years in the NFL , the Packers’ short-handed defense needed only to keep the dynamic Fields from beating them.

So yeah, Rodgers still owns the Bears.

BOX SCORE: Packers 24, Bears 14 

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“Had a lot of great moments on this field, a lot of great battles,” Rodgers said after the game. “Today was much like those other ones, starts out slow sometimes, I get rolling, defense has some timely stops. We put a drive together, kind of withstood the first wave of energy, and proud of the way we finished the last three quarters.”

A question going forward, though, is whether the 5-1 Packers’ defense can make enough plays against the better quarterbacks on Green Bay’s schedule. Coordinator Joe Barry’s defense will face one of the ultimate dual-threat quarterbacks, Arizona’s Kyler Murray, in only two weeks. After that comes Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes. They’ll take on the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford in late November, then Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield in December.

And to win a Super Bowl it’s a given you have to go through at least a couple of the game’s best. So things get a lot tougher going forward.

Because at this point in his young career, Fields is dangerous but also erratic, and operating in an offense that Bears coach Matt Nagy still has on training wheels to ease the burden on his young quarterback.

Fields had a few good throws Sunday and broke the pocket a handful of times (six rushes for 43 yards). But he also made some critical mistakes, foremost late in the first quarter when he thought he had a free play on an apparent offside. It’s a play Rodgers has patented, taking deep shots when there’s nothing to lose. Only, as Rodgers explained after the game, he has learned the hard way to look over to the line judge to make sure officials actually called the penalty before taking the shot.

“There’s been a couple times over the years where we think we’ve got them but maybe we didn’t check,” Rodgers said. “Because of those reasons I usually like to check and make sure a flag’s in the air.”

Fields just assumed and launched a long throw into the end zone. There was no flag, and safety Darnell Savage intercepted. The Bears led 7-0 at that point and were just past midfield, so they had a real chance to put the Packers in an early hole. Instead, Rodgers turned it around and tied the score on a long drive, and the game slowly but inevitably swung to the Packers.

Barry did have a plan to keep Fields from beating him, and it mainly meant keeping the young quarterback in the pocket as much as possible and playing coverage rather than trying to overwhelm him with blitzes. It worked. Fields (75.2 rating) completed barely half his passes (15-for-27) and threw for only 174 yards even though the Packers finished the game with just-signed cornerback Rasul Douglas in their nickel package.

The Packers generally were disciplined in holding their rush lanes and trying to push the pocket rather than open scramble outlets by trying to get to Fields around the edge. 

“I think for the most part we did a pretty solid job keeping him in the pocket and trying to make throws from the pocket,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said, “and if he did run get him to run to his left so he could make bad throws.”

The Bears also were missing their two top running backs, David Montgomery and Damien Williams, and couldn’t run the ball well enough against the Packers’ front seven to control the game.

Barry's side of the ball also had the same issue that has dogged it all season. It gave up two more touchdowns in the Bears' two red-zone trips, making it 15-for-15 for the season. That included after a penalty had left the Bears in first-and-20 at the Packers' 26 in the fourth quarter. First-and-20 and still no stop. The Packers won, but that's not winning football.

There’s no disputing that Barry’s defense is getting better, though there was nowhere to go but up from the opener against New Orleans. Barry so far has weathered the loss of his best rusher (Za’Darius Smith) and best cornerback (Jaire Alexander) about as well as he could have hoped.

If Smith can return from back surgery in December, as the Packers appear to be hoping, then he’ll have time to get in decent football shape for the postseason. Whether Alexander will end up needing season-ending surgery on his injured shoulder is the big unknown. The Packers are trying to avoid that at all costs, but if he’s not on the field when the money is on the line, then Barry has a huge problem. He doesn’t have the depth at cornerback to withstand losing Alexander.

I still think general manager Brian Gutekunst needs to trade for somebody on defense, probably on the defensive line, to give his team its best shot at winning the Super Bowl. The trade deadline is only two weeks away.

The Packers have won five straight and are looking much more like the team they figured to be going into the opener. But we’re barely a third of the way through the regular season, and their defense is going to face a lot tougher challenges than the one it had Sunday at Soldier Field.

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