Joe Philbin photo

Finding a way to beat the first-place Bears on Sunday could go a long way toward helping Joe Philbin remain the Packers' coach.

GREEN BAY — With no obvious coaching candidate having emerged, the final four games of the Green Bay Packers’ season feel a bit like an audition for interim coach Joe Philbin.

If that’s the case, the toughest question in Philbin’s job interview, the one that could make or break his candidacy, will be asked Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Indeed, if Philbin can figure out a way to score points on the Chicago Bears’ increasingly ferocious defense with quarterback Aaron Rodgers operating behind what likely will be a makeshift offensive line, perhaps the Packers should call off their coaching search and hire Philbin on the spot.

OK, we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves there. But Chicago threw a major scare into the NFL by holding the Los Angeles Rams’ high-powered, dual-threat offense to 214 yards and two field goals in a 15-6 victory Sunday and now the Packers, surprisingly inconsistent on offense all season, will try to dent what has become a dominant Bears defense in their second game since Philbin replaced longtime coach Mike McCarthy.

“It’s not going to be easy to get 30 first downs against the Chicago Bears and score 30 points,” Philbin said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Philbin, who rejoined the Packers this season in his old role as offensive coordinator, put his personal spin on the game plan in last week’s 34-20 victory over Atlanta, utilizing all of his skill players, getting the offense into a good rhythm with a series of quick passes and then turning to Aaron Jones as a runner and receiver in the second half. It was the team’s highest point total of the season and the best the offense looked for a prolonged stretch since the Packers rallied from a 20-0 second-half deficit for a 24-23 victory over the Bears in the season opener at Lambeau Field.

But doing Lambeau Leaps against the Falcons’ porous defense was one thing. Finding the end zone against a Bears defense that has grown exponentially since September would be quite another. Chicago has all but wrapped up the NFC North Division title behind a physical defense that ranks third in the league but has been even better than that while helping the Bears win six of their past seven games.

Chicago already had a strong defense, but everything began to change when it drafted inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round in April and added outside linebacker Khalil Mack via trade just before the opener. As those two became immersed in the scheme, a good defense has turned into a dominant defense.

The Bears’ loaded front seven is physically pounding offensive lines, both stuffing the run and putting heat on the quarterback. Their 34 takeaways lead the NFL by a wide margin — the Packers have only 14 — and they have returned six of their takeaways for touchdowns.

When he was hired, first-year Bears coach Matt Nagy retained highly respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and the results have been frightening for the rest of the division. The front seven has size, speed and talent, which has allowed the secondary to be opportunistic.

“They’re probably the best front seven we’ve played,” center Corey Linsley said. “They’re at least as talented as anybody that we’ve gone up against and then (you) combine that with the scheme — obviously coach Fangio has a reputation of being a great defensive coordinator. All in all, it’s a huge challenge.”

But that’s only half of the Packers’ challenge Sunday. Fielding an offensive line capable of slowing the Bears’ onslaught is the other half. Many are looking at the Packers’ banged-up offensive line and wondering how in the world Rodgers can remain upright behind a group that could be missing three of its five starters.

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, right guard Byron Bell and left guard Lane Taylor all missed the Atlanta game. Bulaga didn’t practice Wednesday and could give way to slow-developing Jason Spriggs. Bell was put on IR this week, leaving the job to Justin McCray, who lost it to Bell early in the season. At least Taylor was a limited participant in practice, giving the Packers hope that at least the left side of the line will be intact.

“They’re not just one-dimensional,” Linsley said of the Bears. “Not only are they physically gifted, they also fit well into the scheme. They run the defense well. It’s a challenge. We’ve got to be fundamentally sound. We’ve got to know our assignments, communicate. It’s an away game as well, so you’ve got all the challenges there.”

It will be up to Philbin to find creative ways to surmount the challenges offered by the NFL’s hottest defense, one that is much different than it was back in September, just days after Mack arrived.

“It’s well-coached, it’s talented, they know what they’re doing, they’ve been in that system for a while,” Philbin said. “They added two good players. We saw obviously a little bit of 52 (Mack) and he did some really nice things in the game against us. They’re moving him around more. It’s a well-designed (defense), it’s executing at a high level and so it’s going to be a great challenge. We already told the guys it’s going to be an excellent challenge.”

Unless Philbin finds some answers, it could also be a mismatch.


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Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.


Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.