Thursday Night Playbook: Can Bears defense contain Aaron Rodgers?

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Bears LB Shea McClellin. (AP)

At one point, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was told that outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was done for the day.

Playing through a nagging left knee injury against the Broncos was becoming too much for his best player, regardless of McPhee’s admirable efforts.

“Then I look up and he’s out there two series later,” Fangio said.

What was going on?

“It was all about the situation of the game,” McPhee said. “At that time, I was just like coach, ‘Somebody’s got to make a play. I need to get back in. I feel like I need to make it.’ Unfortunately, I didn’t do it.”

An extra big play or two or three were needed from the Bears’ defense against the Broncos and quarterback Brock Osweiler, even if they were held to 17 points.

The Bears were a great unknown in Week 1 when they first faced the Packers. Since then, Fangio’s group has proven to be a competent, disciplined group capable of keeping the Bears close in any game.

Still, the defense’s performance against the Broncos was worrisome. Mental mistakes, communication errors and poor tackling led to big gains and ultimately a tough loss.

The Broncos’ 170 net yards rushing were the most the Bears have allowed this season, and the Broncos have the league’s No. 27 rushing game. In his first career start in place of a legend, Osweiler finished with a 127.1 passer rating – the best mark against the Bears since Rodgers’ exemplary 140.5 in the season-opener.

In all, the Bears dropped from the NFL’s eighth-best defense to the 14th after all the yards the Broncos piled up.

With Rodgers and the Packers hosting the Bears on Thanksgiving night, the Bears’ defense would seem to be showing cracks at the worst possible time.

“I don’t know if he’s the best, but there’s nobody better,” Fangio said.

Coach John Fox and his coaching staff are supposed to level the so-called playing field between the Bears and the Packers.

For far too long, quarterback Jay Cutler has struggled against defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ defense – will offensive coordinator Adam Gase be the difference?

For too many seasons, the Bears’ defense has been methodically shredded by Rodgers – will Fangio’s 3-4 scheme do better than their previous Cover-2 base defense?

With running back Matt Forte and receiver Alshon Jeffery returning from injury to strengthen the offense, it would seem that the latter would be the more complicated issue for this week.

Bears players have promised that a repeat of last year’s debacle at Lambeau Field, when Rodgers threw for six first-half touchdowns in a 55-14 rout, won’t happen again. At the very least, the season opener provided reasons to believe that, considering the Bears led 13-10 at halftime.

“We’ve played against them,” Fangio said. “They know it’s a no-huddle operation, so they’ve been out there with it and seen their offense live, which is better than trying to practice against it. I think maybe they have a better appreciation for the challenge ahead.”

It didn’t always look like it against the Broncos, but members of the Bears’ defense believe they’ve evolved into a better unit since Week 1.

“Different year, different team,” linebacker Shea McClellin said. “We just have to go up there with a competitive mentality that we can compete [with them].”

WATCH LIST

BEARS

RB Matt Forte

He had the Bears’ best rushing day of the season in Week 1 when he went off for 141 yards and a touchdown against the Packers.

WR Alshon Jeffery

The Packers won’t be able to sell out against the run like the Broncos did if Jeffery is back. He tilts the field and demands extra attention.

OLB Pernell McPhee

The outspoken star said he’s feeling much better after toughing out a left knee injury last week. “I ain’t got no knee problems,” he said. “I’m good.”

PACKERS

DE/OLB Datone Jones

Seeing time in different spots, the 2013 first-round pick is coming off a big game in a win over the Vikings. He had two sacks and four quarterback hits.

WR James Jones

His two touchdown catches in Week 1 stung the Bears’ defense. Maybe, cornerback Tracy Porter’s presence will help this time around.

RB Eddie Lacy

It’s been a disappointing season for Lacy, but he finally broke out last week, producing his first 100-yard game this season last week.

COACH’S COMMENT

“He’s a tremendous teammate, a tremendous athlete. He’s accomplished all the things we saw in him when we selected him with the second pick in that year’s draft [with the Panthers]. Like all of us, he’s been to a few different teams, but he’s performed well wherever he’s been. I have tremendous respect for him as a player and a person.”

— Bears coach John Fox on Packers OLB Julius Peppers

UNSUNG SPOTLIGHT

Mitch Unrein / No. 98/ Defensive lineman

When the Bears added Unrein to their active roster before the season opener, coach John Fox said that he possessed the “football character” that the team wanted. Turns out he can play, too.

Unrein, who spent the past four seasons with Fox in Denver, has played in all three phases and been active every week this season for the Bears. He’s a main clog in the defensive line’s rotation, the offense’s jumbo-package fullback and a stalwart on special teams.

Last week against the Broncos, Unrein played 27 snaps on defense, 12 on special teams and one on offense. He was credited with a season-high three tackles, according to coach reviews.

It’s defense where Unrein is most needed after the release of Jeremiah Ratliff and the placement of Ego Ferguson on injured reserve.

Coordinator Vic Fangio said there has been mixed results up front, but the effort is there.

“They’ve done OK,” Fangio said. “Obviously, we had our problems this past week [against the Broncos] defending the run. Sometimes it hasn’t been good enough; other times it has been. I would say ‘inconsistent,’ but those guys are playing hard and doing everything they can to do their jobs.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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