Chicago's offense features the most productive tight-end tandem in Bears history, while the Packers are hoping their top two tight ends will give fans a glimpse Sunday night of what they hope will be a big part of their offense in 2009.
Bears third-year tight end Greg Olsen (54 catches for 574 yards) and veteran Desmond Clark (41 receptions for 367 yards) combined for 941 receiving yards in 2008, the most in a single season by a Bears tight-end duo when each player has over 100 receiving yards. That mark topped the record of 936 (Clark-545, Olsen-391) that the pair set in 2007.
"They put them out there together a lot," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "I think they are both really good route-runners. They both catch the ball well and they can block. There is a reason they put them both on the field a lot, because they want them to get matchups and make plays, and they do that a lot.
"It's a challenge, but it's something that we know going in. We're going to have to shut that down if we want a chance to win this."
The pair's importance was illustrated in the two games between the teams last season. In the Packers' 37-3 win at Lambeau Field in Week 11, Olsen and Clark combined for just five receptions for 49 yards, with Clark catching only one ball for 4 yards.
The duo made a much larger contribution in the Bears' 20-17 overtime win over Green Bay at Chicago in Week 16. Of the Bears' 14 receptions, the two tight ends caught nine of those, and of the 142 receiving yards, Olsen and Clark accounted for 86 of them.
In the Bears' 27-20 win in Green Bay in 2007, the two tight ends caught seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, including Clark's game-winning 34-yard score late in the fourth quarter.
Hawk said one benefit of the Packers' new 3-4 scheme and its zone coverages is that it should be more challenging for the tight ends to identify one-on-one matchups.
"Any time you are pretty much not matched up man-to-man with a guy and they can't use our leverage against us, it helps us a lot," Hawk said. "I think a lot of times in the past they knew what our leverage was going to be and they could work away from that leverage and catch a lot of balls on us.
"It was just tough to stop. We couldn't really do much about it, putting you in a bind between run and pass. This defense, we definitely have some options where we can try to take some stuff away."
Olsen posted career highs in receptions (54), receiving yards (574) and touchdowns (5) in 2008, leading the team in receiving touchdowns and finishing second in receptions, and his versatility in Chicago's offense is what makes him such a threat.
"He's their best receiver," linebacker Brady Poppinga said. "He's a guy that can get out on the perimeter and they use him in all different types of settings, at fullback, H-back, tight end, out as a slot receiver and even as a wideout.
"He's all over the place and I think that he's been very successful. They're very high on him obviously and I think they have formed the whole offense around the guy."
Preparing for Sunday's test that Chicago's tandem will provide has been made easier by the two talented tight ends that the Packers have in veteran Donald Lee and second-year man Jermichael Finley.
"Our tight ends are unbelievable," Hawk said. "You watch a guy like Jermichael and Donald, they are some of the most athletic tight ends that you'll face. So it helps us out a lot going up against them all camp and then leading up to this game."
Lee is coming off his second straight 39-plus catch season, while Finley showed flashes of his big-play ability late last season. One of those plays came at Chicago when he caught a career-long 35-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers deep down the right sideline.
Finley led the team in the preseason with nine receptions for 92 yards and tied for the team lead with two touchdown grabs, and is expecting to play a much larger role in the offense in 2009.
"Two athletic tight ends out there, it does a lot to the defense," Finley said. "It puts pressure on the linebackers, puts pressure on the safeties. It puts pressure on pretty much everybody. Hopefully we can get a lot of double-set tight end and get things rolling."
Nose tackle B.J. Raji, who sustained a sprained ankle in the preseason finale last Thursday at Tennessee, was a limited participant in Thursday's practice after not participating at all on Wednesday.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Raji did not test as well as the team would have hoped on Tuesday with the medical staff, but Raji expressed confidence that he would play on Sunday night.
"I will play on Sunday," Raji said. "I just know my body and I know myself. The pain I am having is manageable. It's nothing I am going to re-injure or anything. It's just a lot of soreness. I shouldn't have a problem playing on Sunday."
McCarthy said both Raji and cornerback/returner Will Blackmon (quad) would be evaluated by Pat McKenzie, the team doctor, on Friday.
"As you know, no different than in the past, Friday's practice is the last chance for an injured player," McCarthy said. "If (Blackmon) does not practice, he will not play. Same thing with B.J."
Blackmon sustained the injury in the Aug. 22 preseason game vs. Buffalo when he took a knee to the quad from a Bills player on a blitz, and he has not practiced since. Blackmon did run inside The Don Hutson Center on Thursday during practice.
Blackmon played a big role in the Packers' season-opening victory last year vs. Minnesota on Monday Night Football, returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to put Green Bay up 24-12 in the eventual 24-19 win.
"That's why I can't miss it, opening night, prime time," said Blackmon, who is the team's No. 1 kickoff and punt returner. "That's why I am doing everything I can to get out there."
If Blackmon is unable to play, McCarthy mentioned wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Brett Swain, cornerback Tramon Williams and running back DeShawn Wynn as potential candidates to handle return duties on Sunday.
Changing it up
The Packers won't be the only team with a revamped offensive line on Sunday.
Chicago's No. 1 line includes two new tackles, veteran free-agent acquisition and seven-time Pro Bowler Orlando Pace on the left side and second-year man Chris Williams on the right side. Williams, who was drafted in the first round in 2008, missed the first seven games last season with a back injury.
Add in another free-agent signee, Frank Omiyale at left guard, and the Bears have three different starters on the offensive line, same as the Packers.
"They've got some experience up front," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "Pace has been a proven player in the league for a long time. (Omiyale) has some experience. It's a veteran line with (Olin) Kreutz and (Roberto) Garza in there too."
That line will be attempting to clear holes for second-year running back Matt Forte, who broke Chicago's single-season rookie rushing mark with 1,238 yards on 316 carries (3.9 avg.) in 2008. The Packers held Forte below his average with 137 rushing yards on 39 carries (3.5 avg.) in the two games last season.
"He's a really good player," Hawk said. "I don't know what the hype is on him in Chicago, but I think nationally at least they don't talk about him as much as they should. He can do everything. Last year he was their leading receiver, rushed for however many yards, and really took over that offense last year.
"We know they are going to come in here and try to establish the run. They have done that before, and as a defense we need to stop that first."
In addition to Blackmon, running back Brandon Jackson (quad) also did not participate in Thursday's practice.
Quarterback Matt Flynn (throwing shoulder) and safety Aaron Rouse (hamstring) were full participants for the second straight day.
For Chicago, defensive lineman Israel Idonije (hamstring) and cornerback Charles Tillman (back) both participated fully. Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu (quad) was added to the injury report and was a limited participant in Thursday's practice.