GREEN BAY – The passer has the fewest in the NFL with one. The defender is tied for the most with seven.
The outcome of Sunday’s Packers-Bears game at Soldier Field is predicated on more than whether Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers can avoid throwing an interception to Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller, but the turnover factor will certainly influence who wins the 198th installment of the NFL’s oldest rivalry.
“I think he’s improved, I really do,” Rodgers said of Fuller on Wednesday. “I’ve always had respect for him, but this year he’s playing with more confidence. You see it on the film, you see it when you watch the games live. He’s trusting his instincts and making plays on the ball.”
Fuller’s seven picks are tied with Miami’s Xavien Howard for tops in the league. He’s having a career year in the first season of a new contract, one the Packers initially offered to Fuller as a restricted free agent before the Bears matched it to keep a key piece to coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense.
Chicago head coach Matt Nagy describes Fuller as a defender who studies a lot of film on opponents and will take “calculated risks.” This year they’re paying off, as Fuller and Bears safety Eddie Jackson have combined for 12 of Chicago’s league-best 25 interceptions.
The added element to Sunday’s matchup is not only Rodgers’ league-low one pick this season, but the NFL-record streak he’s currently on – 368 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. Last week he broke Tom Brady’s prior mark of 358, set at the start of this decade.
Like any competitor, and particularly one who faces Rodgers twice per season, Fuller would love nothing more than to be the defender who breaks the streak. He knows he should have had one against Rodgers when the two teams met back in Week 1, but Fuller’s drop led to the one-legged Rodgers completing a comeback from a 20-point deficit.
“Yeah, for sure. It would definitely feel good to get one off Aaron Rodgers,” Fuller said in a conference call with Green Bay media. “Just looking forward to the game and that challenge facing him.”
Rodgers is the first to admit there’s some luck in having only one interception this season. It’s not only thanks to Fuller’s drop, but as he approached and eventually broke Brady’s streak, two defenders the last two weeks have failed to hang onto catchable passes. Rodgers’ lone pick was back in Week 4 vs. Buffalo and it came on a deflected ball, so the luck goes both ways, too.
Packers interim head coach Joe Philbin knocked on the wooden podium he stands behind at his press conference Wednesday before answering a question about Rodgers having just one interception this season heading into the rematch with Chicago.
“Hopefully it stays that way,” Philbin said. “We’re going to be real with the football team. The reality is they lead the NFL in takeaways. The other reality is we’ve done a good job of holding onto the football on offense. It’s kind of those two, strength vs. strength on Sunday at noon.”
Overall, the Packers’ 12 giveaways this season are tied for third-fewest in the league. Only 10 of those have come with Rodgers under center, as backup QB DeShone Kizer had a fumble and interception when filling in for Rodgers back in Week 1 before the Packers’ two-time MVP returned to the game.
The Bears’ ambush of Kizer in his two relief series back in the opener turned out to be a sign of how their defense would play in 2018. Khalil Mack’s pick-six in that game was the first of six defensive touchdowns Chicago has scored this season (five INTs, one fumble return), with Jackson leading the way with three scores.
Ironically, as a league leader in interceptions, Fuller has yet to find the end zone, and Rodgers and the Packers hope to keep it that way. The impetus for all the turnovers has been the pass rush, with Mack and Akiem Hicks combining for 16 of Chicago’s 40 sacks and nine of 19 forced fumbles.
Fuller attributed the defense’s steady pressure on QBs for forcing decisions “they’d ultimately want back, and Rodgers sees the same thing when he watches Fuller.
“When you have a pass rush, it changes the entire defense, it really does,” Rodgers said. “You just play time clocks more. He’s trusting that time clock, when to get his head around, when to break on routes, because he knows those guys are going to get home at some point.”
Rams QB Jared Goff had just one multi-interception game this season before throwing four picks at Soldier Field last Sunday night, mostly due to Chicago’s pressure. He was also sacked for a safety that served in effect as a fifth turnover.
The Packers have lost tough games this year to the Rams, Patriots and Vikings in which they committed just one turnover, so the margin for error for a 5-7-1 Green Bay team is plenty thin against a Bears defense that just handed one of the best offenses in the league its worst day.
“We have to avoid those things that happened the other night to the Rams,” Philbin said, detailing how the Bears knocked offensive linemen back into Goff to disrupt everything. “That’ll be a good matchup in the game.”