TOM SIL­VER­STEIN

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Of­fen­sive line found its way in sec­ond half

Green Bay – It was a big ask. Green Bay Pack­ers coach Mike McCarthy wanted quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers to en­joy the fruits of hav­ing Da­vante Adams and fel­low re­ceivers Ran­dall Cobb and Geron­imo Al­li­son on the field to­gether with tight end Jimmy Gra­ham.

If the Chicago Bears and their re­cently ac­quired su­per­star out­side line­backer Khalil Mack were go­ing to bring down Rodgers they were go­ing to have to get through his mostly vet­eran of­fen­sive line.

Fine, the Bears said, we’ll call your of­fen­sive line and raise you an Akiem Hicks, Ro­quan Smith and Roy Robert­son-Har­ris.

In the early go­ing of the Pack­ers’ come­from-be­hind 24-23 vic­tory Sun­day night at Lam­beau Field, the Bears had the win­ning hand.

They dom­i­nated the one-on-ones the en­tire first half, win­ning them so de­cid­edly that they knocked Rodgers out of the game with a left knee sprain in the sec­ond quar­ter and forced backup quar­ter­back DeShone Kizer into two dev­as­tat­ing turnovers, in­clud­ing an in­ter­cep­tion Mack re­turned 27 yards for a touch­down.

“They ex­pect us to win one-on-one matchups and we have to do that,” right tackle Bryan Bu­laga said. “No one is out there ask­ing for help. Our job is to block de­fen­sive line­men. Re­gard­less of the sit­u­a­tion, that’s what we’re asked to do.”

McCarthy couldn’t have been com­pletely sur­prised that Hicks dom­i­nated right guard Justin McCray on the first cou­ple of se­ries. Hicks had 8½ sacks last year and has given guards and cen­ters fits since join­ing the Bears in 2016.

The Bears made sure Hicks was lined up on McCray with their align­ments and the 6-5, 332-pound be­he­moth al­ter­nated beat­ing McCray in­side and out­side.

He beat him in­side on the first se­ries and drew a hold­ing penalty. He beat him out­side on the next se­ries for a sack and forced fum­ble that the Pack­ers re­cov­ered. He beat him in­side on the same se­ries and drew a hold­ing penalty that negated a 48yard catch and run by run­ning back Ty Mont­gomery.

“He’s a good player, I just have to play bet­ter,” McCray said. “It was more things I was do­ing then he was do­ing, just get­ting off bet­ter with my sets. It just wasn’t rolling for me. I ex­pect to go out and dom­i­nate and that’s not what I did the first quar­ter.”

In the mean­time, Bu­laga was hav­ing his own prob­lems try­ing to block Mack, who came in on the fourth play of the game and nearly drove the vet­eran tackle straight back into Rodgers. That play seemed to give Mack the up­per hand right away and he con­tin­ued to pur­sue Rodgers and then backup DeShone Kizer like they had stolen the sign­ing bonus in his $131 mil­lion con­tract.

With just over 9 min­utes left in the half, Mack went scream­ing around Bu­laga and forced Rodgers to step into the rush of Robert­son-Har­ris, who had beaten McCray and cen­ter Corey Linsley up the mid­dle. Not only did Rodgers get sacked, he in­jured his knee and had to leave the game.

Six min­utes later, when Kizer tried to use a Bu­laga block to scram­ble out­side, Mack slith­ered right through, tack­led the quar­ter­back and stole the ball from him. Just 2½ min­utes af­ter that Mack sniffed out a screen, picked off Kizer and scored to give the Bears a 17-0 lead.

Bu­laga didn’t have much time to shake off any rust, his only live ac­tion since tear­ing his ACL on Nov. 5, a few plays in the last ex­hi­bi­tion game.

Mack, whom the Bears traded for es- sen­tially two first-round picks and made him the high­est-paid de­fen­sive player in the NFL, of­fered no mercy even though he had missed all of train­ing camp be­cause of a hold­out with the Oak­land Raiders.

“It was my first game in 10 months, 10 months to­day,” Bu­laga said. “It was just a mat­ter of get­ting set­tled in. A guy like that, he’s a hell of a player. I think there’s plays you want back ev­ery game and I’ll go back and look at those.”

McCray was grate­ful that of­fen­sive line coach James Cam­pen had not benched him, and his team­mates urged him not to get down on him­self. At half­time, Cam­pen met with the line, made some ad­just­ments and told them Rodgers was com­ing back in the sec­ond half.

They knew he wasn’t go­ing to be run­ning around much, so they were go­ing to have to hold their blocks longer and make sure he had a pocket from which to throw. At the same time, they had to deal with some of the twists and slants the Bears were us­ing to punc­ture the Pack­ers’ pro­tec­tion.

“When you see ‘12’ com­ing back like that, you’re go­ing to fight your (butt) off,” Linsley said. “We made some ad­just­ments. They were do­ing a lot of stuff, cre­at­ing one-on-one matchups, us­ing twists and coun­ter­ing back and forth what we were do­ing.

“We had to counter what they were do­ing. We did a lot bet­ter job with that in the sec­ond half.”

With Rodgers back in the game, the Pack­ers went to more of a rhythm pass­ing at­tack, start­ing out with short passes across the mid­dle and in the flat. The Bears were mak­ing it hard for Gra­ham by lin­ing up Mack and Leonard Floyd over him when­ever he was flexed off the line of scrim­mage.

They would try to in­ter­fere with the start of Gra­ham’s route and then bring heat off the edge.

Bu­laga said he went over his per­sonal game plan for Mack and made some ad­just­ments with hand place­ment and tech­nique in the sec­ond half. He seemed to set shorter and try to use his power against the smaller Mack in­stead of al­low­ing Mack to get up to full speed.

The game plan didn’t change a lot in the sec­ond half, but the play of the line did.

“We played like crap the first half, there’s no skirt­ing around the is­sue,” Bu­laga said. “Came in here and schemat­i­cally it didn’t seem like we changed much. It was just a mat­ter of try­ing to get into a rhythm. I felt we were able to do that.”

Rodgers got the ball off quickly on the first se­ries of the third quar­ter as he tested his knee and tried to get the Bears on the de­fen­sive. The first drive re­sulted in a field goal but af­ter that things started to click and the gains got a lit­tle big­ger.

The pro­tec­tion got con­sid­er­ably bet­ter as Bu­laga and McCray set­tled down and be­gan cre­at­ing a solid pocket for Rodgers. There were still mo­ments when Rodgers was har­ried, but the longer the game wore on, the more time Rodgers seemed to have.

“They started bring­ing a lit­tle more pres­sure to the (block­ing) back, bring­ing (line­backer Danny) Tre­vathan, which we ad­justed to pretty good,” Rodgers said. “They were try­ing to get Mack on the field as many plays as pos­si­ble, but we coun­tered and we wanted to slow him down a lit­tle bit.

“We let Bryan get set­tled and he did a good job. Hicks is also a great pass rusher. We had some schemes there, but it was kind of just hold­ing onto your ‘you-knowwhat’ and try­ing to make a cou­ple plays.”

When it was over, the line­men left the field know­ing they have a lot of things to fix and that they won’t have much time to do it with the Min­nesota Vik­ings head­ing to town on Sun­day.

BENNY SIEU / USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Chicago Bears line­backer Khalil Mack (right) tries to get past Pack­ers right tackle Bryan Bu­laga.

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