By Thomas Gibbons
When was the last time expectations were this high for the Bears? It’s been awhile right?
Last season, the hiring of Matt Nagy started a new era in Bears football. It felt different from the previous coaches in John Fox and Marc Trestman in the decade. Nagy brings a modern offensive system with a young quarterback in Mitch Trubisky to lead it. And Bears general manager Ryan Pace did his part signing and drafting weapons for his young quarterback. The vibe was different and things were starting to look up for the Bears. And when you thought it could not get any better, Pace acquired Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders just before the 2018 season got underway. It was go time in Chicago and everybody felt it.
Now, the Bears have high expectations after losing in the Wild Card round last season. They added talent on both sides of the ball in David Montgomery and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. Trubisky has another offseason and training camp in the offensive system. Former Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took the Denver Broncos head coaching job but Nagy brought in Chuck Pagano to lead one of the best defensive units in the NFL a season ago. Everything is in place for the Bears to have success. Now, they have to execute and that starts Thursday night on the lakefront.
The Bears and Packers will kick-off the NFL’s 100th season at Soldier Field Thursday night. Here are just a few matchups to watch for in the opener.
Offensive line vs. Defensive line
It’s going to be a battle in the trenches tonight.
Let’s start with the Bears offensive line versus the Packers defensive line.
Bears starters from left to right: Charles Leno. Jr, Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie
Packers starters: Dean Lowry, Kenny Clark. Montravius Adams, OLBs Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith
The Chicago Bears did a great job protecting Trubisky last season, ranking 9th best in the NFL allowing just 2.1 sacks a game according to teamrankings.com. In addition, the Bears made the switch of James Daniels to center and Cody Whitehair to guard, their natural positions.
You know the old saying. It’s often echoed among a coaching staff. It starts upfront. And it could not be more true. If Trubisky is going to take that next step in his development and prove he is the Bears quarterback of the future, he needs time in the pocket. This is a strong group and they will have their hands full tonight and every game this season. Again, it starts upfront and it’s going to be a battle at the line of scrimmage tonight.
Over the Green Bay’s defensive front, their OLBs should keep Leno Jr. and Massie on their toes tonight. As for inside, Clark is coming off his best season as a pro totaling six sacks last season. Lowry, a Northwestern product, comes off the line with an attitude and will be a load to handle. Adams is entering his third year in the league and player his best football toward the end of last season.
Now the Bears defensive line versus the Packers offensive line
Bears starters: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, OLBs Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd
Packers starters from left to right: David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Billy Turner, Bryan Bulaga
We know very well what Mack was able to do last year in his Bears debut at Lambeau Field. He was unblock-able. And the Packers are going to have the same problem tonight. And her is the beauty of it. If the Packers decide to devote two guys to Mack, then it’s a one on one somewhere else. Every single player on this Bears defensive line can and will get to the quarterback. It’s a very strong group and they will be center stage tonight.
Do not fool yourself. The Packers have a strong group upfront. This group has been together for a few years now. They have a daunting task Thursday night and they are healthy, one thing that has held them back the past few years. There will be periods of dominance from both units and it’s going to be a highlight of the night. I love a good pancake block and a good pass rush move once and a while.
Did I say it is going to be a battle yet? If I already did, it’s worth saying twice. It may not be the most intriguing matchup of the night but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Matt LaFleur vs. Chuck Pagano
First time head coach versus successful coordinator and head coach. Who you got? It’s an easy choice right off the bat but it’s more than that in the NFL.
LaFleur is hired as the Packers head coach this offseason and gets paired with on the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers. That makes your job a little easier right? As for his opponent, Chuck Pagano replaces Vic Fangio as the play-caller for the Bears defense. Pagano has his own weapons too in Eddie Jackson, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and the rest of the Bears outstanding defensive unit. Having superstars is one part of the game and the other is scheme. How is LaFleur going to scheme guys open for Rodgers? How is Pagano going to disrupt the Packers gameplan?
Let’s look at LaFleur first. The Packers offensive skill group may not be the most well-known in the NFL but they have guys who will burn you. Rodgers ability to takeover a football game is remarkable. When he’s on, it’s almost impossible to stop him. In the backfield, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and Dexter Williams is a solid group. Remember, Jones averaged 5.47 rushing yards per carry last season, good for first in the NFL last season. J. Williams should have a defined role in this offense and they drafted D. Williams out of Notre Dame. How will LaFleur dish out the workload to his backfield? All are three very good runners and will be utilized in the passing game. Onto receivers, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling highlight the group. It’s not the best one in the NFL but with Rodgers at QB, they could become one of the best. What will LaFleur have dialed up in terms of scheme for these guys? I’m sure we will see some RPOs and all of these guys can grab the long ball. The Bears will have to do a good job of staying on top of routes or Rodgers will burn you deep.
Onto Pagano, he’s got a lot of stars on his defense. He is going to be more aggressive than Fangio and the Bears have the personal to execute blitzes, D-line stunts, and a variety of coverages. Just look up his scheme when he was a coach in Baltimore. I expect some of the same play calls because like the Ravens defense back then, the Bears are just as athletic. Pagano is going to have plenty dialed up tonight to get after Rodgers because the best way to disrupt an offense is disrupt the quarterback.
Mitch Trubisky versus himself
Now this is not your traditional matchup of a player versus a player. This is all about the Bears quarterback and how he is going to handle adversity tonight.
There is a lot of pressure not only on the Bears to perform like one of the best teams in the NFC but on Trubisky in his second year in the offense. The Bears have done everything in their power to set him up for success. Now it’s time for Trubisky to show on a national stage once again and show he is the Bears answer at quarterback for the long haul.
Trubisky had lapses of greatness last year followed with rough stretches of mediocrity and questionable decisions. With great games came bad games, with good throws came bad throws. It’s all included in the developmental process. But you cannot say he is developing forever. You either have it or you do not. You can give Trubisky some benefit of the doubt being his first year in the system. I’m fine with that. But now it’s year two with a very productive offseason, added weapons, and a healthy training camp to prepare for game one.
Another point I want to add is that Trubisky will have more freedom in the offense, especially changing the play at the line and executing QB runs, which Nagy says they will run more of. All eyes will be on Trubisky tonight and he knows it. He has to weather the storm not just tonight but all season to be the franchise QB we all hope he can be.
So that’s just a few matchups I wanted to highlight tonight. I could go on and on with things to watch but these are pretty intriguing ones to keep an eye out for tonight.
My prediction: Bears 31 Packers 28