Sports

Packers vs. Bears preview: Key matchups, keys to the game & prediction

The Green Bay Packers will kick off their 100th season against their most familiar rival, the Chicago Bears, on Sunday night, as the two teams meet on the gridiron for the 197th time. Green Bay is coming off a 7-9 campaign in 2017, a season marred by the loss of Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone. The Bears struggled to a 5-11 finish a year ago, leading to the firing of head coach John Fox.

Some notes on the matchup:

  • The game will be televised nationally on NBC, with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya handling the broadcasting duties. The game can also be heard across the 50-station Packers Radio Network, originating from flagship station AM 620 WTMJ, with Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren calling the action. Nationally, Westwood One Sports will broadcast the game on the radio, with Kevin Kugler, Jason Taylor and Scott Graham guding the ship.

  • The Packers hold 96-94-6 edge all-time against Chicago, surpassing the Bears in the series last season for the first time since 1932.

  • Green Bay is 18-7 against Chicago under head coach Mike McCarthy, including both regular and postseason contests, with 14 wins in the last 16 meetings.

  • The Packers are 8-4 under McCarthy in season-openers.

  • Green Bay holds a 16-4 record against the Bears with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback.

Injury Report

The Bears listed just two players on their final injury report of the week, with offensive guard Kyle Long listed as not injury related/resting.

Doubtful—TE Daniel Brown (shoulder)

Out—S Deandre Houston-Carson (forearm/back)

Green Bay rolled with the same three designations we saw all week, with safety Josh Jones listed as a non-participant for the third consecutive day.

Questionable—LB Oren Burks (shoulder), LB James Crawford (hamstring)

Out—S Josh Jones (ankle)

Bears 2018 Returning Offensive Leaders

Passing: Mitchell Trubisky – 196/330 (59.4%), 7 TD/7 INT, 182.8 Y/G, 77.5 rating

Rushing: Jordan Howard – 276 car/1122 yds (4.1 avg), 70.1 Y/G, 9 TD

Receiving: Josh Bellamy – 24 rec/376 yds (15.7 avg), 25.1 Y/G, 1 TD

Punt Returns: Tarik Cohen – 29 ret/272 yds (9.4 avg), 1 TD

Kick Returns: Tarik Cohen – 26 ret/583 yds (22.4 avg)

When Green Bay is on offense…

All eyes will be on Aaron Rodgers, who will make his first regular season start at Lambeau Field since September 28th of last year. Entering his 14th season in the league, and 11th as the Packers’ starting quarterback, Rodgers will no doubt be looking to pick up where he left off before missing nine games in 2017 due to a broken collarbone. Through Green Bay’s first five games last season, Rodgers threw for 1,367 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Much has been made of the new additions to the offense, starting with tight end Jimmy Graham. The preseason gave us just a glimpse of what Rodgers and Graham playing together might look like, but the results were good. As clichéd “matchup problems” go, Graham is an elite one, equipped with the kind of size and athleticism any play-caller would love to have.

Based on what we saw in the preseason, the Packers have all kinds of plans for Graham—and the rest of the tight ends, too. Fellow free agent signing Marcedes Lewis is no slight figure himself, and should help immensely in the running game along with being a sure-handed passing target. Lance Kendricks may carve out a role as an H-back, given Green Bay decided not to carry a fullback on their 53-man roster. Multiple-tight end sets have been the topic du jour regarding the Packers offense over the last year and change, and Sunday night will be a good indicator of how McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin plan to employ them.

Another interesting thing to watch for in the passing game is how the use of those tight ends, Graham in particular, affects how Bears’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio deploys his secondary. Rodgers has at least three familiar faces—Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison—in his receiving corps, and all three will command different amounts of attention. Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller, whom the Packers offered a contract this offseason, will likely be asked to deal primarily with Cobb and Adams, with Prince Amukamara starting on the opposite boundary.

Obviously, the Bears’ pass rush improved over the last week with the addition of Khalil Mack. There’s no way of knowing how much Mack will play, though it’s hard to imagine he’ll be completely unleashed after missing out on an entire offseason of work. Nevertheless, the Packers will undoubtedly be prepared to give right tackle Bryan Bulaga a little extra help if the situation calls for it.

Jamaal Williams will likely get the majority of the carries in the running game, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ty Montgomery used for some schematic creativity at times. That’s not to say McCarthy is going to rely on trickery, but anything that keeps the Bears’ defense guessing will be welcome.

When Green Bay is on defense…

Perhaps nothing was more talked about or anticipated in Green Bay than what the defense would look like under the direction of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While the preseason afforded us a basic look at how the different pieces of the unit look, it was no secret that Pettine played things about as close to the vest as possible.

Chicago’s offense will have a new look, too. First-year head coach Matt Nagy is at the controls now, and he’s got the ingredients for a potentially explosive offensive attack. The Bears have playmakers at every skill position, which should make for an interesting battle of wills with a young-in-places, thin-in-others Packers’ defense.

In the passing game, Green Bay will be counting on veteran Tramon Williams to hold down one boundary, with (probably) one of Kevin King, Jaire Alexander or Josh Jackson on the other. Alexander and Jackson, the Packers’ first two selections in the 2018 draft, will be seeing their first regular season game action, a fact that certainly won’t be lost on Matt Nagy. When one or both of those rookies get on the field, don’t be surprised if the Bears test their mettle right away.

Green Bay will hope Oren Burks is healthy enough to play, especially since Josh Jones won’t be available. If not, it will be interesting to watch how Chicago uses tight end Trey Burton in the passing game, though it might also mean the Packers spend most of the night with an extra defensive back on the field.

In that case, Pettine will be looking to his defensive line—plus Blake Martinez—to stunt the Bears’ rushing attack, which will be spearheaded by Jordan Howard. Like the Packers, though, expect Chicago to get creative with how they use their backs in the passing game, particularly when Tarik Cohen is on the field. The shifty second-year back has speed to burn and is an adept pass-catcher.

The biggest question mark with Chicago’s offense may be their sophomore quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, for whom they sold the farm in the 2017 draft. The Bears have surrounded him with the likes of Burton, Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, yet it remains to be seen if he can truly play to his expectations. Expect Mike Pettine to throw some confusing looks into the game plan to throw Trubisky off his game and force him into some poor decisions.

Key Matchups

Bulaga vs. Mack: Even if Mack is on a “pitch count” of some sort, he’s going to get his opportunities, and Bryan Bulaga is playing in his first regular season game since tearing his ACL last November. As mentioned before, the Packers may help Bulaga out with a tight end to secure that right edge, but it will be as stiff a one-on-one test as you can get for an offensive lineman coming off a significant knee injury.

Mike Pettine vs. Matt Nagy: This will largely be a battle of unknowns. Nagy is as creative as they come offensively, while Pettine has done little to reveal how he’ll employ specific players in specific schemes. It’s fair to assume Nagy will try to utilize the quick-hitting passing game to get Trubisky comfortable, but Pettine will undoubtedly have plenty of unique looks up his sleeve to confuse the young quarterback. People talk about the “chess match” aspect of football all the time, and it will be on full display here.

Packers’ secondary vs. Bears’ receivers: Aside from Tramon Williams and Davon House, the Green Bay secondary is young. Rookies Alexander and Jackson will see the field, and they’ll be lining up across from a nice collection of talent in the Chicago receiving corps. While Nagy may primarily use the quick game, it will shock no one if he tries some double moves to take advantage of the young Packer defenders in their first taste of regular season football. Both rookie corners are extremely instinctive players, and that could come back to bite them if they’re too eager.

Keys to the Game

Stop the run: As talented as the Bears’ receivers are, I’d still take my chances with making Trubisky win the game. It’s hard to make a Matt Nagy offense one-dimensional, but a strong effort against Howard, Cohen and the Chicago rushing attack will make things a lot easier on the Packers as the game goes on.

Keep Rodgers upright: All the weapons in the world don’t mean a thing if Rodgers is under pressure. He’ll obviously do his part to evade the rush, as he always does, but if he can operate with a clean pocket, and without Mack et al. in the back of his mind all game long.

Win the take/give: This one is evergreen. Plus, the recipe is there for Green Bay. With a young, largely unproven quarterback slinging it around, the Packers should a chance or two to pick the ball off. Win the turnover battle, win the game.

Prediction

Could you ask for a better scene to kick off the 100th season of Green Bay Packers football? Lambeau Field under the lights on a cool fall evening, the Packers facing off against the Bears—it just doesn’t get any better than that. Any way you slice it, this game comes down to the quarterbacks, and that’s one area where the Packers have an indisputable edge. Packers 27, Bears 16.