The Green Bay Packers travel to Chicago Thursday night to kick off the NFL’s 100th season against the Bears in a primetime matchup at Soldier Field.
Some notes on the matchup:
- The game will be televised to a national audience on NBC, with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya handling the broadcast duties.
- Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren can be heard calling the action across the 50-station Packers Radio Network, originating from flagship AM 620 WTMJ. Nationally, Westwood One Sports will broadcast the game on radio, with Kevin Harlan and Kurt Warner on the call.
- Thursday night will mark the 199th meeting between the two teams, with the Packers holding a 97-95-6 advantage in the all-time series.
- Green Bay has won eight of its last nine games at Soldier Field.
- The Packers are 17-5 against the Bears with Aaron Rodgers as starting quarterback.
Despite listing 20 players on the injury report, Green Bay only listed two as OUT for the season opener: linebacker Oren Burks (chest) and wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (hamstring). Cornerback Ka’dar Hollman (neck) is listed as questionable after limited participation all week.
Chicago listed just three players on their injury report, all QUESTIONABLE: tight end Trey Burton (groin), offensive lineman Rashaad Coward (elbow) and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (knee).
The keys for Green Bay on offense:
For the first time since 2006, the Packers enter the season with a new head coach, with rookie head coach Matt LaFleur at the helm. With the coaching change comes a change in offensive systems and a host of uncertainties as the Packers try to rebound from missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2005-2006. LaFleur will be the first head coach in franchise history to make his regular season debut outside the state of Wisconsin and will do so on national television against his team’s chief rival, which boasted the league’s best defense a season ago. No pressure there, right?
LaFleur’s decision not to play Aaron Rodgers at all in the preseason means we have yet to see the two-time MVP operate the new head coach’s system in a game setting, thus we can only attempt to visualize what it will look like in the season opener. Of course, the other playmakers on offense will be there, too. Davante Adams, Aaron Jones and Jimmy Graham all figure to be a big part of the Packers’ plans Thursday night, but to what extent remains to be seen.
If there’s any consolation in facing a Bears defense that dominated opponents a year ago, it’s that they, too, will be implementing a new system. Veteran NFL coach Chuck Pagano takes over the defensive coordinator duties in Chicago after Vic Fangio left to become the head coach in Denver. In four seasons, Fangio took the Bears from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the mountain defensively, culminating in a historic season in 2018. It’s now Pagano’s job to try to keep them on top, and he certainly has the talent in place to do so with the likes of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd in the box and Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Prince Amukamara roaming the secondary.
By all accounts, LaFleur’s system is much more reliant on play-action concepts than was Mike McCarthy’s, and we saw glimpses in the preseason of how the new-look offense may look to scheme receivers open more often than asking them to simply win one-on-one matchups. This is one area where the Packers be ahead of the curve Thursday night against a defensive coordinator in Pagano who is historically more aggressive than what Green Bay saw out of Fangio over the last four seasons.
Of course, a lot of Green Bay’s potential success in this game will be predicated on neutralizing, or at least containing, Chicago’s playmakers. Mack, Hicks and Floyd all have the potential to change games at any given moment, and sometimes even the greatest offensive schemes struggle to overcome the raw physical ability on the other side of the ball.
This is all to say that, with new coaches and schemes on either side, there probably isn’t a soul alive who could tell you exactly what we’re going to see when these two units take the field. That could make for an extended feeling out period early on, in which the advantage likely goes to the defense.
The keys for Green Bay on defense:
If the Packers are going to see a seismic shift anywhere in 2019, they’re hoping it’s on defense. In defiance of their historically frugal approach to free agency, Green Bay signed the trio of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos each to four-year contracts for a combined $155 million. Brian Gutekunst then proceeded to use both of the team’s first round draft picks on defense as well, snatching up linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage.
All five of those offseason acquisitions figure to be a large part of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s plan. The Packers will be counting on the Smiths to add a long-missing element to the pass rush, while Amos and Savage will likely be your starters at safety. Gary, whose college production was a point of contention when he was drafted, is seemingly still trying to find his groove after an underwhelming preseason, though both management and the coaching staff can’t stop gushing over his athleticism and potential.
The unit as a whole should be improved in their second year under Pettine, with veterans like Blake Martinez, Kenny Clark, and Dean Lowry anchoring the front seven, while second-year corner Jaire Alexander will look to improve upon an impressive rookie campaign.
Green Bay will no doubt have their hands full, however, facing a Bears offense ripe with talent in its second year under head coach Matt Nagy. For all the heat Chicago took for trading up to draft Mitch Trubisky, he didn’t play nearly as poorly as his detractors would have you believe in 2018. In fact, he looked downright comfortable in Nagy’s scheme and is fairly fleet of foot–just the type of quarterback that has given the Packers fits over the course of recent history.
The Bears have also done well to provide their young quarterback with a nice complement of weapons. Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel give Trubisky a more than serviceable trio of receivers, and Tarik Cohen is no slouch catching the ball out of the backfield either. The X-factor for the Bears could be rookie running back David Montgomery, who drove college opponents crazy with his elusiveness and provides yet another pass-catching option out of the backfield.
For the Packers, tackling will be the priority. The team struggled with missed tackles throughout the preseason and they won’t be able to afford those mistakes against a Chicago attack loaded with speed and shiftiness.
With so many unknowns heading into this one, it’s hard to nail down exactly what to expect from Aaron Rodgers in a new system for the first time since 2005, especially against a defense that doesn’t need a ton of help creating pressure on the quarterback. The question is, has Matt LaFleur gotten this offense to the point where Rodgers doesn’t need to put them on his back to win? The answer is probably not yet. Green Bay’s defense can keep things close, but I suspect the offense will need a little more time to warm up. Bears 20, Packers 16.