By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
What a journey it has been coming to the evening of September 5th, 2019.
From the end of 2018 it’s seemed like an eternity.
At the start of 2019 that Chicago Bears fans were more hopeful than they had been in at least a decade after years of turmoil. The traditional New Years Eve transition to the New Year was extra sweet after the Bears locked a 12-4 record and a division title while trending the right way heading into their first playoff game in eight years. Suddenly, it all ended on January 6th, when the Eagles eliminated the Bears from the playoffs tragically in the wildcard round.
A long moratorium of grief washed over the city of Chicago as hopes and dreams were dashed too soon for anyone to believe. As time normally does, wounds healed and a Phoenix-like rise of optimism has slowly enveloped Chicago again. Out of the ashes of unexpected playoff failure has come hope for a historic season for a charter franchise celebrating its centennial anniversary alongside the league that made its brand famous.
Tonight marks the first time Bears fans will get to see what a promising young core can do playing against one of their bitter rivals, fully motivated and fully expected to prevail. Make no mistake, the NFC North will be tough again and the likely winner will be the team that wins in the division early and often. Tonight’s game will have a lot to say about that.
Last year’s opening match-up against the Packers was reminiscent of a WWF 90s-era Stone Cold brawl with The Rock. First, the Bears stunned the Packers with one of the best halves of football from pass rusher Khalil Mack. The Bears’ early smacking down of the Pack faded only to see the heels reverse the Bears’ stunner with a stunner of their own — an epic comeback lead by quarterback Aaron Rodgers on one healthy leg. Somewhere, you could imagine Jim Ross yelling “Oh, my God!”in observance.
This time around, the game is on the Bears’ territory on the shores of Lake Michigan and the Bears are (slight) favorites. It should be a very entertaining evening of football that may very well repeat the highs and lows of last year’s game. Here are the four goals for the Bears to survive any momentum shifts to get their season off in a winning way.
Air It Out Early — Arguably, the one player that holds the key to the Bears success in 2019 would be quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Sure there are better players than Trubisky on the team but nothing can substitute for great quarterback play.
Trubisky made a Pro Bowl last year with some solid stats but he was primarily selected because other guys in the NFC declined the invitation.
If he goes out and plays like a legitimate pro bowler starting Week 1, especially with what surrounds him on the team, then the Bears can potentially win big in this game and going forward. The Packers will likely want to test Trubisky’s development within this offense.
Where Trubisky excelled last year was in the short and quick passing game with little read progression. Expect the Packers to test Trubisky’s ability to effectively get the ball downfield and load up to stop the run and underneath/quick passing game. Another thing that great quarterbacks do is beat the blitz through pre- and post-snap identification all in a blink of the eye.
Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine comes from the Rex Ryan coaching tree so expect blitzing and lots of exotic looks to again test Trubisky. Last year Trubisky would struggle sometimes to make reads downfield with a shrinking pocket. No doubt the Packers have some tests coming for Trubisky but the question is how early into the game do come after him.
This could be a tough match-up for Trubisky if he hasn’t made progress at reading the field, throwing the ball downfield and identifying the blitz. Of course if he does execute the offense and makes enough throws downfield throughout the game then the team will be set up for victory.
Run DMC — In whatever running back order the Bears would like, establishing a running game is key for this game as well as the rest of the season. Last year the Bears really seemed to either ignore or give up on the run game quickly in games. Most of the time Trubisky was the effective rusher the teamed leaned on for a running game.
This year sees the addition of running backs David Montgomery and Mike Davis to go along with the “human joystick” Tarik Cohen. If the Packers start the game with an eight man box to dare Trubisky to throw then the run game may not find much success. Teams can either pass to set up the run or start off running to set up the pass. The Bears need a solid run game to help them in this game. One way to keep your defense fresher and make your quarterback better is to give them a running game that can control the clock or create short third downs.
Keeping Rodgers on the sideline because the Bears are effectively using DMC (Davis Montgomery Cohen) is the easiest way to beat the Packers or hold onto a victory. Head coach Matt Nagy has said how excited he is to use his new running backs and it is key that he does so in this game.
Battle At the Point of Attack — Assuming the Bears do what they need to on offense by scoring and controlling the clock, Rodgers is going to be antsy and frustrated on the sideline. The Bears defense has to do its job by not letting the Packers return the favor. Packers coach Matt Lafleur will be bringing some newness to the old and busted Packers offense. He is implementing the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay offense of committing to the run then take big play action shots down field.
Ryan Previews Tonight’s Game With Kyle Means (WARR on Anchor)
Run defense shouldn’t be an issue for the Bears but stopping the run has to be a priority. Likely the Packers will try to emphasize a much heavier run attack than we have ever seen with Rodgers as the Packers quarterback. Losing the battle when the Packers decide to run could make for an extremely tough night for the Bears defense. Not to mention controlling the clock is more important to the Bears than the Packers overall, we all have seen the countless fourth quarter comebacks previously from No. 12.
Assuming the Bears are stout at stopping the run the challenge of stopping the pass game comes next. Throughout his playing career, Rodgers rarely makes risky throws unless he knows he can make it. He will throw the ball underneath or dump it off if there is a risk of a sack or negative play.
Rodgers is considered one of the best quarterbacks in history and to expect him to play bad is wishful thinking. Therefore, the goal for the Bears on defense is to make it easier on themselves by not letting the Packers establish a run game.
Who Wins the Unexpected? — Both teams come into this opener with neither playing much this preseason. Nowadays in the NFL it is hard to predict how teams play early in the season because conditioning is alone a wildcard.
It is hard to condition for an NFL game without playing a full game. Sloppiness and unpredictable plays are likely going to pop up for both sides. A matchup like this in October or later might have a totally different outcome because players will be fully in shape and ready. Since craziness can kind of happen in these early games, it will be up to either team to capitalize on whatever chances come their way.
Last year, the Bears were probably the better team in that opening game against the Packers. But as we all saw, it didn’t really matter in the final score.
There will be some kind of field goal, coaching decision, penalty out of nowhere called by the official or (God help us) an unlucky bounce that will unexpectedly happen potentially changing the game. The dark horse — or very well the determining factor — in this game will be which team handles the unexpected better, takes the blow and unleashes the blow they need to decide things.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR