Each Thursday morning, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
When the Packers open their regular season Sunday in Chicago for the first time since 1981, they may barely recognize the team on the opposite sideline.
Coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery were fired after the Bears' dismal 5-11 finish last season (which included a 55-14 blowout loss to the Packers in Green Bay), and new coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace have shaken things up. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has installed a 3-4 defense, and new offensive coordinator Adam Gase is determined to place less of an emphasis on erratic quarterback Jay Cutler.
We asked beat writer Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune to answer some questions about what the Packers can expect from the Bears come Sunday:
1. What has been the biggest difference with the Bears under John Fox?
DW: “This coaching staff is a little more experienced and confident and I think that’s rubbing off on guys. The biggest thing you hear from players is that they’re being more aggressive on both sides of the ball with their schemes. Last year there was a trend toward becoming a little bit too much of a soft football team, and obviously the results proved that didn’t work. I think Fox has instilled that energy, that confidence and that aggressiveness that guys felt like was missing a year ago.”
2. How has the new 3-4 defense looked under Vic Fangio?
DW: “That’s probably what everybody is most curious about seeing Sunday, and not just because it’s the season opener and because it’s Aaron Rodgers. They didn’t show a lot in the preseason, predictably so, they played it close to the vest and were pretty vanilla. The players seem to be responding to the idea that they’re going to do a lot of creative and unpredictable things, and that Fangio has a way of identifying what everybody does best and turning them loose to do it. I don’t know how much success you can have against Rodgers – he’s obviously destroyed the Bears, particularly last year – but certainly a good test to see what kind of things they can do to make him uncomfortable and get him out of rhythm.”
3. How has Bears quarterback Jay Cutler looked? Under the new coaching regime, is his role different?
DW: “Very different, and I think that is a key. They’re not building this thing around the passing game like they did last year. They’re not under the delusion that Jay suddenly is going to turn into Joe Montana. They want to be a run-first team and they want Jay to be very efficient and mistake-free. And so, I think he had 12 possessions in the preseason, didn’t lead them to a touchdown at all during those but also had zero turnovers and I think he may have only been sacked once. They basically wanted to focus more on the minimizing of the negative plays as opposed to making him their home run hitter or their playmaker. They want fewer sacks, fewer turnovers, fewer bad decisions, and want to try to turn Matt Forte loose. I would doubt that it will be Cutler’s most statistically proficient season but he could have his best year even if he has low statistics if he just kind of stays within the system and realizes how to take what’s there and not try to do too much.”
4. Cutler has had a history of putting the ball up for the grabs, particularly against the Packers. So you think that won’t be the case Sunday?
DW: “Yeah, Adam Gase has really been drilling it in with him that the key is to protect the football and not try to do too much and let the run game carry things. So it’s going to be a different sort of measuring stick for him this year in terms of what they categorize as successful and what they don’t.”
5. How big of a deal is “Packers Week” for this Bears regime?
DW: “If it’s a big deal, Fox hasn’t made any hints about it. This is all pretty new to him. I don’t think he has a burning passion for this rivalry, we’ll see if that changes after Sunday. … I think there’s probably a realism that they have a long way to go to close the gap in this rivalry.”
6. Are Bears fans excited, is there a feeling of optimism? Or is it more guarded?
DW: “I think this is the first time in like a decade that they’ve gone into a season with expectations so low. There’s no delusion that this is going to be a playoff year. Everybody realizes they’re at least a year off, if not two, so the buzz you usually get in Week 1 isn’t around. Of course, the Cubs are stealing some of it with the thunder they’re creating, but Bears season usually gets the jacked-up adrenaline in the week leading up to the game, and there’s just no sense that there’s any of that there with this team. I think maybe it’s, one, because of the way last year unraveled, and two, because there’s an understanding that there’s so much ground to make up that there’s no delusions of what kind of surprise they can create this year.”
7. Will anyone even pay attention to the Bears in October if the Cubs make a good playoff run?
DW: “That could be the best thing for Ryan Pace and John Fox and everybody else, if the Cubs do win that (wild-card) playoff game and get a couple of weeks there, it’s a free couple of weeks to stink!”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt.