Bears' edge over Packers rooted in offseason maneuvers
GREEN BAY – On a third-and-4 inside their 10-yard line, the Chicago Bears' defense delivered after opening Sunday night in maybe the most unenviable position imaginable.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, whose development remains a work in progress, had just thrown his first of three interceptions, giving the Los Angeles Rams a short field. Against the NFL’s best offense, the Bears had their backs against the goal line.
This is the moment when you need game changers to change games. Fittingly, Khalil Mack showed up. Mack burst hard upfield off the snap, bent underneath right tackle Rob Havenstein and had quarterback Jared Goff running for his life before he could even complete his drop back.
Mack did not get a sack on the play. But with Goff throwing wildly incomplete as Mack dragged him down, it was just the same. The Rams, 9 yards from a game-opening touchdown, settled for a field goal instead. They did not cross the goal line all game, held to six points in a 15-6 Bears win.
“It made a tremendous difference,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said of Mack’s arrival in Chicago before the season. “Just that extra threat that we have, and getting that pressure.
“He’s definitely had an impact on us.”
It was the type of big play in an important moment the Green Bay Packers' defense has been striving for all season, but rarely found. And the type of play that showed why most of the NFL was interested when the Oakland Raiders made Mack available via trade this offseason, particularly the Packers.
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General manager Brian Gutekunst’s bid to acquire maybe the league’s top edge rusher fell short, with Oakland taking the pair of first-round picks Chicago offered instead. Mack, who the Bears quickly made the NFL’s highest-paid defender in history with a six-year, $141 million contract, has since shown his value is worth every penny. His arrival stamped a defense that ranked in the top 10 a year ago.
“These guys have a great front four,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week.
It wasn’t the only time this offseason the Bears outbid Gutekunst. If the Packers' new GM had a good first year on the job, it could’ve been made better if not for Chicago.
That’s because for all the good Gutekunst did in his first offseason, Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s offseason was great.
In March, the Packers lost the bidding on free-agent receiver Allen Robinson, who signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the Bears. Robinson leads Bears wide receivers with 615 yards on 46 catches in 11 games, production that might increase if Trubisky becomes a more precise passer. While the Packers are stocked with young, developmental talent in rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, they could have used another veteran to pair with Davante Adams this season after injuries limited Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison.
The Packers also submitted a four-year, $56 million offer sheet on Fuller, which the Bears quickly matched. Fuller, benefiting from the pressure Mack provides, is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions.
“There’s a reason why we offered him the contract we offered him,” Rodgers said. “I think he’s improved, I really do. I always had respect for him, but I think this year he’s just played with more confidence. You see it on the film, you see it when you watch the games live. He’s trusting his instincts and making plays on the ball.
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“When you have a pass rush,” Rodgers said, “it changes the entire defense. I mean, it really does. When you’ve got (a pass rush), you just play time clocks more. I think he’s trusting that time clock — when to get his head around, when to break on routes — because he knows those guys are going to get home at some point.”
There’s another person the Bears might’ve plucked from the Packers, too.
In the market for a new head coach, the Packers are widely expected to hire someone from an offensive background to replace Mike McCarthy. Eleven months ago, the Bears hired perhaps the hottest offensive candidate available in Kansas City Chiefs coordinator Matt Nagy.
Who knows if the Packers really would have pursued Nagy — or if Nagy would have wanted to join the Packers — had president/CEO Mark Murphy decided to move on from McCarthy in January. It wouldn’t be far-fetched, though, to think a coach might want to guide the end of the Packers’ title window with Rodgers, instead of inheriting a developmental project in Trubisky.
Nagy, for his part, shrugged off a question about the Packers opening this week.
“I have no idea,” he said when asked how the job will be perceived across the league. “I have a lot of respect for any of these teams and coaches, and it’s a unique process that goes on, but that’s not something I’m really focused on right now.”
No, right now, Nagy is focused on beating the Packers. Same for Mack, Fuller and Robinson. In one offseason, the Bears didn’t just tilt the balance of power within the NFC North.
They secured assets the Packers will have to contend with for years to come.