Packers find themselves in unusual position of looking up to favored Bears
First in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2019 regular season.
GREEN BAY – What a difference one year makes.
Last spring, the Chicago Bears were still the NFC North’s presumed doormat. They’d finished last in the division in four straight seasons. They were a combined 19-45 in those years. A new head coach hardly seemed to matter. They’d already changed coaches twice, and neither firing and hiring netted a single winning record.
One home run of an offseason changed everything in Chicago. General manager Ryan Pace started by hiring new head coach Matt Nagy, an offensive coordinator in Kansas City who sparked some development with Bears second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Then he started adding players, signing receiver Allan Robinson in free agency, retaining cornerback Kyle Fuller and trading for pass rusher Khalil Mack.
Mack’s arrival was the final piece to the puzzle lifting the Bears from cellar dwellers to contenders. He turned in his third All-Pro season in four years, finishing with 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and two recovered. Mack put a stamp on the trade immediately with a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception returned for touchdown Week 1 at Lambeau Field.
Much of the Bears’ success last offseason came at the Packers’ expense. The Packers were in contention to trade for Mack, until the Oakland Raiders sent him instead to their division rival. They also courted Robinson in free agency and signed Fuller to an offer sheet, which the Bears quickly matched.
Now, as the Packers try to rebound from consecutive seasons without the playoffs, the Bears figure to be a force within the division for the foreseeable future. They have a young if still underwhelming quarterback in Trubisky, and a defense as fierce as any in the league. It’s the Chicago Bears brand of football, just enough offense to supplement a dominant defense, and it led the franchise to its first NFC North championship in eight years last fall.
Here are three things to know about the Bears:
No laughing matter
The Packers plucked from that dominant Bears defense this spring, signing safety Adrian Amos. Chicago’s rebuttal? Signing a former Packer. The Bears added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in free agency, hoping to pair the Packers’ 2014 first-round pick with playmaker Eddie Jackson on the back end of their defense. The Packers shipped Clinton-Dix to Washington in a trade last October after his underwhelming play could no longer mask the distraction he’d become in the locker room. Clinton-Dix, disgruntled with the lack of negotiations in the final year of his rookie deal, had begun to publicly muse about the likelihood he would not be back with the Packers. With a young and impressionable secondary, it was time to go. Clinton-Dix showed flashes of greatness in his five-plus seasons with the Packers, earning a Pro Bowl nod and second-team All-Pro selection in 2016, but too often held himself back with poor pursuit angles, shoddy tackling and questionable effort. The Bears surely hope they can maximize Clinton-Dix’s considerable potential. He’ll certainly be motivated to show his old team what it’s missing without him in the defense.
They’re different situations, but the Bears hired Nagy one year ago for much the same reason as the Packers hired Matt LaFleur: to fix the offense. More specifically, the Bears hoped Nagy could lift Trubisky’s level of play much like the Packers seek to help return Aaron Rodgers to his greatness. With that in mind, it must be heartening for the Packers to see how much of a difference the right coach can make. Trubisky had success across the board last season, and not just a little. His completion percentage increased more than seven points to 66.6, his touchdown-to-interception ratio improved from 12-7 as a rookie to 24-12 last year, his 230.2 passing yards per game were almost 50 more than the previous year, he averaged almost one full yard more per pass, and his passer rating shot up to 95.4 from 77.5 as a rookie. Most importantly, Trubisky was 11-3 in his starts a year after posting a 4-8 record. It would be a stretch to call him a great quarterback at this stage in his career, and Bears fans would be right to wonder what might have been had their team drafted Patrick Mahomes instead with the second overall pick in 2017, but Trubisky was a quarterback they could win with.
Kicking the tires
Considering what the New England Patriots' defense did to the Los Angeles Rams in February, the Bears might have had a legitimate path to the Super Bowl if not for their dismal kicking situation. The problem reached its zenith when Cody Parkey double-doinked a potential game-winning, 43-yard field goal in the wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Bears can’t get their field-goal situation right this fall, it won’t be for a lack of trying. The Bears have two kickers on their offseason roster. Neither is named Cody Parkey, whom they still owe $3.5 million in 2019. It was a bold, swift action, if also a logical one. What remains to be seen is whether Elliott Fry or Eddy Pineiro can do what Parkey couldn’t.
Packers schedule glimpse
Sept. 5 at Chicago, 7:20 p.m., NBC
Week before: Final exhibition vs. Chiefs, Aug. 29
Week after: vs. Vikings, Sept. 15
On the horizon: vs. Broncos, Sept. 22
Coach: Matt Nagy (12-4, second season with Bears).
2018 record: 12-4, first place NFC North.
Scoring offense: 26.3 points per game (ninth in NFL).
Total offense: 343.9 yards per game (21st in NFL).
Scoring defense: 17.7 points allowed per game (first in NFL).
Total defense: 299.7 yards allowed per game (third in NFL).
Series: Packers lead, 96-94-6.
Last meeting: Without Mike McCarthy on the sidelines, the Packers tried to come back from a 14-3 halftime deficit but ultimate fell short, 24-17. The Packers outscored the Bears 11-0 in the third quarter, entering the fourth in a tie. But quarterback Aaron Rodgers couldn’t muster enough offense against the Bears' staunch defense inside Soldier Field. Rodgers completed 25 of 42 passes for 274 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, a 68.9 passer rating. It was also the day running back Aaron Jones’ season ended with his third torn MCL in two seasons. Two of those torn MCLs have come while running on Soldier Field’s surface.