Packers' dominant defense stifles Bears 10-3, makes Matt LaFleur a winner in debut
CHICAGO - With the NFL celebrating the start of its 100th season with its longest rivalry, a tip of the cap — or maybe the fedora — to the past was expected.
So when Matt LaFleur opened his tenure as Green Bay Packers head coach by calling a toss to running back Aaron Jones, it wasn’t surprising. What better way to honor the NFL’s longest franchise than the vaunted Packer Sweep? Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy arrived at Soldier Field wearing a fedora, a nod to franchise founder George Halas.
The throwbacks didn’t end there, though. Not on this rough and rugged — and severely sloppy — night, when football more often resembled rugby than a finer art. And the surprise was not that the Bears, the NFL’s top-ranked defense last year, held LaFleur’s new offense in check under the lights on their home grass.
It’s that the Bears defense was not the most impressive one on the field Thursday night.
The Packers made a winner of LaFleur in his debut, beating the Bears 10-3 behind an inspired defensive performance.
Turns out, the Packers’ heavy offseason investment into their defense was a pretty novel idea. A Packers defense that has been gashed in the past, compared to the stepchild to its flashier offense, made a statement before a hostile crowd of 58,563.
No matter how long it takes the Packers' offense to jell under LaFleur — and judging by Thursday night, it might be a considerable time — the defense is stout enough to carry this team.
"Those guys, Mike Pettine and his staff, unbelievable job," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It's fun to watch."
The Packers, aided by a horrible showing from Bears third-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky (26-for-45, 228 yards, an interception and a 62.1 rating), had an answer for almost everything Nagy threw at it them. They held the Bears to just nine first downs and 166 yards through three quarters. The Bears converted just one of their first 10 third downs, a laughable 10 percent. Chicago's offensive numbers improved a bit as the Packers protected their lead in the fourth quarter, but the Packers' defense recorded five sacks on the night also came up with a key turnover when former Bears safety Adrian Amos intercepted Trubisky in the end zone late in the game.
Most importantly, it gave the Packers’ offense time to figure out a way into the end zone. Rodgers found second-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 47-yard reception on the Packers’ first offensive snap of the second quarter. The Packers scored three plays later on an 8-yard pass from Rodgers to tight end Jimmy Graham, giving them a 7-3 lead.
That was it until Mason Crosby's 39-yard field goal with 5:15 remaining.
Neither offense mustered much of anything. That was the way things were supposed to go against the Bears' defense. Chicago led the NFL in points (17.7 per game) and was third in yards allowed (299.7) last season. It still had Khalil Mack, the game wrecker who didn’t sack Rodgers on Thursday night but caused a couple, and one of the league’s best defensive fronts. Rodgers was 18-for-30 for 203 yards and a touchdown for a 91.4 rating.
But the Packers?
When these two teams met to open the 2018 season, the Bears jumped the Packers in Pettine’s first game. They marched 10 plays for a touchdown on their first drive, added two more field goals in the first half, and held a 20-0 lead before the Packers knew what happened.
Since then, the Packers signed three starters to their defense: edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and safety Amos. They drafted two defenders in the first round, most importatnly Thursday, safety Darnell Savage Jr. Those additions made a difference.
"We're not just an offensive team anymore," Rodgers said. "We've got a defense."
Za’Darius Smith had three tackles and a sack. Preston Smith added four tackles, a half sack and a batted pass. Amos broke through the line on a third-and-short in the first half and, with an assist from Kenny Clark, dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for lost yardage. And Savage flashed his speed several times in coverage, the reason he was drafted 21st overall.
The Packers' offense will need to be better. Even with piecing together a fourth-quarter drive for a field goal, giving the Packers a seven-point lead, Thursday night left plenty of room for improvement. The pre-snap operation was sloppy at times, the offensive line was mostly dominated against the Bears’ front, and the run game was a nonfactor.
It doesn’t get much easier for the Packers, either. Their next five games are all against defense that were either among the league’s best last year, or are expected to be much improved.
Still, LaFleur did something his counterpart, Nagy, couldn’t last year, opening his tenure with a big win against the bitter NFC North rival.
He mostly has his defense to thank for that.