It is September, which means the long, grueling, football-less days of the off season are behind us, giving way to the NFL’s 100th anniversary. Fittingly, the NFL’s centennial kicks off with the Bears and Packers’ 198th meeting on Thursday night at Soldier Field. Before we can get to the fun stuff, though, a little housekeeping is in order.
The biggest takeaway from the preseason is perhaps the growing redundancy of it. The Bears, following a growing league trend, opted to play their backups for the near entirety of the preseason, leaving little to discern from on-field performances.
Working with a mostly filled-out roster, the Bears only had one position battle to monitor on the field. In case you’ve spent offseason under a rock or you were fortunate enough to wipe the double-doink from your memory, the kicking battle in Chicago reached unique levels of intensity and ridiculousness. Entering the preseason, Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro stood atop the rubble of several kickers who didn’t make the cut. The two each got four kicks in the first two preseason games, and the Bears’ brass decided that Eddy Pineiro was the best solution to their kicking woes, leaving him as the lone winner of their kicking competition.
“It’s a big stress off the shoulders and (I) just got to make kicks now and do what I’ve been doing in this preseason,” Pineiro said. He also mentioned he practiced kicking at Soldier Field this week.
“Well, just his body of work. We feel like he’s certainly earned it. He made it through a lot of mental challenges, physical challenges. Working through the highs and lows. Obviously, no one wants to miss an extra point in that game like he did. And it wasn’t a good miss, he missed it to the left there pretty good. But, he rebounded.”-Matt Nagy
Pineiro slotted as the starting kicker left one last piece of business for Ryan Pace and company to take care of: Extending offensive lineman Cody Whitehair, who was set to enter the last year of his rookie contract. The two sides agreed on a reported five-year deal worth $52.5 million, with $27.5 million guaranteed. The quarterback he protects, Mitchell Trubisky, was excited for the Pro-Bowler.
“Good things happen to good people and it couldn’t happen to a better person. Just Cody, how hard he’s worked over the years he’s been here, always puts the team first, in here early, last guy to leave. Just a selfless player and does his job on the field, he definitely deserves everything he’s gotten.I feel like I just got paid a little bit too. Gotta take care of my guys up front and they certainly are. They’re a special grouping.”-Mitch Trubisky
When asked about what has clicked for their relationship, Trubisky cited their similar personalities. “I think it’s just who we are as people. Just the chemistry, how we love to play ball, how we love to play with each other and how we’re just good people and just fun guys to hang around.”
On the other side of the ball, Chuck Pagano replaces the mastermind behind the Bears’ dominant defense from a year ago in Vic Fangio, who was named head coach of the Denver Broncos. Despite the loss of Fangio, the personnel remains largely the same, save for departures from Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos. Improvement from an already-dominant Roquan Smith, along with solid performances from the additions of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and slot corner Buster Skrine, seem to be the best ways for the Bears to stave off defensive regression.
Week One vs Packers
As is the case with many teams around the league, Week One for the Bears and Packers will illuminate a great deal of unknown. Drawing definite conclusions after Week One is a fool’s game, but Thursday night will give watchers a glimpse of what Mitchell Trubisky will look like in his third year, as well as what a defense led by a new signal-caller can do against one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.
“We’ve been down this road before, preparing for Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Aaron,” Pagano said. “The Tom Bradys of the world, back when I was in Baltimore, Cleveland or whatever, getting ready to play Peyton Manning. They’ve seen everything and there’s nothing they can’t recall. [Rodgers is] a brilliant, brilliant guy. And so you’ve got to do a phenomenal job on defense of trying to make him work pre and post-snap.”-Chuck Pagano
Pagano will not be the only new face calling plays for his team come Thursday. The Packers fired longtime head coach Mike McCarthy after a tumultuous few years with Rodgers, and brought in 39-year-old, former Titans offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, who was also Sean McVay’s longtime coaching partner. In stride with another league trend, the Packers hope that matching their quarterback with a play-calling head coach will maximize their offense’s performance. It was the same logic behind the Bears’ hiring of their own head coach, Matt Nagy.
“Everyone knows [LaFleur’s] background and where he’s come from, what he’s done, and it’s been some great offenses,” Nagy said. “And I have a ton of respect for him as a play-caller, as a coach and as a person.
“We always talk about ‘Expect the unexpected,’ and that’s all teams. Who knows, but the stuff that they do, we’ll find out, they’ll reveal it and we’ll see and we’ll go.”
The “stuff” Nagy refers to plays to may be hard to predict now, but based off what we have seen from McVay’s philosophies and what LaFleur did in Tennessee, we can expect a lot of snaps under center, heavy use of play-action and a lot runs. Per Football Outsiders, the Rams and Titans ranked one and six, respectively, in play-action percentage. Additionally, as Warren Sharp notes, the Titans ran the ball on 56% of first downs last season, which was the second-highest in the league, but mustered only a 44% success rate.
Perhaps such inefficiency and ill-advised play calling was a result of little freedom given to LaFleur by Titans’ coach Mike Vrabel. Regardless, this Thursday will give us at least a little bit of insight into what a fully autonomous LaFleur looks like paired with a generational quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.
The Bears trot out their own set of new faces, but none have garnered more attention than third-round pick from Iowa State, David Montgomery. An elusive, shifty runner who excels as a pass-catcher, Montgomery provides a layer of versatility for Nagy that simply wasn’t there in Jordan Howard last season.
“We’re excited about him,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich put bluntly. “Very excited about David and excited about all those guys, all those backs that have carried it. And again we’ve seen him a lot against our guys, against our 1s.
“He brings a lot of experience to the table in terms of plays that we run, you know, very similar types of systems that he’s run before and I know he’s excited to play.”
Passing to running backs on first down puts the quarterback in easy second down situations because of the efficiency in doing so. Lining up Tarik Cohen in the backfield on 1st-and-10s was an easy tell to defenses that a pass was likely coming, and Howard told them the opposite, that a rush was coming. Montgomery’s presence gives no indicator one way or another, giving Nagy and the offense an edge over the defense.
All eyes, though, will be squarely on number 10 (Can you believe it took this long to get to him?). The third-year quarterback drew mixed reviews last season, but entering year two in Nagy’s offense and such receivers as Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller, now is the time for him to prove if he will be a long-term pillar of this franchise.
“[Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is] really good at scheming stuff,” Trubisky said. “So we know we’re always going to get different looks and they threw a lot of different stuff at us the first two games last year and we know they’re always going to do stuff. They’re very good on third down, they’re going to be running a lot of different personnels and they got a lot of new starters on defense so I think for us it comes down to just doing what we do best.”
Khalil Mack’s dazzling Bears debut came against the Packers last year, and his sentiments seem to echo what players around the league think about Week One.
“Oh man, I’m so ready to hit somebody.”
Twitter: @crbevins11 @radiomogul