8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Bears -3, Over/Under: 46
What better way to kick off the 100th season in NFL History than with it’s longest standing rivalry? That’s precisely what we’ll be getting as the Chicago Bears play host to the new-look Green Bay Packers from Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. For just the second time in this millennium, the Packers (6-9-1, 3rd in NFC North) are coming off consecutive campaigns in which they failed to make the Playoffs, and as a result underwent some considerable change in the Offseason, particularly on the sidelines, where Mike McCarthy was relieved of his duties midseason. After thirteen largely successful years in Green Bay, McCarthy’s once-prolific Offense had grown stale, while his relationship with two-time MVP Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers (62.3%, 4,442 YDS, 6.33 NY/A, 25 TD, 2 INT, 56.8 QBR), had deteriorated into a highly-publicized, toxic, cold war. And it’s with that said that Management underwent an exhaustive coaching search that ultimately led them to one, Matt LaFleur. With the rest of the league head over heels for young, bright, offensive playcallers, General Manager, Brian Gutekunst, followed suit, tabbing the former Titans’ Offensive Coordinator, who had previously served under the likes of the Rams’ Sean McVay and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, who helped fashion the movement in the first place. The challenge for the 39-Year Old will not only be reinvigorating an Offense that slumped to Fourteenth in Scoring (23.5 P/G), Twelfth in Total Yards (393.5 Y/G), Twenty-Second in Rushing Yards (104.2 Y/G), and Twenty-Third on Third Down (36.8%), with new concepts and schemes, but also building an improved rapport with Rodgers, who if you believe the reports regarding his ongoing feud with McCarthy, has proven to be quite a handful for the Coaching Staff. It will be of the utmost importance that the two get on the same page, for at 35-Years Old, it remains a fair question just how long he’ll continue to play at such a stellar level; after all, he’s coming off a campaign in which in posted the lowest QBR of his career (56.8), while taking a whopping Forty-Nine Sacks, the most he’s suffered since 2012. This, is where the new skipper is going to earn his money, folks. With the Offense (and Rodgers’ role in it) criticized repeatedly under his predecessor, it’s going to be up to the new Head Coach to build a system around his Quarterback that will make things easier. When it comes to convincing his Quarterback, LaFleur will no doubt cite his track record mentoring some of the league’s best, playing a role in Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP campaign, followed by factoring into the exponential growth of Jared Goff. If the two personalities can quickly reach common ground, then look for the rest of the Offense to benefit tremendously, most notably Pro-Bowl Receiver, Davante Adams (111 REC, 1,386 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 13 TD), who is coming off a career campaign in which he totaled personal bests in Receptions (111), Receiving Yards (1,386), and Touchdowns (13), along with emerging Tailback, Aaron Jones (133 CAR, 728 YDS, 5.5 Y/C, 8 TD), who for the second consecutive season averaged 5.5 Yards per Carry. While he attempts to revolutionize the Offense, LaFleur gets credit for retaining the services of Defensive Coordinator, Mike Pettine, who laid a solid foundation with the unit last season, and will continue to cultivate the young talent on hand which must continue to grow with the exodus of so many veterans. While the team said goodbye to Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman, Mike Daniels, Safety, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, and former Defensive Player of the Year, Clay Matthews, there is a new crop of emerging young players that offer promise as they continue to grow under Pettine’s watch. Outside Linebacker, Kyler Fackrell (42 TKL, 12 TFL, 12 QBH, 10.5 SK) led the roster with a career-high 10.5 Sacks, Twelve Tackles for Loss and Quarterback Hits, while Kenny Clark (55 TKL, 8 TFL, 9 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD) flourished at Nose Tackle with career-highs in Sacks (6.0). Furthermore, Cornerbacks Josh Jackson (49 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 10 PD) and Jaire Alexander (66 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 2 FR, 1 INT, 11 PD) improved with each passing week as Rookies, leaving us to wonder what Pettine will do with the likes of this year’s first two Draft Picks, versatile Defensive Lineman, Rashad Gary (No. 12 Overall), and freakish Safety, Darnell Savage (No. 21 Overall), out of Michigan and Maryland respectively. Gutekunst was also fairly busy in Free Agency, adding a pair of Edge-Rushers in the form of Za’Darius Smith (45 TKL, 10 TFL, 25 QBH, 8.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD) and Preston Smith (53 TKL, 5 TFL, 16 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 PD), furthering a concrete plan of building a Defense with young, affordable talent, packing plenty of upside.
Meanwhile, no team was more improved in 2018 than the Bears (12-4, 1st in NFC North), who after a miserable 5-11 run went on to win their first NFC North Title since 2010, ending a seven-year playoffs drought in the process. It proved to be a masterclass in rebuilding from General Manager, Ryan Pace, who saw new Head Coach, Matt Nagy, earn the league’s Coach of the Year honors, while an emerging Defense exploded following the seismic trade for former Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack (47 TKL, 10 TFL, 18 QBH, 12.5 SK, 6 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD), who proved to be worth every bit of the war chest that the franchise spent to acquire him. In a season that was largely defined by high-flying, explosive Offenses, this group was a throwback to the days of old, ranking tops in the NFL in a slew of categories, including Points Allowed (17.7), Takeaways (36), First Downs Allowed (278), Interceptions (27), Run Defense (80.0 Y/G), and Rushing Touchdowns Allowed (5). Of course, Mack had plenty of help around him, with three of his teammates joining him at the Pro Bowl, including massive Defensive Lineman, Akiem Hicks (55 TKL, 12 TFL, 16 QBH, 7.5 SK, 3 FF, 5 PD), and ball-hawking Defensive Backs Kyle Fuller (55 TKL, 7 INT, 21 PD) and Eddie Jackson (51 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 6 INT, 2 TD, 15 PD). Defensive Coordinator, Vic Fangio, who did amazing work with his group, eventually left to become the Denver Broncos’ Head Coach, leaving his vacancy to be filled by Chuck Pagano, who made his bones as assistant on that side of the ball for years in Baltimore. While the Defense dominated week in and week out, a major component of Chicago’s resurrection in 2018 was the considerable improvement of Mitch Trubisky (66.6%, 3,223 YDS, 6.72 NY/A, 24 TD, 12 INT, 72.8 QBR). After a rather disappointing Rookie Season, the former No. Two Overall Pick improved by leaps and bounds under the guidance of Matt Nagy, who utilized the young Quarterback in a manner that could eventually unlock his charge’s potential. Nagy’s credentials in terms of working with Quarterbacks is ultimately what earned him the job in the first place, and his work with Trubisky has further validated the club’s decision. Just take a look at the contrast between 2017 and 2018 for the 24-Year Old; as a Rookie he completed just 59.4% of his Attempts for an average of 182.8 Yards on a dismal 5.53 Net Yards per Attempt, with as many Touchdowns (7) as Interceptions, and sporting a QBR of only 31.6, though as a Sophomore he improved exponentially across the board, completing 66.6% of his Passes for 230.3 Yards per Game on 6.72 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, all the while registering a stellar 72.8 QBR. That’s some serious change, folks. Arguably the most understated part of his development though, is his mobility, which Nagy made good use of, with Trubisky rushing for 421 Yards and Three Touchdowns on Sixty-Eight Carries. If this kid continues to develop at such a rate than the Bears could very well be representing the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. Helping him get to that point will be an understated Supporting Cast that is proving to be greater than the sum of it’s parts; Taylor Gabriel (67 REC, 688 YDS, 10.3 Y/R, 2 TD), Allen Robinson (55 REC, 754 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD), and Trey Burton (54 REC, 569 YDS, 10.5 Y/R, 6 TD) were all solid additions as veteran pass-catchers, while Anthony Miller (33 REC, 423 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD), was a shrewd selection in the Draft. Furthermore, Tarik Cohen (99 CAR, 444 YDS, 4.5 Y/R, 3 TD) flourished into a proverbial swiss-army knife under Nagy’s tutelage, reeling in Seventy-One Receptions on Ninety-One Targets for 725 Yards and Five Touchdowns, which parlayed into 170 Total Touches, 1,169 Yards from Scrimmage, and Eight Touchdowns. His presence was a major reason as to why Pace ultimately parted ways with the team’s leading rusher, Jordan Howard, who will be replaced by this year’s Third Round Pick, David Montgomery, who has been very impressive throughout Training Camp and the Preseason.