Preparing for Aaron Rodgers in a predictable, antiquated offense was already enough to incite night terrors for defensive coordinators. Now imagine having to prep for him in an offense they’ve never seen, with no tendencies, a limited preview window from which to draw in preseason, and in your first game back as a defensive coordinator since 2011.
Oh, and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren’t walking through that door.
This is the nightmarish scenario facing Chuck Pagano to open the 2019 NFL season, as the Chicago Bears celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary against their most storied rivals, the Green Bay Packers. Chicago’s defensive personnel got worse replacing Adrian Amos with Haha Clinton-Dix and Bryce Callahan with Buster Skrine. Even before the departure of Vic Fangio, the Bears’ top-ranked defense faced a statistically-likely regression after a historic run creating turnovers in 2018.
Going through the schedule, “@Chicago” should be considered a likely spot for a loss. The Packers aren’t going 16-0 and on the road against a good team who happens to be a division rival will always be a smart place to identify possible problem areas. But playing this game in Week 1, this particular season, may just create the ideal scenario for the Packers to go on the road and beat the reigning NFC North champions.
Start with the mystery factor. Each Week 1 provides teams an opportunity to show unscouted looks, things opponents have never seen before — whether it’s plays or personnel groupings or both. Nearly all of what Green Bay will show the first month takes on a certain unscouted quality. This offense will evolve. There will be hints as to what it will look like, rooted in a West Coast philosophy developed under Mike Shanahan and modernized under his son Kyle before being weaponized by Sean McVay.
Matt LaFleur blends these approaches. Last season in Tennessee, the Titans offense, marred by injury and inconsistency, didn’t quite get the hang of the new offense. Matt Ryan and the Falcons faced similar adversity in Year 1 under Kyle Shanahan. But LaFleur recognized the power run game worked, so he abandoned some of his core offensive tenets and let the Titans do the thing they were good at.
The Packers may undergo a similar transformation process. Whatever this offense sets out to be in two weeks when they convene to learn the system, it will change. Evolution stalled under Mike McCarthy, and LaFleur’s alacrity with finding solutions on the fly must have appealed to Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy.
For one week, that only matters in terms of in-game adjustments, but the lack of a set-in-concrete style makes the 2019 Packers particularly tricky to gameplan against given LaFleur’s willingness to adapt and adopt, finding pieces to add to his offense as necessary. Nathanial Hackett’s background in the McCarthy version of the West Coast offense should make the transition easier and provide a fallback plan should the rollout get rocky.
If the Packers are down multiple scores at halftime (again), would LaFleur turn to Hackett and in an effort to try and go win one game say “Let’s call some plays we know these guys can execute” from the old offense? It’s possible. That makes Pagano’s job even more difficult. He won’t have a full picture of what the primary objective will be, much less possible adjustments. That offers a meaningful advantage for Green Bay.
Matt Nagy saw this Mike Pettine defense twice (failing to score more than 24 points in either game despite the December matchup featuring a M*A*S*H unit for Green Bay) but never with the Acme Sackers and Adrian Amos. If Pettine goes small again with five and six defensive backs, the guys in the back end now offer more athleticism and reliability than a year ago, while the big bodies they will have on the field offer significantly more disruptive force.
Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark on the field with Blake Martinez provides a much more imposing front than a season ago, even if Pettine wants to play a bunch of defensive backs behind them. That’s not a group as easily overrun with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen or blocked up in passing situations. Considering how infrequently Pettine blitzed Mitch Trubisky, instead forcing him to make throws, having two legitimate impact edge rushers only emboldens a game plan that has been effective in the past.
Given how many rookies had to play last season and the free agent improvements on defensive in the offseason, there’s going to be an unscouted quality to this defense as well. How much better can Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson be? What if Oren Burks takes a step forward and can cover Trey Burton? The Packers don’t know the answers yet either, but they’ll have a much better idea than the Bears come that Thursday night.
Even if the Packers lose, they’ll have the mini-bye to recover and make adjustments. The first month at least will be a learning period for LaFleur, Hackett, Rodgers and the offense. Pettine constantly works in his mad scientist lab trying to find new ways to stymie opposing offenses. And they’ll have lost a game they were probably going to lose had been in Week 6 or Week 12. With the rest of the reason to make up for it, there’s a good case getting that kind of loss out of the way early sets the expectations. They keep the game at Lambeau in their back pocket to even the score, and maintain the understanding that losing to the Bears materially impacts the playoff race. It raises the stakes and intensity for every game to follow.
It’s not that playing this game in Week 1 makes the Packers the favorites. They’re decidedly not. But it mitigates many of the factors that would otherwise be working in the Bears’ favor. A loss is less impactful early, less difficult to endure. Some struggle with a new coaching staff and an overhauled roster is to be expected. But if there’s an advantageous situation to get a win, to “sneak up” on a divisional rival, this is the moment, when they can legitimately show the Bears things they’ve never seen, concepts that legitimately sneak up on them.
It’s a defensive coordinator’s nightmare: taking the test when he hasn’t studied. Aaron Rodgers has been the Bears’ boogie man for a decade. Chuck Pagano may already be losing sleep over it.