On Thursday, the Green Bay Packers kick off the 2019 season against their NFC North rivals, the Chicago Bears. Jeff Berckes of Windy City Gridiron kindly volunteered to answer our questions about the Bears and provide some insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Under Vic Fangio, the Bears fielded the NFL’s best defense in 2018. Since then, Fangio left to take the head job with the Denver Broncos while former Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano filled the void in Chicago. What are the biggest differences between the defense Pagano will run with the Bears and Fangio’s from last season?
I think it all comes down to aggressive play calling. Many times under Fangio, the Bears would sit back and let the offense dictate the terms of engagement. I see Pagano bringing a more creative blitz package to town and erring on the side of getting after it. That will inevitably lead to more explosive plays allowed (I’m already prepping myself for this with deep breathing exercises) but should also pay off with more sacks and turnover opportunities on average.
Pagano had a lot of success in Baltimore, taking over a good unit and turning them into a great defense. I’m personally excited to see what he can do with a unit who has already reached great heights.
APC: The Bears traded away running back Jordan Howard after three seasons in which he produced 25 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage. To replace him, the front office signed veteran Mike Davis and traded up in the draft to select David Montgomery. Between those offseason additions and Tarik Cohen, how do you expect Chicago to deploy their running backs in 2019?
Let me quickly just address Jordan Howard. I like Howard. He was a nice player on a couple of bad teams and had a great rookie year. However, it was clear that he was not the style of back that fits in Matt Nagy’s scheme and he struggled to 3.7 yards per carry last season. I wish him well in Philly knowing that he simply was not going to be helpful to the Bears in 2019 and beyond.
Davis projects to fill the number three role, playing a couple of possessions per game. He fits the style of runner Nagy was looking for in free agency and looked good in camp. Cohen will continue to play the role of the do-everything guy and will be lined up all over the field. He’ll likely garner close to 100 carries and 100 targets as the Bears look for ways to get some explosive plays from him.
The real story is David Montgomery. The Bears traded up in the third round to grab Montgomery who most projected would be a top 50 pick. The big scouting term with Montgomery is “contact balance” as he’s able to keep churning yards after first contact from the defense. The Bears have absolutely raved about his fit for the offense and in the locker room. The dude is an actual Eagle Scout and the Bears were enamored with his work ethic and leadership. It’s tough to say before we see a full season out of Montgomery, but he absolutely seems like the real deal. I expect him to be the lead back early in the season and for the foreseeable future.
APC: Before last year’s Bears-Packers opener, your Windy City Gridiron colleague Lester Wiltfong defended the selection of Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes, of course, went on to win league MVP honors and come within an overtime of the Super Bowl. Going into Year 3, do you feel Trubisky has a chance to reach the same heights as Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the two QBs taken after him in the 2017 first round, or do you believe the Bears erred with the pick?
This is a thorny question so let me try to give you an answer but also let you know that I’m not ready to determine the fate of Mitchell Trubisky just yet. Let’s start with Mahomes. He’s already won an MVP and he landed in the perfect offensive system with the perfect mentor in Andy Reid. Given that we’ve already seen a historic season out of Mahomes, it would be foolhardy for me to say Trubisky will reach those heights. Mahomes looks like he’s on a trajectory to be the best QB in the league in short order.
As for Watson, he was the most “pro-ready” guy coming out and was the guy both Lester Wiltfong and I preferred in the draft. He’s had a great start to his career including a ridiculously high TD percentage in his rookie season. I put the question to my co-host on Bears over Beers, EJ Snyder, if the phone rang tomorrow for a Watson / Trubisky swap, would you take it? He said he wouldn’t even take the call. I’d have a harder time turning it down but I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t think the gap between Watson and Trubisky is as big as some perceive it to be and it will be a fun comparison by season’s end.
Back to Trubisky. Maybe the biggest advantage that Trubisky has in his favor is his Head Coach. Matt Nagy spent 2017 helping Patrick Mahomes get ready for his 2018 stardom as Andy Reid’s right-hand man. He spent 2018 working with Mitchell Trubisky in real-time, and we saw a lot of growth through the season until he suffered an injury late in a victory against the Vikings. He came back rusty against the Rams and was clearly hampered down the stretch as Nagy shifted the offense away from Trubisky. With a healthy off-season, a full complement of offensive weaponry, and a talented line in front of him I believe we will be able to answer the Mitchell Trubisky question by the end of the season.
So, did they err with the pick? No, because they took the guy they felt fit the vision of the team they were building, including all the physical and mental tools that go into becoming a franchise QB. His teammates absolutely love him, he was enough of a lure for guys like Allen Robinson II to sign where players of his skillset never even made the trip, and he appears to be a humble guy who just likes to play ball. Those three players will always be linked and I hope all three have long careers and we can debate this like Rivers, Eli, and Big Ben in fifteen years.
APC: If you were in charge of game planning against the Bears, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
Like any young QB, Trubisky is susceptible to mistakes when seeing defensive wrinkles for the first time. I’d do everything I could to vary my coverages, send some exotic blitzes, and in general mix things up. My base calls would be whatever zone coverage I feel best about so as not to turn my back on Trubisky and allow big scramble runs. Make him prove to you he can make the right reads and fit the ball into his receivers accurately.
Not a lot of teams had success against the Bears defense last year and I’m not sure things will be much different this year despite the change at coordinator. As mentioned above, Pagano is likely to be more aggressive than his predecessor, so I would call a lot of blitz-beaters where I could. The real answer for the Packers is to make sure Rodgers stays upright long enough to move around and create his magic after the coverage breaks down. If David Bakhtiari and friends are able to hold up (and hold on) against this pass rush and continue to avoid penalties, Rodgers should find joy late in plays when coverage inevitably breaks down.
APC: Finally, it’s prediction time. Which team wins on Thursday and why?
Bears win and cover the spread. They’re the better team on paper and I think it’s going to take some time for Rodgers and LaFleur to find a steady rhythm in their new offense. With the win, the Bears set themselves up to tie the all-time series in Lambeau later this year.
We’d like to thank Jeff and Windy City Gridiron for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Bears. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Thursday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers versus Bears.