For the NFL, Thursday night in Chicago celebrated history: a century in existence, most recently as America’s dominant game. For the Packers, Week 1 heralded the arrival of the future. Matt LaFleur’s takeover in Green Bay serves as an erasure of history, or at least, an attempt to reverse it. Mike McCarthy’s late failures as head coach encompass part of that 100-year history, of the NFL and for the Packers. A matchup with their oldest rivals presented a fitting start for LaFleur in his quest to write some history of his own, and firmly entrench himself as part of the Packers’ future for years to come.
But the Bears had designs on some history of their own with a ferocious defense and a head coach already proven in creative offensive design. The Windy City hosted the opener in part because Chicago is the reigning NFC North champions, a team coming off a 12-4 season and home playoff exit. This is Year 2 of their beginning.
Fittingly, a former Bear would end Week 1, a player the Bears saw walk out the door and who the team’s fans spent the offseason insisting wasn’t a playmaker. Adrian Amos’ interception in the end zone closed the door on a Bears comeback, and the Packers defense held late to secure a 10-3 slugfest victory. Za’Darius and Preston Smith combined on a fourth down sack to truly close it out, validating a major offseason of personnel upheaval.
A three-and-out to open the season, particularly one ending in a sack after Aaron Rodgers took the entire play clock just to get the ball snapped, didn’t inspire much confidence. Those struggles were supposed to be a vestige of the past. In fact, it was worse than ever. Green Bay’s minus-17 yards on the first two drives was their worst start to a game in Rodgers’ career. Putting up negative-12 yards in the first quarter what the worst start for the team since 1994. LaFleur, hired to be an offensive genius, looked like he needed to have done a little more studying.
Chicago’s start mirrored 2018 issues with Eddie Piniero making his first field goal attempt, then kicking the ball out of bounds. A 3-0 score through one quarter may have been a fitting homage to Packers-Bears rivalries of yore, but it’s hardly what either team envisioned when they drew up the gameplan.
But just that like, Rodgers and Co. woke up. Play-action deep shot to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Play-action tight end leak play. Tempo to get Davante Adams free. Backyard play to Jimmy Graham for a touchdown. The best of Matt LaFleur’s offense mixed with Rodgers’ virtuoso talent. This is the version of the Packers we thought they could be, but no one was sure they would be.
As impressive as that drive was, it stood out as an aberration in the first half as both teams struggled to find an offensive footing. Meanwhile, the defenses thrived.
To call what Packers GM Brian Gutekunst did on defense this offseason a “revamp” would be underselling. It was more like a demolition, a reclamation project of the highest order. Big money free agents Za’Darius and Preston Smith anchor the pass rush, with the aforementioned Amos and first-round pick Darnell Savage patrol the back end at safety. In all seven different players started Week 1 in 2019 compared to 2018.
Those new starters made their presence known right away. On the first drive, Preston Smith adeptly playing running back and quarterback on an option read lead to a negative play and an Amos blitz cleaned up a sack along with Blake Martinez to end the drive. Through one drive at least, the renovation project on defense paid off.
Green Bay’s defense held firm in the first half, holding the Bears to just 3 points and 3.3 yards per play with three sacks. Kevin King dropped a would-be interception and Darnell Savage nearly had another as the Packers defense flew around, created confusion, and came up with timely stops. This version of the secondary, with the front creating problems and the defensive backs flying to the ball, must be would Mike Pettine and Brian Gutekunst envisioned when they put this group together. If they can stay healthy and sustain this level of play, the Packers demonstrated a path to significant improvement this season.
One unexpected wrinkle Thursday night centered around the ineffectiveness of the ground attack. LaFleur’s approach to offense centers around the run game, one spear-headed by Aaron Jones and one that sets up just about every play in the offense. From the run comes an action play off it, and a shot play to counter. Jones led the third-best run game in the league last season by efficiency, despite McCarthy’s unwillingness to feature him for much of the year. In the first half, Green Bay managed just 7 yards on 6 carries, a paltry effort even against a great defense.
Chicago’s revamped defense entered Week 1 without a slew of critical pieces. Chuck Pagano replaced the departed Vic Fangio, a defensive mind most feared by the game’s top offensive gurus. Adrian Amos switched sidelines, as did his fill-in, Haha Clinton-Dix. And Buster Skrine mans the slot with Bryce Callahan following Fangio to Denver.
LaFleur’s offense couldn’t get much going, although neither could plenty of teams last season against this dominating defensive squad. For the first time in a long time, the Packers found a way to win a low-scoring game thanks to the defense. To wit, this was the first time since before World War II the Packers won a game in Chicago scoring 10 or fewer points. =
For each team, Thursday night’s outcome won’t determine the ultimate success or failure of the season, though in retrospect it may come to define it. It could set them on a trajectory they ride or fight for weeks. On the other hand, Week 1 results often have this funny way of looking wonky a month later. Chicago gagged away a sure win last year in Week 1, then went on to be the signature team in the NFC North for 2018. Neither a win nor a loss proves anything definitively about the Packers or LaFleur. This is the beginning, the first chapter in the future at 1265 Lombardi Ave.