The NFL looked quite different the Green Bay Packers last held an opponent to three points on the road. Calvin Johnson, not yet broken from years of Detroit Lions futility, still played professional football. Peyton Manning had yet to win a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. Perhaps most incredible of all, Jim Tomsula held a head-coaching position in the NFL.
The last of those didn’t last long, in part due to the 17-3 shellacking his San Francisco 49ers took at the hands of the Packers. That game, one of the last genuinely strong performances of Dom Capers’ tenure as Green Bay defensive coordinator, helped bring a swift end to the Tomsula era.
Likewise, much has changed for the Packers in the intervening time. Only six players from the team that stomped out the 49ers in 2015 remain in Green Bay, none residing on the defense. Brian Gutekunst has replaced his mentor, Ted Thompson, as Packers general manager. Matt LaFleur has taken over for Mike McCarthy. Mike Pettine has supplanted Capers.
The full impact of those changes will take more than one game to measure, but they resulted in the Packers’ 10-3 upset of the Chicago Bears in the 2019 kickoff game. While the offense largely sputtered outside of a lone touchdown drive during the second quarter, the defense held the Bears to just two trips into Green Bay territory after halftime and only 3.9 yards per play all game. Five Chicago drives ended in four or fewer plays. Even if the Bears don’t possess a top-flight offense, the Packers defense dominated the evening by any objective measure.
And that defensive performance could not have happened without the recent influx of talent. Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos -- the trio of defensive stars Gutekunst spent lavishly to acquire in March to jumpstart an ailing unit -- each made field-tilting plays en route to the Packers win. The Smiths officially combined for six quarterback hits, and 2.5 sacks, the last of which ended Chicago’s final possession. Amos provided the game’s only turnover, an end-zone interception of former teammate Mitch Trubisky.
One game doesn’t make a defense, nor does it justify an offseason spending spree. However, the Packers notched an important win over their division’s defending champs. Given the difficulty of the road ahead -- Green Bay hosts an improved Minnesota Vikings squad in Week 2, the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3, and take a trip to Jerry World to face the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5 -- banking an early victory over a talented Bears team provides some margin for error down the line.
Packers offense could take a while to find its rhythm
After an offseason headlined by a coaching search, no preseason work, and a seemingly unending public litigation over audibles, the LaFleur-led Packers offense finally debuted Thursday. The results -- 10 points and just 213 yards from scrimmage -- suggest a unit that has yet to find its footing and still has to figure out certain mechanics within the scheme.
That shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The offense LaFleur runs comes out of his experience working under Kyle Shanahan, the mind behind the explosive offenses run in Washington in the early 2010s, Atlanta during Matt Ryan’s MVP season, and now san Francisco. While those units rank among the most efficient of their respective periods, most took several weeks or even a full season to fully click.
The same could hold true for the Packers, where LaFleur has only one previous year of play-calling experience and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has played in one system during his career as a starter. The rest of the offensive personnel need time to acclimate to the new scheme as well. The outside-zone runs that form the backbone of the entire offense gained little traction against the Bears. Certainly, the strength of Chicago’s defense played a role, but that element of the offense might simply require a full month or more against NFL defenses to sort out.
Rodgers acknowledged as much before the season began. “I think everybody needs to understand this is going to be the first iteration of our offense, and because it’s a new scheme and there are new pieces, this is going to grow from this point.
”I’m excited about the stuff we have in and the stuff we’ve been working on in camp. There’s going to be even more. I think that’s the exciting part. I like the foundational start for this offense. I think it could be tough to stop because of the stress it puts on defense with their eye control and pattern-reading and reading the alignments. But we have a lot of room to grow from what we put on the field on Thursday.”
A lot of what the Packers put on the field Tuesday didn’t work, but it might later in the year given more reps. Green Bay has an extra few days to iron out the wrinkles before hosting Minnesota for the home opener.