And we’re back.
Normally in these ‘by the numbers’ previews, I try and identify the conflict points or where the game will be determined given the matchups between the two teams, however, one issue with that in game one is that we don’t have any data on either of these teams. The Green Bay Packers offense, in particular, is going to look quite different in 2023 with Jordan Love at the helm. The offense is more likely to be something closer to what head coach Matt LaFleur ideally would like, rather than trying to bend it to something that blends with what his veteran Hall of Fame quarterback is comfortable running. Despite this, it’s not as if nothing is known about the Packers. Plenty of last year’s roster is still here, so for the purposes of this matchup, I am going in with the following assumptions:
- Green Bay’s offensive line is very good, and their running back room is strong.
The Packers have the second-highest projected pass-blocking unit in the NFL this season by PEPA, and while the run-blocking expectations are lower, this still projects to be a well above-average unit. Aaron Jones has been one of the most efficient backs in the league for his entire career. While AJ Dillon is one of the least explosive runners in the league, he still somehow manages a positive career yards-over-expected.
- Green Bay’s pass rush should be good.
The Packers are returning Rashan Gary, albeit potentially on a pitch count, and may go legitimately six deep at the EDGE position. Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt will probably get most of the interior pass-rushing duties. They are thin inside but have plenty of depth on the EDGE.
- Green Bay’s safety position is terrible, and their run defense is probably still bad
Green Bay may have the worst safety room in the NFL. Hopefully, that can be covered for by far better-than-average depth at corner, but they may legitimately have no NFL-caliber safeties on the roster. The run defense was horrid last year, ranking 31st in EPA/rush. Does another year for Quay Walker and reps for Devonte Wyatt and TJ Slaton instead of Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed fix that? Let’s hope so.
With all of this said, how do the Chicago Bears stack up with what we think we know about Green Bay? According to DraftKings, the Bears are a slight favorite for just the fourth time in these teams’ last 29 matchups.
The two big additions the Bears made this off-season came in the form of wide receiver DJ Moore and first-round pick offensive tackle Darnell Wright. Moore’s efficiency has rarely been outstanding, but the list of quarterbacks he has played with probably has quite a bit to do with that. Unfortunately for Moore, his signal caller situation does not improve in Chicago. The only two quarterbacks since 1981 who posted back-to-back Passing DVOAs of -15% or worse and went on to even somewhat successful NFL careers were Troy Aikman and now Daniel Jones (success still pending there). Darnell Wright should help what was, generously, a subpar offensive line last year. He led the SEC in blown-block rate in both 2022 and 2021. He should legitimately help Justin Fields.
Elsewhere on offense, the Bears made minor moves. They lost starting running back David Montgomery, but are replacing him with Khalil Herbert, so the drop-off should be minimal, if any. It’s very difficult to look at this offense and see something drastically better, though. Adding Chase Claypool down the stretch last season (for almost a first-round pick, mind you) did nothing. Claypool was a disaster in his seven games, posting a catch rate below 50% and a dismal 4.8 yards-per-target. If the Packers safeties are going to get exposed in pass coverage, it’s less likely to be in week one than in later matchups.
The place I do expect Chicago to threaten more is on the ground. Chicago’s offensive line was actually quite solid in the run game last year despite their more pedestrian pass blocking. Some roster changes and injuries here will hurt though. Teven Jenkins surprised many as he became a solid guard for them, but injury will knock him out of this matchup. Despite his strong pass protection numbers in college, Darnell Wright did not impress in the run game. Lucas Patrick is undersized at center. Green Bay is thin up front, and both linebackers have major questions, not to mention the issues at safety. Factor in that Justin Fields is a major value-add as a runner, and the run game could be the issue here. While Fields was only 12th in quarterback rushing DVOA, this was mostly due to fumbles. If he can hold onto the ball, he is very dangerous in the open field with his elite athleticism.
While most of the talk about the Bears revolves around the offense, the defense was nothing to write home about last year either. The Bears were dead last in EPA/play, dead last in defensive success rate, dead last in dropback EPA/play, and 28th in run defense EPA/play. DVOA ranked them dead last, horrendous with virtually every personnel grouping. The Bears will try to improve upon that in 2023, but it’s frankly hard to be worse than they were in 2022. They added pass rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue, who at a minimum, can provide some pass rush competence. The only player with even a 10% pressure rate on the 2022 Chicago Bears was Trevis Gipson (and it was technically 9.9%), and now he’s a Titan. The highest returner is defensive tackle Justin Jones at 6.6%. The Bears may have the NFL’s worst pass rush in 2023, so expect this to be a major advantage for the Packers in week one.
The second level is probably where the Bears are the strongest. They spent plenty of money to upgrade the linebacker position, bringing in Tremaine Edmunds on a sizable deal, and also bringing in former Badger-great TJ Edwards from Philadelphia. While the two of them will probably bring competence to the second level, this is actually where Chicago was okay last year with another former Badger, Jack Sanborn, having a solid rookie season.
The Bears' secondary is not a strength, but it’s almost certainly better than their front. The Bears gave up the worst DVOA to #1 WRs last season, and Jaylon Johnson returns as CB1. Kyler Gordon did not fair much better, though he has been kicked inside to the slot this year. The Packers will likely see rookie Tyrique Stevenson across from Johnson to start. Even with the inexperience in the Packers receiving corps, this is another place Green Bay could exploit, particularly with Christian Watson. The safety position is a bit of old and a bit of young. Eddie Jackson is so far removed from his breakout season alongside Adrian Amos that I think we can move on from him ever being close to that player again. Jaquan Brisker had some struggles as a rookie, including with injury, but there still may be a solid safety in there.
Green Bay matches up well in most of the key places. There really are two big questions that exist. Firstly, what really is Jordan Love? It won’t require a superhuman performance to put up points against this Bears defense, but we don’t have any real regular season data to say whether he can hit the competent NFL starter threshold or not. I’d put my money on yes given what we’ve seen the past year or so, but that’s a grand total of like one game’s worth of drives. He’s going to have to prove it. The other big question is can Green Bay’s run defense, which, per usual, was horrid in 2022, ranking 31st in EPA/rush, just be competent enough to not have this turn into a bludgeoning from the Bears front?
The Packers' offense should largely be able to dictate how it wants to attack the Bears' defense, but the Packers’ defense needs to earn the ability to rush the passer and force turnovers on later downs by getting the dirty work done on early downs against the run. Welcome back to the Packers, even with Rodgers gone, I’m still writing about how the run defense is the Achilles heel. Some things really do never change.