Where do Packers have biggest advantages and disadvantages vs. Bears?
It’s Week 1. We made it. The Green Bay Packers formally open the Jordan Love era in Chicago, which is only fitting given Aaron Rodgers’ well-documented ownership of the Bears. Will he pass the deep down to Love or will Soldier Field hit the housing market? We finally get the answers, or at least the start of one, with the beginning of the 2023 season.
That also means The Leap is back on an in-season schedule with five posts a week. Monday remains free, always. The rest of the week will be behind the paywall and we hope you’ll come hang out with us there.
Today, we look at some of the looming questions for the Packers ahead of their division rivalry showdown with Justin Fields and the Bears.
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Given what we know heading into the season, where do the Packers have the biggest advantage over the Bears?
Peter Bukowski: The caveat about what we know must be included here because teams change so much from season to season. Green Bay and Chicago represent clear examples of significant alterations to personnel and scheme that we can’t be sure will manifest themselves in one way over another.
That makes this difficult because both of the best options here require significant projections about what the Packers and Bears offenses will most likely be.
Chicago’s defense finished DFL in expected points added (EPA) per dropback and success rate last season, but it’s difficult to determine where the Green Bay passing offense will land, especially in Week 1. With Rodgers, the Packers ranked 11th in EPA/dropback which puts this gap squarely in Green Bay’s favor, but what will this passing game look like without a four-time MVP under center and this Chicago defense also stunk against the run.
Matt Eberflus’ defense placed 28th in EPA/rush last season and 26th in success rate while the Packers landed 3rd in success rate and 9th in EPA/rush. Pretty good advantage for the Pack.
But that’s not even the only other option here. Superstar corner Jaire Alexander and the Packers’ pass defense put up the ninth-best passing defense DVOA season in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bears managed one of the most anemic passing offenses of the modern era under Justin Fields who didn’t even make it to 100 passing yards twice last season in an effort so inglorious, Brett Hundley against the Ravens shivered in terror.
I’m going to go with the Bears passing defense because the nickelback was openly and repeatedly targeted by the Packers last year and the unit features a rookie cornerback as well. In addition, this is the worst pass-rushing group in the NFL going against a top-5 pass-blocking unit. Love should have all day to throw.
What about the flip side? What matchup is most concerning for the Packers heading to Chicago?
PB: The run defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry can say all the right things about wanting to be more aggressive, playing more man coverage, etc. But against Fields and the Bears, the only thing that matters is stopping the run because that’s all Chicago has proven it can do.
The close cousin of this -- or perhaps the simplest distillation -- is that the Packers have to tackle in this game. They can’t miss opportunities to bring down ball carriers in the open field, a bug-a-boo last season. Even when the Bears do throw, it will be screen-heavy. Wide receiver D.J. Moore and running back Khalil Herbert are nightmares in the open field, and Chicago got off in the run game each game they played against the Packers last season.
Luckily, Fields couldn’t stop turning the ball over and the Chicago defense is orders of magnitude worse overall than the Packers, both of which should still be true this season.
Green Bay finished 31st in EPA/rush and success rate against the run last season. Maybe the Bears will throw a little more than last year, but against the Packers why bother? They have a terrific pass defense we expect to be even better and the run defense will have to prove it can get stops.
This is where the game will likely be won or lost.
What Packer player can be the wild card and potentially swing this game?
PB: Linebacker Quay Walker. My history with the Packers 2022 first-round pick may be fraught -- TLDR: I didn’t like the pick and don’t think he played well most of last year -- but he made his first truly eye-popping play as a rookie chasing down Fields to prevent a big play and his evolution as a running mate next to De’Vondre Campbell holds the keys to solving the run defense problem.
Green Bay isn’t coming out of their two-high safety looks. Improved disruption up front from the interior would help which is where Devonte Wyatt, Karl Brooks, and Colby Wooden come in. But Walker running alleys and fitting the run, using his athletic ability to chase down one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league, can be an equalizer.
If the Packers trust the cornerbacks and safeties to hold up against an underwhelming aerial attack (to put it mildly), then it’s up to the front to hold up against the run. That means this revamped defensive line getting after a mediocre starting offensive line for the Bears that already faces injury challenges as well as Walker taking full advantage of his defensive line running mates creating some chaos for him to clean up.
Help set reasonable expectations for Love in his first NFL start as “the guy” in Green Bay.
PB: Love finally gets to go out and just play. Luckily for him, early in the season there won’t be an accumulation of pressure either. It’s Week 1. He has a leash. He can go out and play freely, unencumbered by trying to meet season-long expectations for what the team has to be right now.
Last spring, I spoke with Love’s personal QB coach Steve Calhoun for a story about Love trying to be himself, rather than be Rodgers and one quote stands out.
“I tell Jordan, ‘He’s different. He’s an alien. We’re human beings, man. We have to actually set our feet and step toward our target and we’re coming over the top with the ball … let Aaron throw the ball the way Aaron does. We gotta throw the ball the way Jordan does and how you’re successful with it.’ I think that will be our focus coming back.”
Coincidentally, Rodgers himself echoed those comments while talking with Sports Illustrated over the weekend.
“It just comes down to being your own man and do things the way you want to do it. The things that he watched me do that he would do differently, do it differently. Be your own guy, that’s awesome. You should do that. He’s a great kid. He’s got all the talent in the world. They’ve got a really young team, so he’s got an opportunity to be exactly who he wants to be and be the leader that he wants to be. I’m excited for him.”
It may seem like damning with faint praise, or another way of saying, “Don’t try to do too much,” by saying, “Don’t try to be Aaron Rodgers,” but even Tom Brady would have failed trying to be Rodgers. Just like Dan Marino would have failed trying to play like John Elway or Peyton Manning like Patrick Mahomes. It’s not who they are.
Against a defense that was bad a year ago and didn’t meaningfully upgrade the pass rush while instead relying on overpaid linebackers and a trio of rookies to start, we should expect Love to play well. If he can’t handle the pressure of replacing Rodgers, he’s probably not cut out to be a franchise quarterback.
That doesn’t mean if he plays poorly, it’s a wrap on Love. It will matter why he didn’t play well and how.
I expect Love to look poised and calm, not force the ball into coverage, and take his shots when they’re available just like he’s done all summer. Whether or not that’s good enough to actually win … well, we’ll see if he brings the deed to Soldier Field with him signed off from Rodgers.
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