It’s finally here. After the most exciting offseason in recent memory, the Bears will finally play in a meaningful game. No more speculation. We will finally get a first-hand look at the Bears’ revamped offense and new defensive superstar Khalil Mack.
And who better to showcase these new upgrades against than our bitter rivals: the Green Bay Packers.
The all-time series currently stands at 96-94-4 in favor of the Packers with Green Bay taking over the series lead in 2017 for the first time since the 1930s.
The Bears are currently on a four-game losing streak against the Packers, but the 2018 Bears look nothing like the teams of the past few years.
The Bears weren’t the only team to improve this offseason as the Packers made some substantial upgrades as well. Most notably tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Green Bay also spent its first two picks in the draft on cornerbacks, which bolstered the Packers’ biggest weakness on defense from a season ago.
It should be a tough, hard-fought game … But the Packers have one glaring weakness the Bears should be able to exploit.
While Wilkerson and the rookie corners are obvious improvements, one position the Packers did not upgrade was inside linebacker.
The Packers will run both 3-4 and 4-3 concepts according to new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, which means they will need to utilize at least two players at inside linebacker.
Last year’s starter, Jake Ryan, was placed on IR in training camp. That was a big blow to an already weak unit. To make matters worse, rookie linebacker Oren Burks, who impressed in preseason, is questionable to play Sunday night.
To account for this, the Packers traded for Antonio Morrison from the Colts. Morrison looks poised to see the field often, but his 45.3 grade from Pro Football Focus should not instill much confidence in “Packerland.” Incumbent starter Blake Martinez will be the primary starter and likely won’t come off the field much. He faired a little better with a PFF grade of 66.6, however, his coverage grade (47.6) combined with Morrison’s (46.4) should have Matt Nagy licking his chops.
Even if Burks is able to play, he is a rookie who will be playing in his first career game and should be working through typical “growing pains.”
If the Bears want to win this game, they need to attack Martinez and whichever linebacker plays alongside him.
Here’s how Chicago can exploit this matchup
We know that the tight end position will be a large part of the Bears’ offense, and it’s a position that is usually countered with either safeties or linebackers. The loss of Adam Shaheen hurts, but Trey Burton’s receiving skills make him a prime candidate to be featured heavily in this game.
Creating matchups for Burton against these linebackers will be instrumental to the Bears’ success. Burton’s past history highlights how linebackers will have difficulty matching his speed and route running ability. Here is an example from last season.
Lined up outside (bottom of screen) and the linebacker is late to identify his assignment. Burton runs a great Sluggo route (slant and go), which is no match for the linebacker. Burton’s tremendous body control allows him to adjust to the ball better than most tight ends.
Nagy undoubtedly has similar concepts and plays drawn up to create this mismatch with a linebacker on Burton.
Nagy also needs to be creative in order to make the Packers’ young linebackers think. While both have starting experience, they haven’t worked together much at all and are otherwise unproven. Nagy will want to throw a lot of misdirection and play actions at them to get them to bite, further opening the middle of the field.
We saw this last season in Kansas City. Here is one version of a play the Chiefs loved to run – this combination of the jet sweep and play action confuses the linebackers and leaves the middle of the field susceptible to the tight end shovel pass.
If the Packers decide to put a safety or corner on Burton, then the linebackers will be tasked with covering the running backs out of the backfield. But Tarik Cohen should be able to find similar success against this defense.
Last season, the Chiefs used Kareem Hunt to create mismatches with linebackers often. The Bears are lucky enough to have one of the best receiving running backs in the game in Cohen to fill this role. In the play below, the Chiefs send Hunt out on a wheel route.
This is an intriguing play because they have their receiver on that side running a go route taking the corner out of the play, and Hunt doesn’t run a typical wheel route down the sideline. Instead, he transitions into a post route over the middle of the field and away from the corner. It is a long developing play that requires a strong offensive line. However, the linebackers are no match for Hunt’s speed.
Look for Cohen to be similarly utilized, but don’t rule out Jordan Howard as a weapon out of the backfield as well. Not only will his ability in the run game test these linebackers, but by all accounts, he has been working to improve as a receiver. So while the Packers might be expecting Cohen to be the focus, Howard could be the surprise player to step up.
Whether it is Burton, Cohen, Howard, or another player, the Bears will need to attack the weak part of Packers’ defense if they hope to get closer to regaining the series lead over their rivals.
The Bears sat their starters in the last two preseason games for good reason. Nagy has some tricks up his sleeve for this game and you can bet they all are centered around the same general idea of attacking the Packers’ biggest weakness.
Superior coaching and the element of surprise should mean big things for their offense on Sunday.