By virtue of his dominance and a near resurrection in last season’s opener, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might as well be a bleep word for Bears fans.
It was in the 2018 opener that Rodgers’ legend in the NFC North rivalry grew by quantum bounds. Down and out with a knee injury in the first half, Rodgers returned after halftime and rallied Green Bay from a 20-0 deficit to knock off Chicago 24-23. The Bears devoured Rodgers in the second meeting, recording five sacks and grabbing the 24-17 victory.
“They stuffed us pretty good,” Rodgers said.
But Rodgers is 16-5 in the all-time matchup with a passer rating over 100 and a 45-10 TD-to-INT ratio. Even if that history means very little in the opener of the NFL’s 100th season on Thursday at Soldier Field in Chicago, it’s safe to assume Rodgers will be ready for the primetime showdown. Wide receiver Davante Adams has seen the 35-year-old quarterback flip the switch to regular-season mode.
“I’ve definitely seen the switch,” Adams said. “I’ve seen the antennae up. It’s always a laser focus, but it heightens a little bit. From me being around here six years now, I can tell the difference. He’s ready to go.”
Green Bay unveils a new version of Rodgers — one in which he has full control of the offense at the line of scrimmage, a la Peyton Manning — under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. Rodgers and fired coach Mike McCarthy had a competitively contentious relationship, a major reason there’s a new man in charge with the Packers. Another reason? The Packers’ 6-9-1 record in 2018.
Rodgers did not play in the preseason, and he said the Bears and other early season opponents accustomed to the decidedly West Coast system McCarthy installed have no idea what’s coming from the Packers’ offense.
“When they play Green Bay, it’s not just what they’ve seen for years – which was tough to stop,” Rodgers said. “Now we’re throwing new things at them with personnel groupings and motions and alignments and movement and adjustments that they haven’t seen from us. I’m obviously really hopeful that we’re going to go out and play really well, but I do feel like this is just the beginning for this offense and there’ll be a lot of room to grow.”
The Bears, who finished the 2018 season at 12-4, are looking for growth out of their quarterback in 2019. Mitchell Trubisky, who had multiple opportunities in the fourth quarter to squash Rodgers’ rally last September, enters his third season in the NFL with a division title in his back pocket and expectations for more trophies in the near future.
“His confidence is really high right now,” Bears center Cody Whitehair said. “He sees the field a lot better being in Year Two. The 2.0 step he’s taken in the offense has really helped him.”
The Bears are heavily reliant on a defense that led the league in scoring, takeaways and stopping the run, and third in total yards. Offensive-minded head coach Matt Nagy had to bring in a new coordinator to replace current Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, and he found a veteran in former Ravens defensive coordinator and Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
Pagano is expecting a jump in production from recent first-round draft picks at linebacker in support of Khalil Mack, who had a forced fumble, interception and touchdown at Green Bay in his Bears debut last year.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was the team’s top performer in the offseason and second-year linebacker Roquan Smith is flashing undisputed star potential. He played only eight snaps at Lambeau Field last season.
“He’s a phenomenal football player,” Pagano said. “I feel like that kid has been around for a long, long time. He’s mature beyond his years, and he understands the game, and I think it’s really slowing down for him in a short of time that he’s been with his organization and played at this level. You know, everything you ask Roquan to do, physically he’s able to do it, whether it’s being a downhill inside linebacker, playing between the tackles.”