We finally made it. Week 1 of the NFL season is here, with the Green Bay Packers and the Jordan Love era kicking things off against the Chicago Bears.
Both teams have undergone quite a few changes in the offseason. The Packers, of course, transitioned from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love and are now the youngest team in the NFL. The Bears, with an abundance of salary cap space, made a number of new additions and will also be entering their second season under head coach Matt Eberfuls.
It’s for these reasons that Week 1 can have an additional layer of difficulty for all NFL teams because there isn’t any current film to watch – outside of the preseason, which is very vanilla from a scheme standpoint – as offenses and defenses construct their game plans.
"“You just got to know it’s going to be unscouted looks,” said Love. “There’s going to be somethings that are new for them this year that they’ve been practicing that we’ve never seen before. So you just have to be ready for whatever. We talk about it in the meetings, just fall back on your rules. Throw what you see. Trust what you see. But it’s definitely going to be some looks you don’t see.”"
So, with that in mind, here are five key things to watch for as the game unfolds, along with some additional final thoughts on the upcoming matchup.
How does Jordan Love perform?
There were quite a few encouraging moments from Jordan Love over the summer. For one, Love has a very even-keeled demeanor about him–never getting too high or too low. He consistently did well going through his progressions, knowing when to try to fit the ball into a tight window and take what the defense gave him. For the most part, he protected the ball well. Love displayed excellent pocket presence, able to avoid the little pressure that came his way, and he flashed that arm talent that we know he possesses. However, the preseason and the regular season are two different things.
As was just mentioned, the pieces of the puzzle are there for Love to be a successful quarterback, but can they come together when it matters most and when the defense is throwing new looks at him in an effort to cause some chaos? Matt LaFleur mentioned earlier in the week that this Bears defense does a great job of scheming up pressures through post-snap movement along the defensive front and blitzes.
That is not only something I would expect the Bears to throw at Love but most defenses, along with late movement in the secondary, which, again, is meant to cause confusion and could lead to turnovers. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Chicago playing closer to the line of scrimmage, trying to limit the Packers’ run and quick passing games, and putting more of the playmaking responsibility on the arm of Love and his young receivers and tight ends.
As expected, we come into this game with far more unknowns than certainties. How does Love respond when the defensive front is causing pressure? How does he and this offense as a whole respond if they fall behind early? What happens after a turnover or multiple three-and-outs? Also, are Love and his young group of pass catchers going to be on the same page? These are all questions we got a glimpse of during the summer, but ultimately, we won’t know the answers until we see how things unfold in the regular season.
The Packers run game
Although all eyes will be on Love, success for the Packers offense begins here. Without a consistent run game, it’s going to put the Green Bay offense in obvious passing situations, which is not a recipe for success for a first-time starting quarterback and a group of inexperienced pass catchers. On the flip side, if the Packers can stay ahead of the sticks, it will create manageable second and third-down situations, open up the playbook for Matt LaFleur, better set up play-action, and, in general, create opportunities in the passing game–taking some of the burden off Love’s shoulders.
This is a Chicago defense that really struggled against the run last season, ranking 27th in yards per carry allowed and 29th by DVOA. They’ve made several additions to their front seven, but this is still an area that the Packers should look to exploit, especially behind their stout offensive line.
As I alluded to above, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears trying to shrink the field, especially without Christian Watson. We saw opponents do this early on to Green Bay in 2022, which made moving the ball on the ground and in the quick game all the more challenging, even with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, simply because there is less room for the offense to operate. In order to combat this, we need to see the Packers still trying to push the ball downfield, hopefully forcing this Chicago defense to spread out a little bit. While the pass catchers may be experienced, what they do have is a lot more speed and downfield ability in comparison to last year’s team, which should help absorb Watson’s absence to a degree.
The Packers run defense
On the other side of the ball, stopping the Chicago run game will be a must for the Packers’ defense for similar reasons just discussed. Doing so will put Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense in predictable passing situations, allowing the Green Bay pass rush to really pin its ears back and the secondary to play more aggressively, hopefully leading to turnover opportunities.
This, of course, will be easier said than done. As we know, run defense has given the Packers fits over the years, and they are going up against one of the NFL’s top rushing offenses from 2022. Fields totaled over 1,100 rushing yards on his own last season, while Khalil Herbert averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, the play of the interior defensive line unit this summer was very sound. This is a group that looks much faster and created a consistent push throughout training camp and the preseason. With TJ Slaton in the middle, Kenny Clark has seen more snaps at defensive end, which should lead to more one-on-one opportunities for him. We’ve also seen more post-snap movement from this group as well. Clark said on Monday that this year’s interior defensive line unit is going to look different.
"“We got a different plan,” said Clark. “You’ll see on Sunday as far as the plan. As far as the techniques and everything, how we playing defense, we’re just being more aggressive. Going to move a little bit. You got guys like myself, TJ, D-Wy that’s can play stout and get off of blocks. That’s all we got to do. Get off blocks at the end of the day. Stop the run and plug gaps.”"
Slowing the Chicago run game starts with the defensive line, but as Joe Barry said on Thursday, it’s going to take all 11 defenders. It doesn’t sound like the Packers are going to use a quarterback spy on Fields, but my guess is that we see a heavy use of zone coverage, so the second and third-level defenders can keep their eyes in the backfield at all times and from there, all 11 have to be swarming to the ball carrier.
How many snaps does Rashan Gary play?
What we do know is that Rashan Gary is going to play on Sunday. What we don’t know is how many snaps that is going to entail. LaFleur did say that he will be on a “pitch count,” but that is the extent of what we know right now. Without Gary last season, the Packers edge rusher group struggled to create consistent pressure and did not hold up well against the run. In addition to losing Gary’s production during the second half of 2022, the team was without a leader and one of their tone-setters.
"“When we lost him last year, we didn’t just lose the dominant, game-changing player – we lost his work ethic,” said Barry on Thursday. “We lost just his mindset that he brings every single day. When you miss that, when you lose that, you not only lose the player, but you lose the leader. You lose that emotional leader, that grit leader that he brings to us every single day.”"
Along with getting Gary back, the depth of the edge rusher unit is much improved overall compared to 2022. JJ Enagbare looks like he is primed for a Year 2 leap. Justin Hollins has had a full offseason in the system, and the team added Brenton Cox and Lukas Van Ness to the mix.
Aaron Jones in the passing game
In the past, when the Packers have found themselves shorthanded at receiver, they’ve often turned to Aaron Jones. And with as much inexperience as there will be at receiver and tight end, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones as the second option behind Romeo Doubs (assuming he is playing).
In 2019, against Dallas, Jones had seven receptions for 75 yards. That same season against Kansas City, when the Packers were without Davante Adams, Jones again had seven catches, this time for 159 yards and two touchdowns. In 2021, against Arizona, with Green Bay missing several receivers on the reserve/COVID list, Jones had seven more receptions for 51 yards. In each of those games, he led the team in receptions, and the Packers also won all three games as well.
About 25 percent of Jones’ snaps from 2022 came from either the slot or the boundary. He also ranked second among running backs in targets of 10 or more yards as well. So while, understandably so, the attention will be on who can step up at receiver in Watson’s absence – and someone else will need to alongside Doubs – it may be Jones who becomes more of the focal point in the passing game.
– Football has changed a lot over the years, but games are still very much won or lost in the trenches. And on paper, the Packers should have the advantage up front on both sides of the ball. They have a very deep group of pass rushers, what looks to be an improved run defense, and what should be one of the best offensive line units in football. While there were some questions at center and right tackle this summer, don’t forget that the Green Bay offensive line performed very well during the preseason.
– I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fields targeting Nixon often in this game in an effort to keep the ball away from Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas. We saw defenses do this fairly regularly late last season. Nixon will have his hands full in the slot, defending either Darnell Mooney or DJ Moore at times.
– Clark said that the Packers’ No. 1 priority needs to be stopping the run, and I hope we see them really try to take that element away as much as possible. Until Fields proves otherwise, trust your cornerbacks and make him beat you with his arm. And if he does early on, tip your cap to him and make adjustments from there.
– Do we see a more aggressive Packers defense? Throughout the summer, we saw more stunts up front, more blitzes from the linebackers, and the cornerbacks challenging the receivers more. Now, let’s see if that translates over to the regular season.
– The focus is on the Packers passing game, but I’m curious to see how these young tight ends hold up as blockers. If Love doesn’t have time or the run game can’t get going, not much else matters. As has been expected, both Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave have taken their lumps in this area over the summer. And as has already been mentioned, they could be tested with how well this Bears defense schemes up pressures.
– This very well could be a close game where points are at a premium for the Packers offense, which puts even more pressure on Anders Carlson to take advantage of field goal and extra-point opportunities.
– As LaFleur said, you have to earn the right to rush the quarterback by slowing the run on early downs. Well, if the Packers can do that, their pass rush should be able to cause some havoc against a Bears offensive line that struggled in pass protection last season and is without Teven Jenkins.
– With how important the run game is going to be, the Packers need a bounce-back season from AJ Dillon. His emphasis this offseason has been running with a lower pad level and using his size and strength to his advantage. As Dillon said, rather than trying to be perfect, he is instead going to try to be dominant. In Week 13 last season, Dillon averaged 5.2 yards per rush against Chicago.
– I’m guessing it will be Rudy Ford lined up next to Darnell Savage at safety. As Barry has said on a few occasions this summer, he is looking for consistency from this unit. This includes pre-snap communication, being reliable as a tackler, and being positioned correctly to prevent coverage breakdowns.
– I think even if Watson were available, we’d see a lot of two tight end and two running back sets, both of which were prevalent this summer. But now I’d expect a heavy dose of both.