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Tactical Thinking: Bears vs. Packers

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In the debut of his newest weekly series, ECD looks at the biggest matchup the Bears could look to exploit. This week features the Green Bay Packers and the problems they’ll have defending against the run.

NFL: Preseason-Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

The dawn of a new season is upon us. On September 5th, the Chicago Bears will host their arch nemesis Green Bay Packers on Thursday Night Football to kickoff the Bears’ — and the NFL’s — 100th season. As befitting of any new season, a new series is being introduced.

This series will highlight the biggest matchup of which the Bears could/should exploit against their weekly opponent. And who better to start off against than their division rival in the Packers? In particular, I see the Bears’ retooled backfield and shuffled O-Line giving the Packers’ defensive front seven fit.

Let’s review what has changed for the Bears heading into this matchup.

Ryan Pace arms Matt Nagy with new weaponry in the backfield as ground game takes shape

NFL: Preseason-Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Improving the running game was a point of emphasis that every member of the coaching staff and front office worked to accomplish during the offseason. In summary, they dealt Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional 6th round pick, then replaced him primarily with free agent Mike Davis and draft pick David Montgomery. The goal was to be more dynamic and versatile in the backfield as opposed to being predictable.

Additionally, Cody Whitehair and James Daniels did a positional swap at Center and Left Guard, respectively. This will help the Bears in creating a stronger surge in between the tackles, as Matt Nagy seeks to open up more of his inside-zone concepts in year two. Overall, expect a much more balanced and explosive running game this season in Chicago.

A violent running game will prove to be valuable as the season goes on. Plus, it’ll attack a major weakness that the Packers have attempted to address.

Packers load up on defense, yet suffer key injuries during the preseason

NFL: Preseason-Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In all, the Packers guaranteed $48 million between Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos in an effort to bolster their defense. They also drafted Rashan Gary at 12th overall to be their OLB of the future, and spent their other 1st round pick on safety Darnell Savage. If it all fails, it won’t be for a lack of effort.

Unfortunately for them, their biggest problems on defense still exist up front.

Star DT Mike Daniels became a surprise cap casualty shortly before training camp began this summer. His departure will be huge, as he was such a beast in disrupting play after play inside the “A” gaps. It gets worse when you note the injuries that are already having an effect on their depth at linebacker. Most notably, Oren Burks is out with a strained — but not torn — pectoral muscle. Rashan Gary has been dealing with a series of injuries as well.

Matt Nagy will finally unveil his new ground game in epic fashion

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, it was pretty difficult to write this article while understanding the preseason play-calling was about as vanilla as one could imagine this year. He, Nagy, certainly intends on keeping this “Run DMC” campaign in complete secrecy until the opener kicks off on Thursday.

At least he whetted our appetites a bit when he turned David Montgomery loose during preseason week one against the Carolina Panthers.

He, Montgomery, is my dark horse candidate for Team MVP this season. His abilities to make defenders miss in close quarters and then launch himself into daylight are exactly what Green Bay has struggled to contain. Once Montgomery gets to the second level, he’s gone.

In their last matchup in 2018 the Bears managed to gain 111 total yards on the ground against the Packers. Most of their success was found when attacking their defense right up the gut. The interior lineup of Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, and Kyle Long had their way against Green Bay’s D-line.

This drive during the Bears’ week 15 showdown against the Packers demonstrates the type of advantages gained by drilling straight into the teeth of the green and gold front seven.

Even though there weren’t a lot of big chunks carved in that series, the success of the inside zone forced Mike Pettine to respect the threat. Defenders then started to cheat up in anticipation for the run. That opened up the play-action passing game while wearing the box defenders out. Jordan Howard ended that series with an easy touchdown, blasting through a big hole opened by Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, and Trey Burton (who pulled as a “sniffer” on that play).

Statistically, the Packers’ defense ranked 22nd against the run in 2018 with an average of 119 yards allowed per game. Fundamentally speaking, Mike Pettine’s defense has not defended the interior well, nor have they shown much toughness beyond the line of scrimmage. Below is an example displayed during preseason action.

In that one play alone, albeit a pass-turned-scramble, we can see the Packers aren’t getting much of a push in the interior. Where Kenny Clark is an athletic presence at nose, he’s not the type of dominant athlete Mike Daniels was. Neither their ILBs nor DBs took appropriate angles to cut Lamar Jackson off from reaching the end zone.

David Montgomery, and Mike Davis for the matter, will both cause major problems with their tough yet quick running styles. Naturally, Tarik Cohen will have opportunities to gash the soft belly of that defense, too. Shoot, Cordarrelle Patterson might get a couple of carries inside as well. So many options to choose.

Contrary to popular belief, Nagy is a believer of balancing the vertical passing game with a strong attack on the ground. I do not expect that to change this season. Thanks to their athletic line and explosive backfield, there’s one play that I see Matt Nagy abusing Mike Pettine with. The counter trap.

We didn’t see this play much last season. Howard’s running style wasn’t a great fit, and Tarik Cohen is best used in spurts or “pop plays” as opposed to ramming the front seven. Now, they have the player(s) to run these types of plays. This is in addition to all their backs being capable receivers, so defenses can no longer key their reads based solely on who’s in the backfield.

Only time will tell as to how well each team will perform when games count for real starting next week. My expectation is we’ll see plenty of “DMC” being used in several different ways during week one. Oh, and the Packers’ defense will need a good soak in the ice tubs for a week straight.