Facing the Bears’ defense presents not just a Khalil Mack problem, but a front-seven problem. Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, even Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols came up big vs. the Packers last year. Left tackle David Bakhtiari is the best in the game. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is still playing at a high level entering his ninth season. But it’s never a one-on-one battle with Mack. The trick is to contain him without letting somebody else make a big play.
“That is the challenge,” Packers first-year coach Matt LaFleur said. “Everybody on this team knows that we’ve got a tremendous challenge in front of us. Not only by their front — their front seven is arguably the best in football. But I feel they’ve got a complete package at all three levels.”
Both teams come into the opener with relatively blank slates. None of the Bears starters got more than token reps in the preseason and many did not play at all. The Packers also joined the trend of NFL teams giving their starters minimal preseason reps. So the usual chess match will be even more interesting in this one.
“That’s a huge part of this. Expect the unexpected,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “On both sides. How do you handle certain situations so that when it arises, you’re able to be prepared? We’ll see.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith played only eight snaps in the opener against the Packers last year and had a sack on his first NFL play. He had 10 tackles and two pass break-ups in the rematch in December. With a full offseason and training camp under his belt, he’s expected to blossom into a star this season. With the talent around him, that could happen from the start.
“He’s a phenomenal football player,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “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 ... if you want to bring him, bring him. We know every time he blitzes he gets a sack. So it would be pretty smart to probably bring him, but I don’t want to give too much away. We’ll probably drop him the whole time now anyway. It’s going to be exciting to see him roll.”
Throughout training camp and the preseason, there’s been an unspoken excitement among many Bears defensive players that Pagano will be — as anticipated — much more aggressive than Vic Fangio was. It remains to be seen if that will unleash a devastation that makes this defense the scourge of the NFL — or exposes weaknesses that allow well-schooled and well-disciplined offenses to take advantage of.
The Packers’ offense will be playing its first game under LaFleur and could be vulnerable to pressure. Then again, with Aaron Rodgers, if a weakness is exposed, he’ll usually find it. This could be an interesting early litmus test for the Fangio-Pagano transition.