Bears’ Sean Desai must match Aaron Rodgers in pre-snap battle of wits

The Bears need to counter savvy with savvy. Enter Desai, their first-year defensive coordinator.

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Green Bay Packers v Cincinnati Bengals

Aaron Rodgers runs during the Bengals game.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks across the line of scrimmage and plays chess.

He checks to see whether the defense staring at him is in man or zone coverage — and, if it’s in the latter, which one. He examines personnel. Then he starts tinkering, changing his receivers’ routes or the direction of the run or calling new plays altogether.

No one does it better.

‘‘He definitely runs the show,’’ Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. ‘‘You can see, being out there on the field, how he changes the offense, how he changes routes, how he changes calls, how he really just dissects the defense and really sees what you’re in. And once he really understands what you’re in, he molds the offense to beat what you’re in.’’

When the Bears played the Packers last season, Johnson assumed Rodgers knew what defense the Bears were in each time he audibled. Johnson would search his mind for the route that could beat his coverage, so he was prepared when the ball was snapped.

‘‘You can definitely tell when he knows what you’re in,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘He makes it obvious, but you still don’t know what they’re going to run. . . . He’s very, very smart and very savvy.’’

The Bears need to counter savvy with savvy. Enter Sean Desai, their first-year defensive coordinator. Vic Fangio, Desai’s mentor, is a master of blurring coverages to confuse the quarterback.

Desai’s challenge Sunday at Soldier Field will be to fool Rodgers before the snap but also play him straight at times — looks, he said, that are ‘‘honest or not honest.’’ That’s a challenge for any coordinator, much less one who has called plays for only five Sundays.

‘‘Whether you’re disguised or not, it’s about giving him different looks and giving him different pictures,’’ Desai said. ‘‘And you just keep playing the game with him. And it’s going to be a 60-plus-minute battle for us to do that. You know you’ve got to mentally and physically strain in this game.’’

Rodgers, who has a photographic memory, usually wins a battle of wits.

‘‘He’s one of the few quarterbacks that truly has no flaws to his game,’’ safety Tashaun Gipson said. ‘‘I think that he can make every throw. He’s mobile enough to get out of the pocket. He’s smart. He doesn’t turn the ball over. You’re almost sort of a fan when you watch him on tape.’’

Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry comes from a similar scheme family as Desai. Barry coached under Brandon Staley last season, and Staley has coached under Fangio with the Bears and Broncos. Rodgers was able to face his own defense — which, like the Bears, can play different zone coverages on either side of the field — during training camp.

‘‘Anytime you’re playing defenses that want to play some combo coverages, there are similarities in the pre-snap things you can look at, post-snap things you can look at,’’ Rodgers said.

The Bears have set small goals. Gipson said they need to capitalize on Rodgers’ rare mistakes. In the Bears’ Week 17 loss last season, safety Eddie Jackson, cornerback Kindle Vildor and then-linebacker Barkevious Mingo dropped interception chances.

Desai said the Bears need to get Rodgers off his primary read.

‘‘At least you get him to the second or third one,’’ he said. ‘‘And you buy some time for the rush and the coverage to work together.’’

If that happens, the Bears have a chance. The Bears’ pass defense ranks fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and second in adjusted sack rate, which measures sacks and intentional-grounding penalties per pass attempt.

For Rodgers to end up on his back, however, the Bears have to make him think before the play even starts.

‘‘It’s really just about changing up disguises, not giving him too much pre-snap indicators of what we’re doing,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘It’s really just about being able to mix it up and give good disguises.’’

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