In Week 15 last season, the Bears played for the NFC North title, and the rival Packers only sacked quarterback Mitch Trubisky once.
On first-and-10 from the Bears’ 39, Trubisky stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure from outside linebacker Clay Matthews and collided with linebacker Kyler Fackrell and defensive lineman Montravius Adams.
Trubisky’s right hand struck left guard James Daniels’ helmet, and he fumbled, but Daniels recovered the loose ball.
That highlight for the Packers, however, was sandwiched by two big plays from Trubisky. On the previous play, he escaped a blitz and ran for 14 yards on third-and-10. On the next play, Trubisky eluded pressure from Matthews by rolling to his left and threw a 14-yard strike to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel for a first down.
The Packers surely had that sequence of plays from Trubisky in mind when they formulated their offseason plan.
The Bears officially eliminated Green Bay from playoff contention that day with a 24-17 victory. They won the NFC North for the first time since 2010.
And now the Bears are the team to beat in the division. Their defense is still loaded — remember Khalil Mack? — and their young offensive players should improve, starting with Trubisky. He’ll be in his second season with coach Matt Nagy.
A year ago, general manager Ryan Pace waded into what he described as the “treacherous waters” of free agency again and hooked some big fish, signing wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton, two of the best available players at their respective positions.
This year, Pace watched the NFC North react to his creation — a 12-4 division winner last season — with their moves in free agency. In Chicago (or Lake Forest), that’s one way to view the lavish spending of the Bears’ division rivals.
The Packers used to steer clear of expensive moves in free agency. But this year, they quickly agreed to deals with two pass rushers — Za’Darius Smith for four years and $66 million and Preston Smith for four years and $52 million, including a combined $36 million in signing bonuses — who are emerging but still combined for 12½ sacks last season with the Ravens and Redskins, respectively.
Counting former Bears safety Adrian Amos’ new deal with the Packers (four years, $37 million), Green Bay committed $47 million in signing bonuses to its new defensive players. Za’Darius Smith also is looking at $34.5 million over the first two years of his contract.
That’s some serious spending. It rivals what Pace did over his first three years in free agency in an effort to field competitive teams for former coach John Fox, while finding the right time to draft his quarterback and waiting for other draft choices to develop.
The Lions also were active in free agency, reaching a massive five-year deal with former Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers ($90 million overall, $56 million in total guarantees and a $28.07 million signing bonus). Flowers had a career-best 7½ sacks last season.
The Lions also made former Seahawk Justin Coleman the highest-paid nickel back with a four-year, $36 million deal, including $19 million guaranteed and a $10.145 million signing bonus.
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr nearly left for the Jets, but he returned on a five-year, $67.5 million contract, including $33 million in guarantees. It was a smart move that’s in line with the other free-agent maneuvers in the NFC North. All the teams need defensive players.
Trubisky always will have his critics. The 2019 season is important because he needs to show growth with his progressions, accuracy and mechanics.
But the Packers and Vikings understand what Trubisky accomplished last season. The Bears went 5-1 in the NFC North, their only loss coming in Week 1 because of Aaron Rodgers’ near-miraculous comeback.
Trubisky improved in the Bears’ second games against the Packers and Vikings, and his numbers — he went from a 77.2 passer rating to 120.4 against Green Bay and from a 61.9 rating to 85.9 against Minnesota — clearly bear that out.
Trubisky also burned the Lions in his only game against them, completing 23 of 30 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns for a 148.6 passer rating in a 34-22 victory. He also ran for a four-yard touchdown.
“The other part of this that gets lost is that every other player on this offense now comes into Year 2 with us, and now they all know what’s going on,” Nagy said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “So now we can start playing ball.”
The Bears’ high-spending rivals in the NFC North appear to be preparing for exactly that.