Aaron Rodgers and the illusion of complexity

Robbie Dunne takes a look at the Bears/ Packers matchup to open the season.

It was the first glimpse we got of Matt Nagy’s new team. More importantly, it was the first glimpse we got of how destructive the Bears defense could be. It was week 1 of last season and the Packers vs Bears rivalry was renewed. Khalil Mack was playing like he was out for revenge, the Bears went up 17-0 in the first half and even though they couldn’t sustain it, it was a warning shot to the NFC North and their rivals up in Wisconsin. Aaron Rodgers signed a deal with the devil that night when he returned after suffering a knee injury in the first half. They won the game but Rodgers arguably lost his season to the persistent issues he had with injuries after that.

A year later and we are ready to do it again. The Packers would go on to a 6-9 season, which was enough to see the end of Mike McCarthy’s tenure on the sideline, and the Bears would go on to win the NFC North for the first time in almost a decade (2010 under Lovie Smith).

 

Packers start a new era with LeFleur

 

What’s more daunting for an opposing defense than a healthy Aaron Rodgers? A healthy Aaron Rodgers with a point to prove. The fall-out from the McCarthy firing was ugly. An article on ESPN laid bare just how bad things had gotten between the signal-caller and his coach. Now, with a 38-year-old offensive whizz as the coach, the Packers should at least do better than they did a season ago — which isn’t really saying much.

“We’re running a system I first picked up while working with Kyle (Shanahan) in Houston a decade ago,” LeFleur told NFL.com. “And we’ve never really had a quarterback who’s had complete freedom to change plays at the line, because that’s not really the way the offense is set up.”

 

Bears don’t want any regression

 

Bears fans’ biggest enemy this offseason has been the term “regression to the mean”. Everyone is predicting it for them and fans of the team (myself included) have been coming up with novel ways to explain why they won’t suffer while Football Outsider cites “league-high turnover rate on defense, unreasonably high defensive efficiency, and good fortune with regards to injuries” as part of the reason why they happened to be so good last season. Having lost Vic Fangio, and maybe as importantly defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, the Bears are going to have to reinvent themselves and stave off that sophomore slump.

The Bears can help offset that regression on the defensive side of the ball if Mitchell Trubisky assumes a bigger share of the team’s fortunes. The good news is that he is trending in the right direction after a poor rookie year. If, as we expect, he makes another leap under Nagy, then the defense won’t be forced to be as dominant as it was so regression won’t hit as hard. It won’t be as much fun for Bears fans (being from the midwest inspires a certain sadism and awe in tough defenses – I think it has something to do with the winters) but as long as the wins column has double-digit and the Bears are in the playoffs next season, it won’t matter.

So how can the Packers hurt the Bears D?

The problem with the Packers in this match-up is that Matt LeFleur’s offense is built around play action. The Bears love to get after running backs too and with Eddie Goldman and Hakeem Nicks in the middle, it’s tough to get anything going on the ground against them. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears had some of the lowest numbers when it came to running back yards and open field yards last season. Along with Rodgers’ ability to scramble and create, Aaron Jones might play a big role. He doesn’t need perfect holes to carve up a defense and with the Bears likely to disrupt at the line of scrimmage, Jones can be a difference-maker. If, however, the Bears can upset the Packers’ running game (or take a lead) it leaves Rodgers with work to do and in a new system, the Bears can fluster Rodgers — or as flustered as future Hall of Fame QBs can get.

 

“There aren’t as many opportunities to create outside of structure when you have to execute an aggressive play fake from under center. Rodgers will likely scramble more this season than he has in prior years because he’ll find himself on the outside by design. When his primary options are covered there won’t be an opportunity to extend the play within the confines of the pocket. That will lead him to run the ball himself.” – Cian Fahey.

 

What happens with the Bears secondary and how long they can maintain coverage will matter here. Really, how well they can keep Rodgers contained despite every play looking the same is where this game will be won or lost.

Last season, Rodgers had one of the longest times to throw as he allowed his wide receivers to get open, but he also had a very average ACY (Average Completed Air Yards). That was on one bad leg too so he is, as we know, very willing to scramble and wait to see how things develop downfield. He is healthy now and will be looking to do a whole lot more of that this season from the start provided the play action works and the Bears can respect the run.

“We really want to marry the run with the pass and have like-plays meaning plays that start out looking the same, that are different,” is how Matt LeFleur put it when discussing his philosophy and what he’ll try to do with Rodgers and the Packers. He refers to it as the illusion of complexity. It’s basically a lot of outside-zone running plays that look the same until the very last second.

 

Can the Packers beat the Bears? Of course they can. And with Rodgers back healthy, it will take all of his ingenuity to figure out a way to topple the Bears suffocating defense. The 35-year-old will be relying heavily on Aaron Jones early and being able to keep the defense honest. We have a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Pagano with the Bears and a new Head Coach and offensive system with LeFleur with the Packers. There will be growing pains in the first contest of the year and if the Bears can get a lead and fluster the Packers, it might be a long night for Green Bay fans.

If, however, Jones gets it going on the ground and Rodgers then has the comfort of play-action and an over-committed defensive line, then the Packers could very well carve them up.

 

(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

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