CHICAGO — Training camp was all of one practice old. The Green Bay Packers hadn’t even put pads on yet. Aaron Rodgers' summertime facial hair game hadn’t even kicked off.
And yet, there the two-time NFL MVP stood, at his locker, surrounded by camera crews and a thicket of microphones, and launched into a lengthy soliloquy — about his team’s defense.
Rodgers spoke of the new attitude he had already seen on that side of the ball, a different vibe than the group had had in past years, even the previous season during defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Facing the No. 1 defense throughout that day’s practice — and during the offseason program as well — he saw a crew that was flying around, emphasizing takeaways, getting after him (even with his red non-contact jersey giving him a cloak of invincibility against their pass rush). He saw holdovers (inside linebacker Blake Martinez, veteran defensive back Tramon Williams) steadying the group and newcomers (outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos) invigorating the unit with new talent.
In short: Rodgers saw exactly what he believed his team was going to need in 2019 — especially early on.
“That's going to be important for us, especially early as we're finding our rhythm on offense in a new system,” Rodgers said of the defense that first day. “It looks a lot different. I think they are playing faster. I think they played fast today. They're in their second year with Coach Pettine. I think Blake is very comfortable as kind of the quarterback of the defense. We've brought in a lot of maturity in that group, keeping Tramon around, adding Adrian Amos and the Smiths.
“It's just a different feel on that side of the ball. I feel like there's a little more juice.”
It turns out, Rodgers not only is one of the game’s best quarterbacks, he’s also able to see the future.
On Thursday night, as they kicked off the NFL’s 100th season and the Matt LaFleur Era in Green Bay with a 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, Rodgers and the offense did just enough — and the defense carried the day.
“Foreshadowing,” Rodgers said with a smirk.
Then, he continued, “That was fun to watch. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance like that. Obviously, a lot of credit to Mike and his staff, but to those players — just an incredible effort. We didn’t do them a whole lot of favors with our performance on offense. But every time we needed a stop, they came up with plays.”
Added LaFleur: “I’m just really proud of our defense, the effort. I thought they were smothering. … It seemed like they were all over the place. It seemed like we were getting good pressure and our coverage was on point. Mike Pettine and our staff on defense designed a great game plan.”
The defense finished the night having given up just 254 total yards, held the Bears to just 3 of 15 on third-down conversions and sacked third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky five times.
The unit also delivered two clutch plays with the game on the line: An end-zone interception by Amos with the Bears threatening to tie the game on a third-and-10 throw by Trubisky with 1 minute 58 seconds to play; and victory-clinching takedown of Trubisky by Preston Smith with 1:02 left that set off a sideline celebration that included a handful of defensive players quasi-tackling a smiling Pettine.
“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and what Mike and his guys did tonight was spectacular,” Rodgers said. “That was just a dominating performance. And it gives you a lot of confidence when you play a game like that on offense and win a game by a touchdown.”
Yes, Green Bay’s offense looked very much like the work in progress Rodgers had predicted it would be in the days leading up to the game. The group managed just 213 yards, converted only 2 of 12 third downs and saw Rodgers get sacked five times.
Nevertheless, the one touchdown the offense managed — an 8-yard Jimmy Graham catch set up by a 47-yard Rodgers-to-Marquez Valdez-Scantling deep ball — was enough to make LaFleur a winner in his first game in charge. That was something Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy didn’t do.
“There was a lot going through my mind at the time,” LaFleur said. “I probably didn’t savor the moment too much because I know it’s one game and we’ve got a really tough opponent next week (in the Minnesota Vikings).
“It’s extremely special. But I’m just so happy for the guys in that locker room. I’m more happy for them, the effort. I really love this team, and what they’re about.”
The Packers did need a crucial replay challenge by LaFleur with 4:11 to play, after Trubisky had — momentarily, anyway — completed a 24-yard deep ball down the right sideline (and in front of the Packers’ bench) to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel at the Green Bay 27-yard line.
But Gabriel only got one foot in bounds before his backside landed out of bounds, and the completion was overturned by referee Tony Corrente and the NFL’s replay crew in the league’s New York offices.
That possession ended in a punt after back-to-back-to-back Bears penalties put Chicago in a third-and-40, and the offense responded with its other successful drive of the night, turning a pair of Rodgers completions — one to Trevor Davis, the other to Robert Tonyan — into a 39-yard Mason Crosby field goal to make it 10-3 with 5:15 to go.
And thanks to the defense, it was enough.
“This is one of those throwback NFC North wins. We had another 10-3 victory over Chicago that was very meaningful, and this was meaningful as well,” Rodgers said, referring to the 2010 team’s 10-3 win over the Bears at Lambeau Field — a victory that got the Packers into the playoffs and set the stage for their run to the Super Bowl XLV title.
“I think we showed the league and folks watching that we’re not just an offensive football team anymore. We’ve got a defense.”