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Tom Oates: Packers defense gets job done against Bears as offense struggles to find rhythm

Tom Oates: Packers defense gets job done against Bears as offense struggles to find rhythm

Aaron Rodgers - Packers vs. Bears

Chicago's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix strips the ball from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the second half of the Packers' 10-3 win over the Bears on Thursday at Soldier Field in Chicago. Rodgers, who was sacked five times on the night, recovered the fumble.

CHICAGO — The game was all about the past.

At least that's what the NFL wanted us to believe. Why else would the league have scheduled the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, two of its oldest franchises and proud participants in its most bitter rivarly, to open up its 100th season Thursday night on national television?

NBC got the buzz it was seeking, too. At least that was the case in Chicago, a city that has gone all-in on the Bears — the defending champions in the NFC North Division — and harbors a 100-year dislike for Green Bay.

Indeed, there were shiny new statues of George Halas and Walter Payton standing outside Soldier Field. There were introductions of past stars, including the 1985 NFL champions just before the opening kickoff. Even Jay Cutler showed up on the sideline.

For Packers fans, however, the game had nothing to do with the past. It was all about the future.

Matt LaFleur's first game as coach had an aura of intrigue about it after the reputed offensive mastermind kept everything — starters, schemes, plays, innovations — under wraps during the preseason. For those fans north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, the unveiling of LaFleur's cutting-edge offense was the main attraction in the opener.

So what did the offense look like?

The cold, hard truth was that for much of the Packers' stunning, 10-3 victory over the Bears, LaFleur's offense looked badly overmatched. However, before you say, "Hey, that looks a lot like Mike McCarthy's offense," you should understand that there were some underlying reasons for the Packers' 213-yard offensive performance.

Take your pick.

Did the offense struggle because quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the starters on offense took no snaps together in the four exhibition games? Was it simply natural growing pains from a group of players learning a brand new offensive scheme? Or was it because the Bears defense has the most dominant front seven in the NFL, a ball-hawking secondary and a history of roughing up Rodgers?

Actually, it was all of the above. That didn't make the game any easier to watch, however.

Well, except for the finish. And the victory.

In what will go down as one of the great ironies in Green Bay's century-old football history, the Packers, a 3-point underdog, won their opener almost entirely with their defense. The 39-year-old LaFleur was hired to make Rodgers and the offense great again, but it wasn't expected to happen overnight and it didn't. Instead, LaFleur's best decision as coach seemed to be keeping Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator.

Packers 10, Bears 3
Packers 10, Bears 3
Packers 10, Bears 3
Packers 10, Bears 3
Packers 10, Bears 3

Fortunately for LaFleur and the Packers, it didn't have to happen overnight. Pettine's defense, bolstered by draft picks and big-ticket free agents, smothered the Bears and erratic quarterback Mitch Trubsiky almost from the start.

Even when the Packers offense went 3-and-out — and mostly backward — on its first three possessions, the Bears managed only a 3-0 lead. The first quarter apparently served as the lost preseason for the Packers offense, which then drove 74 yards for the go-ahead score early in the second quarter.

More important, the defense looked to be quite capable of carrying the offense for awhile. It might have to, but all those big free-agent contracts the Packers gave to safety Adrian Amos and outside linebackers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith looked like money well spent as all contributed big plays on defense.

Many things were expected from the Packers offense and LaFleur trotted out many of them. The Packers started out trying to run the ball, which is the foundation of the offense because it sets up the play-action game. When that failed miserably, they went to quick, rhythm passes, another staple of the offense. Along the way, there were bunch formations, plenty of presnap movement, passes to tight ends and, yes, even a few audibles from the quarterback.

The problem was, very little worked against a Bears defense that controlled the line of scrimmage all night. The Packers had an unacceptable number of negative-yardage plays. Late in the third quarter, they had 10 rushing yards on eight carries and had surrendered five sacks.

Give LaFleur credit for resourcefulness, though. When it became apparent that the Bears, who had the NFL's best run defense last year, weren't going to allow much on the ground and had the capability of collapsing the pocket on Rodgers almost at will, LaFleur and Rodgers started getting the ball out very quickly. If you're looking for positives, one is that the offense is diverse enough that it had a Plan B when Plan A wasn't working and a coach flexible enough to change on the fly.

Remember, too, that this was only one game. In time, the line will play better, the running game will become a factor and LaFleur's offense will show improvement. When it does, the Packers will look like a contender again.

Indeed, the best thing to come out of the opener was that the defense showed it is capable of winning a game by itself, helping the offense survive the first-quarter storm the Packers knew was coming at amped-up Soldier Field. If the offense ever catches on to what LaFleur is teaching, the Packers' two-year playoff drought might well come to an end.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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