Joniak: Keys To Bears-Packers

Who wins first down will go a long way to deciding the victor.

Jeff Joniak
September 05, 2019 - 2:29 pm
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(WBBM Newsradio) The Bears and Packers kick off the NFL season when they square off at Soldier Field on Thursday evening. 

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Kickoff is set for 7:20 p.m. Thursday, and the game can be heard on air on WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM. You can also listen on desktop computers here. Pregame coverage starts at 4:20 p.m.

Here are my keys to the game.

Offense

-- The Bears need to win first down. The Bears were 20th in gaining at least four-yards or more on first down and 23rd throwing it in such situations in 2018. They gained 4.19 yards per rushing attempt on first down, which was 26th in the NFL. What contributed to that was the fourth-most negative runs on first down in the league.  

-- With a revamped backfield featuring rookie David Montgomery and veteran Mike Davis coupled with Tarik Cohen -- who gained 6.9 yards per touch from scrimmage last season -- the Bears are looking to improve in this area. The key is staying ahead of the chains and creating enviable play calls from coach Matt Nagy’s play sheet on second and third down. 

-- Nagy passed on Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit on first down with great success last season. Overall, the Packers ranked last in the league in defending the pass on first down -- allowing 13 touchdowns and a 114.7 quarterback rating with only two interceptions.

--The Bears need to limit unforced errors, pre-snap penalties and first-down holding calls that torpedo drives. They need to own the clock, which they did with the third-best possession time in the NFL in 2018.

Defense

-- Stopping the run is a significant key for the Bears. Unlike last season, the Packers are expected to run it a lot more under new coach Matt LaFleur. In limited attempts in 2018, the Packers were second in the league averaging 5.01 yards per attempt, and Aaron Jones was the catalyst at 5.47 yards per carry. Jones believes he's being overlooked as a weapon, and the expectation is he will be an ideal fit in the wide zone scheme LaFleur is implementing to set up play-action.

-- Tackle well. Given that neither team has hit or tackled for the most part in preseason games, missed tackles could be an issue in the early part of the season. The Bears have a bunch of hitters on their star-studded unit, and finishing tackles will be key.

-- We don’t know exactly what the Packers offense will look like, but we do know what quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks like with the ball in his hands. He’s dangerous, and so is top receiving target Davante Adams. Rodgers is trouble on third down and in the red zone, and he lines up everywhere. He's Rodgers' default button when it's not going well. The Bears have to limit the big play. 

-- We also don’t know exactly how new Bears coordinator Chuck Pagano will call the defense. He did it exclusively for one season in Baltimore in 2011 -- and with great success. His reputation is one of aggressiveness with the blitz and pressure and more man coverage from the cornerbacks. How he uses the personnel and when he dials up pressure is intriguing. Getting to Rodgers and repeatedly bringing the heat will be critical. Rodgers rarely throws interceptions and is more apt to throw the ball away than take a sack.

Special teams

-- It goes without saying that it's a big night for new Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro. It will mark his first regular-season game in the NFL, and he comes to the table under enormous scrutiny. Teammates love him for his attitude and energy. If he can just breathe and stay calm in the swirling focus and the winds of Soldier Field, he will start building blocks for his immediate future. It will be interesting to watch. 

-- Packers kicker Mason Crosby survived his first real competition for his job, and the all-time points leader in franchise history has experience on his side. That being said,  Crosby has missed 33 field-goal attempts from 30 to 49 yards in his 13-year career and 30 more beyond 50 yards. It happens.

-- Big returns and great field position await the Bears, who boast arguably the best punt and kick return duo in the league right now in All-Pro Tarik Cohen and the explosive Cordarelle Patterson. That should be a help if they get opportunities.

-- The Bears' roster is better, faster and more experienced on coverage, and the expectation is that will present itself. The punt coverage was outstanding in 2018, but the kick return coverage ranked 28th in the NFL.

Intangibles

The thrill of the moment creates skyrocketing adrenaline for this much-anticipated affair for every player. Which team embraces the moment after the craziness of the 100th NFL season opener quiets down will take an early edge in tempo and momentum. The Bears did a great job of that last season with solid first quarters, ultimately leading in all 17 games in the second half at some point, the only team in the league to do it. 

Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.