The Bears begin defense of their NFC North title Thursday night when they open their 100th season by hosting the rival Packers at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the NFL Kickoff Game:
(1) How will a dominant Bears defense fare against future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers?
It’ll be a classic strength-versus-strength matchup pitting a Bears defense that led the NFL in several key statistical categories last season—including points allowed and takeaways—against a two-time league MVP whose 103.1 career passer rating is the best in NFL history.
The Bears won the battle last Dec. 16 at Soldier Field, recording five sacks and one interception of Rodgers in clinching the division championship with a 24-17 win that snapped an eight-game home losing streak to the Packers. Prior to that contest, Rodgers had won 14 of the previous 15 games he had started and finished against the Bears and had thrown 24 touchdown passes with just one interception in his prior eight starts versus Chicago.
“We’ve been down this road before in preparing for Hall of Fame quarterbacks,” said Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. “They’ve seen everything. There is nothing that they can’t recall. He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy. So you’ve got to do a phenomenal job on defense of trying to make him work pre- and post-snap. That’s a huge challenge just because of the amount of time in task and what he’s seen.”
(2) How will Eddy Pineiro perform in his first NFL regular-season game after being anointed the Bears’ kicker?
After the infamous double-doink abruptly ended the Bears’ season last year and the well-publicized search for a new kicker that followed throughout the offseason, all eyes will be on Pineiro Thursday night.
Acquired by the Bears in a May 7 trade with the Raiders in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick, Pineiro earned the job by making 8-of-9 field-goal attempts and 3-of-4 extra points in preseason games.
“This whole entire time he’s never run away from the challenge we have given him mentally and then physically,” said coach Matt Nagy. “He’s attacked it full-steam ahead. When you do that as a player, you have built confidence within your coaching staff, and now the true test comes here in the games. That’s not just for him, but that’s for all of us.”
The Bears have been impressed with how Pineiro has rebounded from adversity. After missing his first field-goal try of the preseason from 48 yards, Pineiro converted his final eight attempts, including a 58-yarder against the Colts in Indianapolis. After missing an extra point in the preseason finale versus the Titans, he hit three field goals without a miss.
(3) How well will quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears offense perform as they kick off their second season in the same system?
Trubisky played in the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season last year, but expectations are high for both him and the rest of the offense to take another step forward in their second year together in the system.
The second pick in the 2017 draft has shown in practice that he possesses a greater grasp of the playbook, which has enabled him to focus more on reading the defense than what he and his teammates are supposed to do on each play.
“It’s just him understanding where this offense can go when you understand everything about it,” Nagy said. “Coming into this game versus last year, there were so many unknowns last year, so many. This year he knows how I call a game. Last year I had no idea what his favorite plays were. Now I know what he likes. That’s where we have grown and have been able to get better.”
Trubisky enters the regular-season opener without having thrown a pass in the preseason, but the Bears are confident that he and the offense won’t be rusty against the Packers.
(4) Will tight end Trey Burton be able to play, and if not, who will fill the void in his absence?
Listed as questionable on the injury report with a mild groin strain that limited him in practice, Burton is expected to be a game-time decision. The injury is not related to the groin issue that caused Burton to miss last year’s wild-card loss to the Eagles and required offseason surgery.
The Bears mustered only one touchdown without Burton in their playoff defeat, but they’re confident that his teammates will pick up the slack against the Packers if the tight end is unable to play in Thursday night’s opener.
“We don’t have one person that we rely on,” Nagy said. “There are some teams that this happens to and you’re in trouble. That’s not the case with us. We have different things that we can do. If he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go. If he’s not, we’re prepared. But I’m not just talking about that one position.”