The Bears open the season Sunday night by visiting the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) How will the Bears offense fare against a Rams defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season?
The Bears offense didn't play together as a complete unit in the preseason. But confidence is internally high in a group that's led by a new starting quarterback in veteran free-agent acquisition Andy Dalton and features an array of skilled playmakers at running back, receiver and tight end as well as an offensive line that was solidified by the addition of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.
After tying for 22nd in the NFL in scoring (23.3 ppg) and ranking 26th in total yards (331.4) last season, the Bears will look for marked improvement beginning Sunday night against an elite Rams defense that yielded the fewest points (18.5) and yards (281.9) in the league in 2020.
"It's a really good defense and we're going to face a lot of good defenses this year and that's why you play this game," Dalton said. "This is why you prepare and the way you prepare and you get ready for these games because they all mean a lot. This is going to be a good test to start the year."
The Bears have struggled on offense the past three seasons against the Rams, mustering only two touchdowns on 35 possessions in three games.
One way to score more points is to sustain drives, and the Bears are focused on performing better on third down after ranking 31st in the NFL with a 34.6 percent success rate last season. "I think when you look at some of the things we committed to improving from last year, I'll put third downs at the top of the list," said offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
(2) Will the Bears defense be able to contain veteran quarterback and longtime NFC North rival Matthew Stafford?
The Bears will face a familiar foe in Stafford, who was traded to the Rams during the offseason after spending his first 12 NFL seasons with the Lions. The 6-3, 220-pounder ranks seventh on the league's all-time passing list with 45,109 yards, having topped 4,000 yards in eight of the last 10 years.
"For one, he can extend plays," said safety Eddie Jackson. "He's a pro. He's been doing it for a while. A true vet. A great quarterback. He likes things to be on time, so he'll look you off and know what he's doing with the ball if you show him what coverage you're in. So, you've just got to be on top of those keys to try to keep him on his toes, disguise a little bit."
Stafford is 11-9 all-time against the Bears, passing for 5,440 yards with 32 touchdowns and 23 interceptions—the most picks by any opponent. Bears first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai described Stafford this week as "a dynamic player who can change the game at a moment's notice."
"Matt's a stud," Desai said. "He's one of the top quarterbacks in this league. He's been one of the top quarterbacks in the league and obviously he's going with one of the top offensive minds in the league [in Rams coach Sean McVay]. So, I think that will be fun for them. I'm sure they're enjoying it and we're excited for that challenge."
(3) Will the Bears be able to limit the havoc that seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald creates?
The offense's biggest challenge will be in contending with Donald, a superstar Bears coach Matt Nagy described Friday as "a generational talent." Since being selected by the Rams in the first round of the 2014 draft, Donald has been voted first-team All-Pro every season. He's also been named NFL defensive player of the year in 2017, 2018 and 2020.
Donald has posted the three highest sack totals of his career in the last three seasons with a league-leading 20.5 in 2018, 12.5 in 2019 and 13.5 in 2020.
"He gets schemed by every team every week and he still dominates," Nagy said. "When you put on the tape, it doesn't matter, you can scheme two and three guys, that dude is just unbelievable. He's really, really special. He breaks double teams. He's a game-changer. He sacks the football, and he's like a running back out there, just flying around on the edge. He's all over the place. He's everywhere."
In four career games against the Bears, Donald has registered 4.0 sacks, 16 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and nine quarterback hits. "He's the type of player you have to know where he's at at all times; arguably the best defensive player in the league," Dalton said. "He can change a game and we understand that. We've got to give him respect because he's a great player."
(4) Will the Bears be able to run the ball effectively?
A productive rushing attack would slow down Donald and the pass rush. But it won't be easy against a Rams defense that ranked third in the NFL against the run last season, allowing an average of 91.3 yards per game.
An improved running game was part of an offensive resurgence for the Bears late last season. David Montgomery rushed for 598 yards and seven touchdowns in the final six games—more than doubling his output from his first nine contests, when he ran for 472 yards and one TD.
The Bears added depth and talent at running back in the offseason, signing veteran free agent Damien Williams and selecting Khalil Herbert in the sixth round of the draft out of Virginia Tech.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has faith in the running game but knows that it's only one avenue that leads to winning football.
"I feel confident in what I've seen every day in practice and the plan that we have and the guys that we have ready to execute it," Lazor said. "I think most people would agree that momentum we gained offensively at the end of last year, the running game was a part of that, so I expect that's critical. But the flip side is if we can't run the ball well we still have to win the game and score points. So, there's more than one way to do it. Is it easier when you do both? Yes, and I think that that showed last year, but it's a new year."