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Keys to the Game: 3 things that will help Bears beat Packers

Bears quarterback Justin Fields
Bears quarterback Justin Fields

The Bears open the season by hosting the Packers Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are three things that should significantly increase their chances of beating their rivals:

(1) Produce explosive plays in the passing game.

Justin Fields emerged as an electrifying ballcarrier last year, rushing for 1,143 yards—the second most by a quarterback in NFL history—and eight touchdowns. This season the Bears are confident the former Ohio State star will make strides as a passer, given his familiarity with the offense and the presence of a stronger supporting cast.

During the offseason, general manager Ryan Poles bolstered the offensive line and added dynamic skill position players to an offense that produced only 69 pass plays of at least 16 yards last season, tied for the third fewest in the NFL. With better protection and the arrival of speedy receivers DJ Moore and Tyler Scott, the Bears appear primed to increase their number of explosive pass plays in 2023.

Acquired from the Panthers in a blockbuster trade in March, Moore gives the Bears a true No. 1 receiver. During his first five NFL seasons in Carolina, he caught 364 passes for 5,201 yards and 21 touchdowns. That included three straight seasons with at least 1,100 yards from 2019-21 despite playing with multiple quarterbacks.

After joining the Bears, it didn't take Moore long to develop chemistry with Fields.

"[Moore] has been on the practice field every single day, so he's gotten a ton of reps with our unit," said offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. "He's been available to Justin as much as anybody has been, and so I think all that is a good reflection of being able to create that [bond]."

While Fields boasts deep-ball accuracy and a strong arm, he doesn't have to throw long for the Bears to create explosive pass plays. They proved that in the preseason opener Aug. 12 against the Titans when Moore and running back Khalil Herbert turned short screen passes into 62- and 56-yard touchdowns, respectively.

(2) Generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.

The Bears are hoping to make the start of the Jordan Love era an uncomfortable one for the untested 2020 first-round pick, who replaces Aaron Rodgers as Packers starting quarterback after spending his first three NFL seasons as Green Bay's backup.

Love has appeared in 10 games with only one start, completing 50 of 83 passes for 606 yards with three touchdowns, three interceptions and a 79.7 passer rating. His lone start came Nov. 7, 2021, in a 13-7 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City.

Given Love's lack of game tape, it hasn't been easy to prepare to face him Sunday.

"What we're trying not to do is hunt up too many ghosts and say we think he's going to do this, we think this is going to happen, we think they are going to do these things," said defensive coordinator Alan Williams. "What we have to focus on is what Green Bay has done up until this point … and then look at Love in the preseason and see what he does well."

So what does the new Packers starting quarterback do well?

"We think Love is very athletic," said coach Matt Eberflus. "We think he's got good escapability. He's got the ability to move in and out of the pocket. He's exhibited that when he's been in there, and certainly on his college tape, he did, too."

The Bears aren't shedding any tears about Rodgers' departure from Green Bay. The four-time NFL MVP compiled a 25-5 record as a starter against them. Beginning Sunday, the Bears hope to end the Packers' recent dominance of the rivalry. The Bears have lost eight straight in the series, with their last win coming on Dec. 18, 2018, at Soldier Field when they clinched the NFC North with a 24-17 victory.

(3) Contain Green Bay's running game.

Fields and Love will garner most of the headlines heading into Sunday's tilt. But the Bears must do a better job defending the run than they did last season when they allowed the Packers to rush for 378 yards on 70 carries in two games. Green Bay's rushing attack is led by running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, who combined to run for 1,891 yards and nine touchdowns on 399 attempts in 2022.

"We've worked very hard on that this year with the defensive tackles, the defensive ends, the linebackers with the style that we're doing and the techniques and fundamentals," Eberflus said. "We'll see where we are. Last year is last year and this year is this year. We start the season off with this first game and we'll see how improved we are."

The Bears are confident that their run defense will be better this season after they signed tackle Andrew Billings, end DeMarcus Walker and linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards in free agency; and selected tackles Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens on Day 2 of the draft.

Playing for the Bills last season, Edmunds was part of a defense that allowed Jones (20-143) and Dillon (10-54) to rush for 197 yards on 30 attempts, though Buffalo defeated Green Bay 27-17 in Orchard Park, NY.

"Two dynamic players," Edmunds said. "I played them last year in Buffalo and I played them [four] years before that too. Dillon is a bigger guy. Jones is dynamic, speed, all the things you look for in a running back. We have to do a good job as far as game-planning, as far as having a good plan going into the game."

Under the radar

One "X" factor in Sunday's contest could be the hidden yards that affect field position in the return game. The Packers feature kickoff returner Keisean Nixon, who was named first-team All-Pro last season after leading the NFL with a 28.8-yard average.

"They've done an excellent job with him, and he's done a good job," said Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower. "The thing we have to do is we have to make sure that one, we have a ball that is good enough for us to cover because this guy brings all the balls out. He brought one out eight, nine deep against us. He's going to bring the ball out. We know that. We've just got to make sure we're down there and we're using the help of our teammates and playing with good leverage. It's going to be an extremely good challenge for us to go against. He's a good player and we're excited about covering against him."

The Bears, meanwhile, will counter with punt returner Trent Taylor, who they signed Aug. 31, two days after he was released by the Bengals. Taylor has averaged 9.7 yards on 89 punt returns in 61 NFL games over five seasons with the 49ers (2017-2020) and Bengals (2021-22). The 5-8, 181-pounder also played in seven postseason games with Cincinnati, including Super Bowl LVI versus the Rams to cap the 2021 season.

In all four of Taylor's seasons with San Francisco, Hightower served as the team's assistant special teams coach.

"When you talk about the person and the player and my history with the guy, he's an awesome teammate," Hightower said. "He's always beloved by his team, great study habits, great work ethic on the field, relentless mind and a relentless pursuit to his goals. Those are the things that we really like about him and happy to have him with us."

With the Bears taking on the Green Bay Packers in the 2023 season opener Sunday at Soldier Field, take a look at some of the best photos taken throughout the history of the 103-year rivalry.

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