It was a long time ago that Lovie Smith was introduced as the Bears head coach and stated his first goal was to beat the Packers. Over a decade later, John Fox and Ryan Pace are walking into a similar situation and, if they’re going to catch the Packers, they have to do exactly what Smith did by building their defense.
The common reaction from Bears fans when the NFL schedule was released was that the team was going to start 0-1 and ruin Thanksgiving by losing to the Packers. Such early negativity is a little ridiculous but there’s reason for it. If the Bears are going to change the course of their franchise and undo much of what Phil Emery and Marc Trestman did, it starts with the defense.
Over the last three years, with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers are just 5-10 (including playoffs) against teams with top-10 scoring defenses. During that time, they’ve lost just 15 games overall. In one of those, Rodgers left after the first drive of the game.
It isn’t just about the win-loss record.
Rodgers has thrown 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in those 15 games. Good numbers, but far short of what we’re used to seeing from him. He’s also averaged just seven yards per completion (over a yard short of his career average) and the team has scored just 22 points per game.
Slow Rodgers, beat the Packers. Not every time, but most of the time.
Lovie got off to a good start, beating the Packers in his second game as the team’s head coach. The Packers still won the division that year but Smith’s Bears won it the next two, going 3-1 against the Packers in that span. They went to the Super Bowl in Smith’s third year before dropping back to mediocrity.
The key to Smith’s success wasn’t just his mentality. He came to a team that had three future Hall of Fame defenders in Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. Their first two picks with Smith as the head coach were defensive linemen, including Tommie Harris. They drafted Nathan Vasher later in that draft, Chris Harris the next year and a pair of key defenders in Mark Anderson and Danieal Manning.
They had other acquisitions, such as Adewale Ogunuleye, but the team drafted nine of their 11 defensive starters — six in the first three rounds — the year they went to the Super Bowl.
At the time, Smith had the number of Packer quarterback Brett Favre, including a six-interception playoff game. The same could prove true with current Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Rodgers. Rodgers never defeated Fangio’s 49ers, including two losses in the playoffs.
Of course, it’s about more than defense. Smith couldn’t hire a decent offensive mind, while GM Jerry Angelo couldn’t draft anyone who could block or catch passes. The Bears defense was still good, but their offense wasn’t up to par. In his last three years with the Bears, Smith’s defense held the Packers to just 22 points per game. They scored more than 25 times just twice in seven games, but the Bears went 1-6.
The Bears have already started to improve their defense. Just by hiring Fox and Fangio to replace Trestman and Tucker, they should be significantly better. They added two very good front seven players in Pernell McPhee and Ray McDonald as well as defensive backs Antrel Rolle and Alan Ball. The top of their depth chart actually doesn’t look bad, but they can’t afford any injuries, especially in the secondary.
The Bears can’t neglect their offense but they’re probably better than they were under Smith. They’d almost certainly like to add a starting tackle and depth at every position. But if Adam Gase is as good as some say and Jay Cutler can rebound from a down year, the Bears should score enough points to win.
The Bears have two picks on the top 40. Both should be spent on defenders.