CHICAGO — On the second day of training camp, Aaron Rodgers faced myriad questions, and the ones you’d expect at the time.
He was asked about the state of the Green Bay Packers’ offense. About his relationship with Matt LaFleur, his first new head coach after 13 years betrothed to Mike McCarthy. And every other detail imaginable on that side of the ball pertinent to how Rodgers might have the chance to reinvent himself at age 35 and revive this team after back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1990-1991.
Rodgers redirected the questioning, like looking off a safety. He wanted to talk about how for the first time in awhile the Packers’ defense might help the offense.
“That’s going to be important early, especially as we’re finding our rhythm on offense,” Rodgers said in late July, and boy, after watching Thursday night’s season-opening 10-3 win over the Chicago Bears, didn’t those words feel a bit like ...
“Foreshadowing?” Rodgers said rhetorically after the game.
He knew. He wanted us to know he knew, adding a sly smile for good measure.
Rodgers knew then and certainly knows now that things were not going to be operating at perfect precision this soon offensively, and especially not facing a Bears defense that roundly was hailed as the NFL’s best heading into the season.
Rodgers and LaFleur come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, but they’re not lost in translation. Thursday night’s offensive performance went from putrid early to mildly promising in the middle to ping-ponging back in between the two until the final gun rang.
And this is why Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst looks brilliant now, spending all that money and all those draft resources on the other side of the ball. With a healthy Rodgers, the thinking is that the Packers’ offense would find its footing at some point. So why not add ballhawking and instinctive defensive backs and a slew of fast, physical and fierce linemen this offseason? That was the plan, and through one week it’s looking pretty darned sharp.
What allowed the Packers to win Thursday was a defense that hit hard, hit early and overwhelmed the Bears at times with their closing speed and timing. And watching this defense — even if it was going up against a flawed Bears offense that outsmarted itself more than once in the game — creates the idea that the Packers can be contenders again.
“It was fun to watch,” Rodgers said after the game. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance like that. Lot of credit to Mike Pettine and his staff. But to those players, I mean, just an incredible effort.
“We didn’t do them a whole lot of favors with our performance on offense. But every time we needed a stop they came up with some really great plays.”
Early on, it was fair to wonder if the Packers’ lack of opportunism might come back to haunt them. Packers corner Jaire Alexander couldn’t haul in a catchable pass from the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky, and more egregiously, Kevin King flat-out dropped a pick that Trubisky seemed to gift them. There also were two Packers defensive penalties early, wiping out a fumble for lost yards and a third-down incompletion.
But after Rodgers led the Packers on the game’s only touchdown drive, the Packers locked down defensively. There was nose tackle Kenny Clark’s whipping of center James Daniels on a third-and-1 run for a loss of 2 yards. There were the four Packers sacks — all coming in long-yardage situations or third or fourth downs. Rookie safety Darnell Savage looked like a seasoned pro on more than one occasion.
And then there was the sweet revenge for Adrian Amos, the safety who was drafted by the Bears but allowed to sign this offseason with the Packers. Amos read Trubisky’s fourth-quarter pass with just under two minutes remaining and stepped in front of Allen Robinson for the game-sealing interception in the Green Bay end zone.
“They put a lot of pressure on [the Bears],” Rodgers said. “It looked like both the Smiths [Za’Darius and Preston], like they were in the mix a bunch.
“Just a dominant performance. It gives you a lot of confidence when you play like that on offense and win a game by a touchdown.”
And something the Packers haven’t had a lot of in recent years. Green Bay hasn’t ranked in the top 10 in either yards allowed or points allowed in the past nine seasons. The last time it did it won the Super Bowl.
The not-so dirty secret is that Rodgers wasn’t great Thursday — and he said that more than once — but he was good enough. The Packers’ defense more than made up for matters, similar to how the Bears’ defense carried Trubisky to a 12-4 mark and division crown a season ago.
Who is to say that can’t happen with Rodgers and the Packers this season? They’re going to face the Bears once more in the regular season, just about a month from now, and they likely won’t face too many more defenses of that caliber. Except, maybe, when they face off in their own practices.
The offensive missteps for Green Bay were not entirely awful. The penalties, the miscommunications, the pass-protection issues — it looked like a first-year head coach and play-caller receiving a baptism by fire against a flame-throwing defense early, but a lot of those details were cleaned up by game’s end.
But when you have a defense that, for one night so far at least, can play like that ...
“I hold myself to a high standard, and I didn’t play great tonight,” Rodgers said. “But you watch a defense like that, and it gives you a lot of confidence about where this team can go in a game where most people thought we were gonna get probably trounced. To have them play that well and to win a game against the reigning NFC North champions, that’s gonna be a fun plane ride.”
Maybe a fun season, too, if the defense keeps it up and Rodgers and the offense just get a little better.
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