The Packers are coming into Thursday’s season opener against the Bears as a three point underdog. They are coming into this season with a new head coach, new offense, and revamped defense, but they are still unproven. The Bears surprised the NFL last season and rode their elite defense to an NFC championship and playoff berth. A large part of their success last season and the reason they are three point favorites over the Packers is their defense led by Khalil Mack.
Khalil Mack destroyed the Packers last season. The two games Mack played the Packers he had a total of 3.5 sacks, 9 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 1 touchdown. Khalil Mack put up every major defensive stat against the Packers and was a key reason they built the 20-3 lead against the Packers before Rodgers brought the Packers back. (As a Packers fan I’m obligated to mention that) Khalil Mack did that damage with only playing 70% of the snaps in the first game and an increased role in the second with 91% of the snaps. The Packers can expect Khalil Mack to play more week one this season and they need to be ready.
If the Packers hope to beat the Bears week one, they will need to stop Khalil Mack and here’s how:
Healthy and Improved Offensive line:
This is not something the Packers can do to stop Mack, but rather stating the fact that the offensive line is healthy and much improved from the two games last season. Last season the Packers starting right guard was Justin McCray week one against the Bears. The Packers traded him away to the Browns for a 7th round pick.
Game two against the Bears, the Packers had Lucas Patrick playing right guard and former second round pick Jason Spriggs playing right tackle. The Packers released Jason Spriggs early in training camp and are still using Lucas Patrick as depth at the guard position along with Elgton Jenkins and Cole Madison.
The Packers had underperforming right guards and right tackles when they played the Bears and it was evident. They have since improved their starting right guard position after signing Billy Turner and also have depth that they have not had in years. The offensive line is healthy and ready to handle the Chicago Bears’ defensive line.
Different Personnel Packages:
The Packers most frequent personnel package last season was one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. (11 personnel group) Under Matt LaFleur, look for the Packers to use more two tight end sets (12 personnel group) and even three tight end packages. (13 personnel group)
During Matt LaFleur’s time with the Titans, he used two tight end packages, 3% of his snaps and three tight end packages, 21% of his snaps. Compare that to the Packers who used those packages 2% and 5% of the time respectively.
The tight end packages allow for the Packers to have extra blockers. With the Packers using two or three tight end sets, they can use veteran tight end Mercedes Lewis and improved Robert Tonyan to stay and help Bulaga control Khalil Mack. Mack can easily beat any right tackle one on one so it is key for the Packers to provide help whenever and however they can.
Commitment to the run game/play action:
One thing Matt LaFleur has been vocal about is committing to the run game. The Packers have always been a pass heavy team with Rodgers as the quarterback, but Matt LaFleur believes a dominant run game will improve their passing attack. The Packers will have Aaron Jones for the week one matchup unlike last season where he was serving a four game suspension. The Packers will most likely run to the left side of the field (away from Khalil Mack) to minimize Mack’s effect in the run game. Look for the Packers to run the ball to help open the field up for Rodgers to pick apart the secondary.
How does a commitment to the run game stop Khalil Mack’s rushing attack? Play action. When a team is running the ball the defense needs to react to every play action. Matt LaFleur used play action 29% of the time as Offensive Coordinator for the Titans where they averaged 8.1 yards per play. The Packers used play action 20% of the time which ranked 27th in the NFL. They can slow down Khalil Mack and the Bears’ pass rush by making them commit to stopping the run. A split second delay is all an offensive line and elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers needs to move the ball down the field. Look for play action to be a key part in the Packers’ offense this season.
The Packers will get the ball out of the hands of Aaron Rodgers quickly in the pass game. They will use quick slants, out routes, and check downs to the running backs to keep the pressure off Aaron Rodgers. Aaron Jones has mentioned wanting to have a bigger role in the passing game, so the Packers could utilize screen plays, like LaFleur did with Dion Lewis, to keep the Bears defense honest and slow down the rush. Do not get me wrong, the Packers will still take shots down the field but short, quick passes will allow them to move the ball down the field and minimize the times Rodgers throws the ball away.
Stopping Khalil Mack is no easy task, but the Packers have the capability to do so. The Packers will use bigger personnel packages to help contain Khalil Mack and will look to Jamaal Williams and Danny Vitale to help block in the backfield during obvious passing situations. The Packers are facing a great test week one, and if they can handle the Bears, they can handle any teams’ defense.