By Tomo Lazovich
As a native Chicagoan and perennial Bears fan, I approached last Sunday’s season opener at home against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers with the usual mix of hope and dread that I have come to associate with such games in the Jay Cutler era. On the one hand, a win against the Packers would be an incredible victory and set the tone for the rest of the season. On the other hand, the Packers have dominated the Bears in pretty much every game in recent memory – specifically since 2009, the start of the Rodgers vs. Cutler matchups. In that time span, the Bears have gone an abysmal 2-11 in the regular season (including Sunday’s loss), with the only wins coming in their first matchups of the 2010 season and 2013 season. (The second win actually came with Josh McCown under center for the Bears).
Despite last Sunday’s loss, the game felt different than the typical shellacking I had become accustomed to. The Bears actually managed to keep meaningful possession of the ball. They sustained drives and kept Aaron Rodgers off the field. They were even ahead by a field goal at half time! This led me to wonder exactly how different this game looked on the stat sheet compared to the other Bears-Packers regular season matchups since 2009. You can see the results of some of that analysis below.
The first difference I noticed in the game, as I mentioned before, was the Bears’ improved ability to sustain drives. Below you can see the third down conversion percentage, number of first downs, and time of possession for all the regular season matchups since 2009.
This game was clearly out of the ordinary for the Bears in terms of possession. They had their best third down conversion percentage in all of the regular season games against the Packers since 2009 (64.7%). They also had the second largest number of first downs in all those games (coming in second only to the first matchup of the 2014 season, whose box score is really a tale of a good first half and awful second half). Finally, this is only the third time the Bears actually managed to out-possess the Packers since 2009, the previous two times coming in 2012 and 2014.
The Bears’ newfound ability to hold the ball against the Packers had other noticeable effects. If you look at the number of pass attempts by each team, you can see that the Bears managed to hold Aaron Rodgers to his lowest number of pass attempts against them since 2009. Given how great the Packers’ passing game has become, limiting the number of opportunities they have is clearly an advantage. Meanwhile, Jay Cutler had his largest number of pass attempts since 2011.
So, you might ask, if the Bears did so much better than usual, why did they still lose? Well, for one thing, even though Aaron Rodgers had a limited number of pass attempts, he had one of his most efficient passing games against the Bears in terms of completion percentage, completing a whopping 78.2% of his passes. The Packers also allowed zero sacks and had zero turnovers, a combination which has never happened against the Bears in the games since 2009.
In the end, even though the Bears lost to the Packers yet again, this comparison gives a picture of a potentially new Bears team. If Head Coach John Fox and Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase can continue this trend of increasing the Bears’ possession time and limiting the opposition’s offensive chances, they may see more success this season than they have in the last few. After all, they won’t always have Aaron Rodgers on the opposite sideline to contend with!