There are so many things for the Bears to be worried about as they face they Los Angeles Rams in the season opener that it's almost easy to forget the player who started the NFL's quarterback shuffle last offseason.
Matt Nagy hasn't forgotten Matthew Stafford.
Stafford has always had a reputation for comebacks but hadn't beaten the Bears in a regular-season game since Matt Nagy became coach, before last December's 34-30 comeback win by Detroit at Soldier Field.
"No. 1, the respect that I have for Matthew, just in who he is as a player, going against him and just being a quarterback guy all my life, and then you put him in that offense," Nagy said.
Considering how bad the Detroit Lions have been over the years, it's almost frightening to wonder where they would have been without Stafford's knack for rallying the team in the closing moments or the fourth quarter.
Stafford has authored 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 38 game-winning drives.
Stafford is eighth all time in game-winning drives, tied with Johnny Unitas and Matthew Stafford. He's tied for seventh all time with John Elway in fourth-quarter comebacks.
Yet, the Bears had found ways to thwart Stafford at the end of games. It was Eddie Jackson with the big interception and pick-6 to deny the Lions on Thanksgiving in 2018. Kyle Fuller had a big late-game interception of Stafford in 2020 to help cap off a comeback win at Ford Field.
It's possible being in a new offense and new setting will disrupt Stafford's abilities somewhat.
Think of it like what happened to Aaron Rodgers when the Packers brought in Matt LaFleur. Rodgers' performance dipped in terms of passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage as he seemed just a bit off from previous years when he was so familiar with the offense. By 2020, he was even better than he'd been prior to LaFleur coming to Green Bay.
It's hard to argue Stafford could finally benefit being with a good coach, a good system and good offensive talent, but it is different and he hasn't played in a game with all of this on his side.
In that regard, the Bears have a break in the schedule by facing him early in the season as he fits into the new surroundings. Stafford's certainty and quick decisions might not be where they need to be at this point in operating the attack.
Here are the three Bears keys to beating the Rams and pulling off the upset as a 7 1/2-point road underdog.
1. Keep Stafford off the field
The Bears were not given enough credit for being close to the Packers in their regular-season finale at Soldier Field last year. They played with a very conservative, ball-control game plan and were driving for the lead in the fourth quarter when they got stopped on an incomplete ill-advised sprint-out pass by Mitchell Trubisky on fourth down to a well-covered Allen Robinson. Then the entire game collapsed into a 31-16 loss. The same type of approach can work here because it will serve two purposes. Controlling the ball keeps Matthews off the field and the explosive Rams offense from the end zone, but it also keeps the defense fresh for the close of games. The reason Matthews engineered last year's comeback by Detroit was the Bears defense was gassed at game's end. The pass rush couldn't get to Matthews. They need to be fresher at game's end and watch snap counts closely, get Trevis Gipson and Jeremiah Attaochu into the game early and often to keep Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn rested. Then they can close out the game when Stafford is usually at his best. Ball control doesn't necessarily have to mean the running game, although they can do it easier like this. It can be short passing, as well. Whatever, it must include being effective on third down by being in easier conversion situations. The Bears were the worst third-down offense in the league last year because they were bad at second down once they picked up 5 or 6 yards on first down. They still wound up in poor conversion situations even when they succeeded on first down. They can't let this happen. Ball control depends on it.
2. Offensive line communication
They've been doing a lot of talking on the offensive line at practice and even before it as they try to orchestrate some sort of cohesive blocking unit, since tackle Jason Peters just came on board and they have played together in preseason for 21 plays. However, there's more to it than that. The best way to offset the dominance of Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is by passing him off down the line to other blockers and not letting him get a step into a gap. It's difficult enough handling Donald's full frontal assault but if he gets into a gap then there is almost no way for a quarterback with less mobility like Andy Dalton to avoid getting thrown to the ground. By knowing who has him at all times they can prevent this. They need to keep communicating and identify who has Donald even during plays.
3. Be physical
Of all the losses the Bears suffered last year, they looked the worst in the 24-10 loss to the Rams. They trailed 24-3 and looked helpless. Their only touchdown came from the defense. Even the 41-25 loss at Green Bay when they were down 41-10 they didn't look this bad because the Rams put a real physical beating on them. The Packers merely caught them out of position defensively several times for big plays but the Rams whipped them at the point of attack and their tight ends made Bears defensive backs look like bugs hitting the grill of a semi. They can't back down from being physical on both sides of the ball and also on special teams.
They talked about playing with a chip on their shoulders and regaining their swag all week long. Physical play is not done with the spoken word but instead with a shoulder pad to the chin.