The Chicago Bears got back to the playoffs in 2018 because they were finally able to beat their own division. They only lost one game inside the division all year (week one against the Packers, a game they should have won).
Going 5-1 in the NFC North helped set up a nice playoff run. In the NFL, like most sports, the key to winning the division is by beating other teams in that division. Pretty simple logic. Anyway, the 2019 offseason was a busy one for every NFC North team.
One could make the argument that every team got better with their offseason moves. If the Bears are going to repeat as NFC North champions, they will once again need to have success against division opponents.
Here, I will evaluate and preview the Bears’ NFC North opponents with a full scouting report on each team. Let’s see what team will give the most trouble in 2019.
Coaches – Matt Patricia (HC), Darrell Bevell (OC), Paul Pasqualoni (DC)
- Key Offseason Acquisitions: Trey Flowers (DE), T.J. Hockenson (TE), WR Danny Amendola, C.J. Anderson, Darrell Bevell (OC).
- Trey Flowers, 25, was exactly what the Lions needed on defense. He was a solid player with the Patriots under Matt Patricia and hopes to find that success once again in Detriot. He recorded 6.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits last season. Under Patricia, Flowers led the Patriots in sacks in 2016 and 2017. He’s a nice addition to a defensive line, who has the best run stopper in the game in ‘Snacks’ Harrison.
- The Lions haven’t had a decent tight end since Brandon Pettigrew. Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford has always liked to target TEs, he just hasn’t been able to find one that can get open consistently and catch the football. Exhibit A, Eric Ebron. In 2018, Lions’ TEs accounted for just 13% of the team’s total catches. Levine Toilolo led the Lions in receptions at TE. Enter, T.J. Hockenson.
- In order to significantly improve the TE position, the Lions drafted Hockenson with the No. 8 overall pick in this past April’s NFL draft. In two seasons at Iowa, Hockenson caught 73 passes for 1,080 yards and 9 touchdowns.
- WR Danny Amendola will have a big role with the Lions’ in 2019 after
Jermaine Kearse broke his ankle in a preseason game. Amendola is a cheap slot option for Stafford and should become one of his go-to options. An older Amendola is still a reliable target. On the Dolphins last season, Amendola had a snap share of 83.7%. 76.1% of his snaps came in the slot according to PlayerProfiler.com. He also had a catch rate of 74.7%, good for 7th best in the NFL.
- RB Kerryon Johnson will look to build off his successful rookie season, in which he averaged 5.4 true yards per carry – 6th best in the NFL. Patricia does like to use big RBs, however. Last year, LeGarrette Blount had 26 red zone touches, compared to Johnson, who had 20. The Lions signed another “big” RB this offseason in C.J. Anderson. In nine games last season, Anderson recorded 15 red zone touches. Fantasy players may want to pay extra attention here.
- Speaking of the running game, the Lions hired former Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to be their OC. An interesting move to say the least considering Bevell loves to run the football and the Lions have A TON of money tied up in Stafford. The Bevell move fits the head coaches’ personality though. Patricia wants to play it safe on offense and not turn the ball over. Last season under Jim Bob Cooter (great name), the Lions averaged 35.9 pass attempts (13th) and 25.3 rush attempts (18th) per game. The Lions should be top half in terms of rushing attempts in the 2019 season.
- Strength of Schedule: The Lions have the 21st hardest schedule in the NFL according to their 2019 opponents’ win percentage from 2018. The Bears have the fifth hardest schedule.
- Conclusion: One could make the argument that the Lions had the best offseason out of any NFC North team. They are slowly building a talented roster. They still doing Lions’ things, however. Jermaine Kearse, who was in Darrell Bevell’s system with the Seahawks, suffered a gruesome leg injury in a preseason game. He will miss the entire regular season. In a league where passing on first downs, specifically to RBs is the most efficient play call, the Lions will continue to rush the ball. In the preseason, things didn’t exactly work out.
Lions first 3 drives this preseason
#1 PUNT – 5 plays, 18 yds
#2 PUNT – 4 plays, 18 yds
#3 FG – 7 plays, 22 yds
#1 PUNT – 3 plays, -2 yds
#2 PUNT – 3 plays, 6 yds
#3 PUNT – 3 plays, 9 yds
#1 PUNT – 6 plays, 27 yds
#2 PUNT – 4 plays, 4 yds
#3 PUNT – 3 plays, 7 yd
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) August 24, 2019
- On paper, the Lions should be a tougher team to play against than last year, but in a competitive division like the NFC North, they will not be the Bears’ toughest test. Especially when their head coach believes running the ball > passing the ball.
Coaches – Mike Zimmer (HC), Kevin Stefanski (OC), George Edwards (DC)
- Key Offseason Acquisitions: Josh Kline (G), Garrett Bradbury (G), Irv Smith (TE)
- For years, the Vikings have struggled to keep their quarterbacks upright. Pass protection has been a huge issue for the Vikings and was again last season. The Vikings’ offensive line allowed 40 sacks in 2018. They also ranked 28th in Pass blocking efficiency per Pro Football Focus. Kirk Cousins‘ first year in Minnesota didn’t go quite as well as the team had hoped, but he didn’t really have much help upfront. No offensive line allowed more pressures than the Vikings did last year (226), while no team allowed more hurries (166) or allowed hurries at a higher rate (one hurry every four pass-blocking snaps).
- The Vikings added guard Josh Kline to help boost their offensive line in 2019. Kline started his career with the Patriots and helped them defeat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. He has played in 46 straight NFL games. That’s not an easy task for any NFL player. Consistency is what you’re going to get out of Kline, who is now the 2nd highest-paid offensive lineman on the Vikings.
- Garrett Bradbury was the Vikings first-round draft pick in 2019. The rookie will start at center when the regular season begins. The best way to describe Bradbury is athletic, which is not usually a term used to describe offensive linemen. For the zone running concepts the Vikings will use in 2019, Bradbury is a perfect fit.
- The addition of Kevin Stefanski (OC) and Gary Kubiak (special offensive assistant) could be huge for the Vikings offense. Last offseason, the Vikings signed QB Kirk Cousins to a massive deal. They also passed the ball a ton in short-yardage situations. It wasn’t an efficient way to run the offense. In 2019, they will run the ball more. That’s largely because Kubiak will have a BIG influence on what the offense does. Dalvin Cook’s health will also have something to do with it.
- For the first time in two years, Dalvin Cook is healthy, which is a scary thing for opposing teams. Cook has played in just 15 games over the last two seasons with the Vikings. In his NFL career, he has averaged 4.7 rushing yards per attempt. In 2018, the Vikings offense averaged 4.2 yards per attempt, which was 25th in the NFL. The Panthers led the NFL in rushing yards per attempt with 5.1. Cook has looked great so far this preseason. If he can stay healthy, which is a big if, he can be a huge difference-maker for the Vikings.
Dalvin Cook's ability to slip through a crease quickly with a free defender running at him is incredible. A full season of health should scare the hell out of NFL defenses. pic.twitter.com/VL0psoA9uz
— Purple Post (@Purple_Post) August 25, 2019
- Cook played in just 11 games for the Vikings last season and still accounted for 72.2% of the team’s snap share (9th best in the NFL). He’s going to get the opportunities. One thing opposing teams could do to the Vikings’ offense to stop Cook is to load the box with 8-men. In 2018, Cook was 7th in the entire league in carries against “light fronts” per PlayeProfiler.com.
- Kirk Cousins’ numbers last season were impressive. He threw for 4,298 yards and 30 TDs. He also was 3rd in the NFL in pressured completion %. That’s not surprising considering how bad the Vikings’ O-line was in pass protection last season. The problem with Cousins isn’t his numbers, it’s his inability to show up in big games. Cousins is 4-25 against teams with a winning record and 5-13 in primetime.
- Mike Zimmer will call plays again for the defense. It’s a talented unit, that can be one of the best in the NFC if things go correctly. The Vikings gave up 341 points in 2018, which was good enough to be in the top-10. They will have a very similar defense personal wise in 2019.
2019 projected Vikings defense and years with team:
DE Griffen (9)
DT Joseph (5)
DT Johnson (2)
DE Hunter (4)
LB Kendricks (4)
LB Barr (5)
LB Gedeon (2)
CB Rhodes (6)
CB Waynes (4)
CB Alexander (3)
SS Harris (4)
FS Smith (7)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 23, 2019
- Strength of Schedule: The Vikings have the 10th hardest schedule in the NFL according to their 2019 opponents’ win percentage from 2018.
- Conclusion: The Vikings have the talent on both offense and defense to be the Bears’ toughest NFC North opponent in 2019. The Vikings’ defense gave Mitchell Trubisky some issues last season. In two games, Trubisky threw for just 328 yards, a TD and 2 interceptions against the Vikings. Zimmer will challenge the young QB once again in 2019. For the Vikings to have a shot at beating the Bears in 2019 though, Kirk Cousins will have to figure out the Bears’ defense, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Like the Lions, the Vikings’ head coach likes to run the football…maybe a bit too much.
Green Bay Packers
Coaches – Matt LaFleur (HC), Nathaniel Hackett (OC), Mike Pettine (DC)
- Key Offseason Acquisitions: Adrian Amos (S), Preston Smith (OLB), Za’Darius Smith (OLB), Darnell Savage Jr. (S)
- -For years the Packers’ offense has been above average, but their defense has been far behind. In order to fix that, general manager Brian Gutekunst spent on the defense this past offseason. In fact, one could make the argument that Gutekunst overspent on some of his defensive acquisitions and rightfully so – the Packers are desperate to win now with superstar QB Aaron Rodgers.
- -The Bears didn’t believe safety Adrian Amos was worth $37 million. The Packers did. Amos isn’t known for his ball skills (just 3 career interceptions) but has become one of the most consistent players in the NFL. He also is somewhat of a Pro Football Focus darling. In 2017 and 2018, Amos was ranked as one of the best safeties in the NFL per PFF.
Adrian Amos had a breakout year in 2017! pic.twitter.com/ngNBqranjc
— PFF (@PFF) April 9, 2018
Adrian Amos had quite the season for the Bears pic.twitter.com/IqzzS56bLZ
— PFF (@PFF) February 26, 2019
- Surprisingly, the Packers decided to release Mike Daniels before the start of training camp. They did upgrade their pass rush in the offseason by signing both Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. However, neither player recorded double-digit sacks last season. Yet, the two together signed contracts worth $118 million. That’s a lot of money. Money that could have been better spent on a player like Khalil Mack.
- Smith does deserve respect. He had 25 quarterback hits in 2018, including a game with three sacks. Smith is also versatile – he can play outside linebacker, 3 and 5-technique, and possibly, nose tackle. You never know where Smith is going to line up. That creates some problems for opposing offenses.
- The ILB position is a major concern right now for the Packers. Their starters heading into week one are Blake Martinez and Ty Summers (rookie).
- The Packers do have one of the best, young talented secondaries in the league. They drafted Darnell Savage Jr. and have Kevin King, Josh Jackson, and Jaire Alexander. Mike Pettine still has a lot of work to do. The Packers’ defense ranked 18th in total defense last season.
- There has been a lot of talk this offseason about the decline of Aaron Rodgers, but he’s still the best QB in the league, when healthy. Rodgers didn’t get much help in the offseason in terms of weapons. Outside of Davante Adams, Rodgers has a lot of inconsistent pass catchers in Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Jimmy Graham.
- If there is one player that can step up, it’s Allison, who was having a great start to 2018 before he suffered a series of injuries. Allison played on 75% of the Packers’ offensive snaps in weeks 1-4 last year. He’s also in line to be the “Packers’ guy” in the slot. He could be the only other player besides Adams on the Packers’ offense to see 50 or more targets.
- Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Packers heading into 2019 is their new head coach, Matt LaFleur. He’s had an up and down career thus far in the NFL. He did learn under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay – two of the brightest young minds in the NFL. Yet, was stuck on running the ball in 2018. Maybe, he didn’t trust his players on the Titans. Marcus Mariota has been erratic in his NFL career, but not using Derrick Henry until the end of the season was questionable at best.
- LaFleur also shouldn’t “commit” to running the ball on offense with one of the greatest QBs of All-Time under center. Under LaFleur, the Titans’ offense ranked 2nd in the NFL in rush% (48.4%). The only team that ranked higher was the Seattle Seahawks (52.8%).
- While the Packers do need to run the ball more (ranked 32nd last season in rush% at 32.5%), there should be a happy medium. What’s a bit concerning is how LeFleur keeps referring to running the ball more, especially on early downs. “We want to assemble our offense through the running game,” LaFleur said. “I think it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback. If we can stay balanced on first and second down, I think it’s an advantage for the offense.” NFL analyst Warren Sharp would tell you that’s not a very efficient way to run an offense.
- Aaron Jones has been a popular name to talk about this offseason regarding fantasy football, which is a bit surprising considering the Packers’ 2019 schedule. They have one of the most difficult schedules in terms of opposing team’s rushing defense efficiency, per Sharp Football Stats.
- Yet, LaFleur wants to run the ball more often.
- Jones will be used in the passing game in 2019. He actually had success in college running routes and catching passes out of the backfield. Several Packers’ beat reports have suggested that the offense will try to throw to their RBs more often. Jones had a catch rate of 74.3% in 2018, 23rd best in the NFL.
- Strength of Schedule: The Packers have the 14th hardest schedule in the NFL according to their 2019 opponents’ win percentage from 2018.
- Conclusion: The Packers’ 2019 season depends on two things – the health of Aaron Rodgers and the ability of rookie head coach Matt LaFleur. The two have to be on the same page otherwise the Packers’ will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since the pre-Brett Favre era. With No. 12 under center, the Packers will always be the Bears’ toughest opponent. Week one last year was a perfect example. The Bears have the advantage this year though being at home when the two teams open up the NFL’s 100th season.
In the process of writing a full, in-depth scouting report on the NFC North. What team do you think will give the #Bears the most trouble in 2019?
— Nick Petro (@PetroTLS) August 27, 2019
Nick is the editor-in-chief at TheLoopSports.com. He is also a Chicago Sports fanatic, avid sports bettor, fantasy sports nut, and totally didn’t try to sell his soul on eBay (which he’s still waiting to get back by the way). For more fun, follow him on Twitter @PetroTLS.