LAKE FOREST – The last time we saw the Bears and Lions get together on a football field in Detroit it was Thanksgiving Day, both clubs were playing for little more than pride and their jobs, no one had a clue the greatest public health crisis in a century was brewing halfway around the world, Matthew Stafford had seen the best half season of his career land him on injured reserve and Mitch Trubisky was the Bears starting quarterback.
The only thing that will be the same Sunday will be Trubisky under center for the Bears and most of Bears Nation still holding its breath in the hope he can do at least enough to complement one of the NFL’s best defenses.
New will be NFL openers with no offseason or exhibition season to prepare, empty stadiums, the Bears offensive coaching staff and four Bears tight ends.
If you love TV mysteries this one should be for you.
Here’s a little guide to help you follow along.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Lions RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Khalil Mack.
For all the focus on the Bears offense, it will still be the defense that dictates whether or not the Bears can recapture their 2018 mojo when Mack arrived a week before the opener and took the NFL by storm.
The hope is that the addition of Robert Quinn across from Mack and return to health of Akiem Hicks will be enough to make up for the opt-out of Eddie Goldman and still allow a ferocious front seven to once again trigger a big play, momentum turning, takeaway machine of a ‘D.’
But Quinn has been missing in action most of training camp and is listed as doubtful, and the Lions will sell out to avoid a Mack attack.
Vaitai is a promising and very expensive free agent addition acquired by the Lions for exactly this kind of assignment, but if Mack gets off like he did two years ago in Green Bay the Lions will be in for a very long day.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
Do you think it might have something to do with Mitch?
Trubisky won the QB derby in training camp but has yet to take his first snap, and many are already asking how quick the trigger will be if he stumbles.
Don’t waste your time on that. Short of an absolute implosion, it’s Trubisky’s job for now.
What will be very curious though is whether or not Nagy actually turns him loose, gives him the entire playbook to work with, encourages him to use his legs as much as his arm and figures out how to use his ground game to take pressure off and put him in positions to succeed.
PLAYER TO WATCH
TE Jimmy Graham.
Graham was one of the most controversial free agent signings of the offseason by any team and observers are unlikely to give him or the Bears much wiggle room if he doesn’t show up early and often.
Before you even look for him making plays though, focus on where he lines up and how he will be used.
Where Seattle and Green Bay missed on Graham was a refusal to consistently line him up as an outside receiver and/or in the slot. That’s where he did most of his damage in New Orleans.
Having seen the mad scientist side of Nagy in the play design lab back in 2018, expect a lot of it early with his favorite new toy.
QB Matthew Stafford.
Stafford was clicking at an All Pro level before going down last season and the Bears never faced him.
If he picks up where he left off last year this will be a whole different kind of challenge than what the Bears got from the Lions last year.
WR Riley Ridley.
Most of Ridley’s Chicago story to date has been a slow start and concern that he will never become the steal he looked like in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.
Ridley appeared to be coming on strong the last week of camp and another receiving threat could be huge to go with Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller could be huge, particularly if Graham doesn’t make a mark.
The Chicago Bears record against the NFC North and the Lions under Matt Nagy.
THE FINAL WORD
Bears 23, Lions 16.
There is in fact a lot of Lions love out there by analysts around the league. It’s just hard to know how much better they can be until we see them on the field,
but it really seems based far more on the return of Stafford than other upgrades.
As much of an unknown as the Bears offense remains, the ‘D’ handled Stafford fine in 2018. Trubisky’s weapons have been upgraded and he looked awfully good the last time he was in Detroit.