Packers' defense carries load as LaFleur-Rodgers offense starts slow

CHICAGO -- The Green Bay Packers might not have to rely on quarterback Aaron Rodgers as much anymore.

At the very least, they can survive until Rodgers and first-year head coach Matt LaFleur get things rolling -- and not have to do it against a defense as fierce as the one the Chicago Bears fielded in Thursday night’s NFL opener.

That’s because for the first time since perhaps the Super Bowl season of 2010, the Packers can match teams defense for defense. Unless, of course, the Bears’ offense is as bad as the one that got booed off Soldier Field after several drives in the Packers' 10-3 victory over the defending NFC North champs.

“It gives us a lot of confidence because for so long everybody says we don’t have a defense and we’re the liability of the team,” said defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who stayed in the locker room longer than any player after the game to savor the performance. “For us to come out and put on a performance like that, it was great for our confidence going into next week.”

Not that this is a Super Bowl-contending team yet, but it has the makings of a top-10 defense -- something the Packers haven’t had since the championship-winning group ranked fifth. But it looks like the money that general manager Brian Gutekunst dished out in free agency was well spent.

His most expensive signing -- Za'Darius Smith ($20 million signing bonus) -- set the tone with a sack, a tackle for loss and six quarterback pressures.

His next-most expensive signing -- Preston Smith ($16 million to sign) -- came up with three pressures and 1.5 sacks in the second half, including the game-clincher with 1 minute, 2 seconds left.

And former Bears safety Adrian Amos ($11 million to sign) had an interception in the end zone with 1:58 to play.

“We didn’t do them a whole lot of favors with our own performance on offense,” Rodgers said. “I mean, every time we needed something, a stop, they came up with some really big plays. Great for Adrian coming back to the team that drafted him to get a pick in the end zone there. But a lot of credit to the front. I thought we put a lot of pressure on ‘em. It looked like obviously both the Smiths, they were in the mix a bunch. It was just a dominating performance. It gives you a lot of confidence when you play like that on offense and win a game by a touchdown.”

It was early in the preseason when it was suggested the defense could carry the Packers in the early going while LaFleur and Rodgers work through the installation of a new offense. LaFleur is the first Packers head coach to win in his head coaching debut against the Bears since Vince Lombardi in 1959.

He has his defense to thank for that.

“It seemed like they were all over the place,” LaFleur said. “It felt like we were getting pretty good pressure, I thought the coverage was on point, and that’s a great credit not only to those players but to our coaching staff as well. Mike Pettine and our staff on defense designed a great gameplan and certainly were able to get some free runners tonight.”

After Rodgers made sure he secured the game ball to give to LaFleur, he sought out second-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

“With Mike and his staff and what the defensive guys did tonight was spectacular,” Rodgers said. “So, he was the first one I wanted to go to because we put them in some tough spots.”

The question now is how long it will take Rodgers to catch up?

The Packers had minus-12 total yards of offense in the first quarter -- their fewest total yards in any quarter since Sept. 18, 1994 (third quarter), according to ESPN Stats & Information research, against the Philadelphia Eagles with Brett Favre as the starting QB. It was the first time under Rodgers that the Packers had negative yards gained through the first three drives of a game. And then Rodgers made one Rodgers-like play -- a 47-yard bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that, according to NFL Next Gen stats traveled 53.5 yards in the air for his fourth-longest completion through the air in the last three seasons.

The Packers totaled 213 yards and converted just 2-of-12 third downs.

Just don’t tell Rodgers that he should have played in the preseason.

He warned that, no matter what happened in the opener, there would be “a lot of room to grow regardless of our performance” and that there will be “a lot of room for growth within the scheme as we go on in the season."

Or maybe Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears offense is just that bad. But the hope for the Packers is their defense is that good and Aaron Rodgers & Co. will catch up.