Opening weekends in the NFL are notoriously hard to predict and almost certain to produce some surprising outcomes.
Much of the early-season turmoil that has become the norm in the NFL is the simple byproduct of significant roster changes.
But when the Bears visit the Rams on Sunday night in Los Angeles they will go in with even more than the usual uncertainty. They have absolutely no tape of a Matt Stafford-led Rams’ offense or defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ new defense.
Yes, the Rams were the NFL’s top defense last season, but that led to the mercurial rise of former Bears assistant Brandon Staley, who parlayed his one season as their defensive coordinator into the head coaching job with the Chargers. Also of note, starters, including safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, D-linemen Michael Brockers and their third leading pass rusher, Morgan Fox, and fourth best, Samson Ebukam, all bolting via free agency.
Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor really has almost no idea what the Rams defense will look like.
Likewise Bears rookie defensive coordinator Sean Desai has never seen Stafford run the Rams offense, nor has anyone else who wasn’t at their training camp since he didn’t take a snap in the preseason, and their leading rusher last season, Cam Akers is out for the year.
I asked Desai on Wednesday if he’s been focusing more on watching Stafford as a Lion or studying last season’s tape of the Rams offense even though Jared Goff was under center, and how he balances the two.
“You’ve got to watch both, and fortunately it’s good for us to be facing them Week 1 because we’ve got a lot of time to be able to do that in the offseason,” he said. “There’s going to be layers of both things that we see that’s going to show up on game day.”
What is Desai the most curious about?
“You know, I think, that’s a good question, because I think the (Sean) McVay system is going to be the system, and they’re going to have a lot of new wrinkles with Matt,” Desai said. “Matt’s a stud. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in this league. ... and obviously he’s going with one of the top offensive minds in the league.”
On the other side, Lazor has a pretty good handle on the challenges Defensive MVP Aaron Donald will bring, but will Morris run Staley’s same system and schemes?
Lazor recalled facing Morris last season, when Morris was serving as the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator.
“He tried to take away the things he thought were best from us in the run game and he was successful on some of it,” Lazor said. “He tried to put some different pressures on us to affect us in the pass game — at times he was effective with it, and so I think he’ll do the same thing.”
Of course, this will be fourth season in a row the Rams and Bears meet in the regular season so most of the players know each other well, but turnabout is fair play and Morris and McVay have never seen an Andy Dalton-led Bears’ team with all their new found speed, nor has McVay seen a Desai-led defense, but he does have the edge of knowing Desai comes from the exact same school as Staley did.
So where do you focus if you’re hoping to predict an outcome?
When the schemes are uncertain, the studs are usually the guys to watch.
This one could very well come down to a big play or two from Stafford, Donald or all-world corner Jaylen Ramsey, or will Dalton, Khalil Mack or Roquan Smith prove to be the difference?
Is it really the Rams that are touchdown favorites over the Bears, or just Donald and Stafford?