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Promising start turns ugly as Bears drop another one to an NFC North rival

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USA TODAY

Promising start turns ugly as Bears drop another one to an NFC North rival

Oh, it all started so promisingly.

The Bears looked like a well-oiled machine early Sunday, looking like the kind of team bouncing back from a gut-wrenching loss to the Green Bay Packers a week prior. But with another NFC North rival in town, this time the Detroit Lions, things turned ugly in a hurry — and the result ended up the same.

The Bears lost for the seventh time in 10 games this season, falling to the Lions by a 27-24 score on the shores of Lake Michigan.

An offense that has struggled to put points on the board much of the year — and couldn’t match a Packers offense led by backup quarterback Brett Hundley last weekend — started strong, with three scoring drives in its first four possessions. Mitch Trubisky led scoring drives of 70, 55 and 73 yards, producing 17 points and had the Bears ahead by 10 midway through the second quarter.

The lone Lions points came after a rare miscue by the offense in the opening 20-plus minutes when Trubisky fumbled a snap, only for D.J. Hayden to run it back 27 yards for a touchdown. But still, the Bears looked the superior team on both sides of the ball.

It was then, though, that Matt Stafford flipped a switch and started picking apart the Bears’ defense. Backed up at his own nine-yard line after an offensive pass-interference penalty, Stafford marched the Lions down the field, rattling off completions of 17, 40 and 28 yards, the last a touchdown pass that took advantage of a badly burned Marcus Cooper.

Stafford then led a 73-yard touchdown drive, once again picking apart the Bears’ secondary and giving his Lions a lead right before the half, a sudden turn of events considering the Bears had a double-digit lead not long before.

After an uneventful third quarter, the Bears tied the game with five minutes remaining on a stellar touchdown run by Tarik Cohen. But Stafford marched the Lions right down the field immediately afterward, and the Lions cashed in with a 52-yard go-ahead field goal.

Trubisky led the Bears downfield and put them in position for a game-tying field goal, but Connor Barth’s attempt was way off the mark, sending the Bears to another upsetting defeat.

Tarik Cohen gets back in the game

With rookie running back Tarik Cohen used sparingly the last few weeks, fans and observers alike heaped social-media scorn on the Bears' coaching staff. But they'll have to find something else to be upset about this week after the Bears’ coaching staff brought Cohen back with a vengeance.

The rookie running back proved himself a dangerous offensive weapon early in the season, but he had been largely absent for weeks, combining for just five rushing attempts and three receptions in the previous three games against the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and aforementioned Packers.

Well, the Bears’ coaches must have heard all that criticism and heavily involved Cohen, who finished with nine rushes for 44 yards and four catches for 15 yards. He was targeted a total of six times.

And Cohen came up with a huge play late in the game, taking a shovel pitch from Trubisky, running to the pylon and flipping his way into the end zone, extending the ball in midair to make sure it was a touchdown. That score tied the game at 24 with five minutes left.

Banged-up Bears

The Bears’ defense — already well bothered with injuries — added a couple more to the list Sunday.

None seemed more significant than the one to Leonard Floyd, who was taken off the field on a cart in the fourth quarter after Kyle Fuller crashed into Floyd’s right knee. Floyd spent a good deal of time on the ground before the cart came out.

Fuller suffered a wrist injury on the same play, with TV cameras catching the sight of an awful lot of blood.

At various points, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman left the field with members of the training staff. And on the offensive side, wide receiver Josh Bellamy was announced as being in the concussion protocol after a play in the third quarter.

Prediction: Can the Bears carry over what they did in Cincinnati to Detroit?

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USA Today

Prediction: Can the Bears carry over what they did in Cincinnati to Detroit?

The question was posed to Mitchell Trubisky at Paul Brown Stadium following the Bears’ 33-7 destruction of the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend: Was the offensive more aggressive today?

“Sure, it’s fair to say,” Trubisky said with a confident, wry grin. “Everyone’s got opinions.”

The follow-up: Is it accurate to say that?

“It’s accurate,” Trubisky said. 

Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with both a passing and rushing touchdown in Cincinnati, but more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over while operating a more aggressive and expansive gameplan. The effectiveness of the Bears’ ground game — led by Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and, as heading an excellent showing by the offensive line, Cody Whitehair — helped make sure the passing game was going to open up against a depleted and downtrodden Bengals defense. 

The Detroit Lions have a lot more to play for on Saturday at Ford Field than the Bengals did last weekend: At 7-6, they’re still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive NFC. Detroit didn’t have standout defensive end Ziggy Ansah for its 27-24 win over the Bears at Soldier Field in November; Ansah is officially questionable for Saturday but seems likely to play. 

As my colleague John ‘Moon’ Mullin pointed out, though, the biggest key for the Bears on Saturday will be not turning the ball over: The Lions have been losers in three of the four games in which their defense didn’t generate a takeaway. But since squeaking by the Bears in Week 11, the Lions lost by seven at home to the Minnesota Vikings, were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens and — despite forcing five turnovers — beat the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers by only three points last week. 

So even though the Lions have something to play for, this is a team that’s beatable. Expect another close game; if the Bears play close to as well as they did against Cincinnati, they very well could leave Michigan with their fifth win of the season. 

Prediction: Bears 24, Lions 23

Why historical context for Mitchell Trubisky's 2017 is encouraging for 2018

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USA Today

Why historical context for Mitchell Trubisky's 2017 is encouraging for 2018

In the last decade, 22 quarterbacks have started at least 12 games in their respective rookie years. If Mitchell Trubisky finishes out the 2017 season, he’ll hit that dozen-start mark as well. 

So with that in mind, where do his numbers stack up against that group with three games remaining? His stats could still fluctuate in these final weekends against the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, of course. But if what he’s done in his first nine starts remains largely unchanged, he’ll have put up numbers that represent a decent foundation on which to build in 2018. 

Trubisky has an interception rate of 1.87; only two quarterbacks have gone through their rookie years in the last decade with an interception rate lower than 2 percent: Dallas’ Dak Prescott (0.87, 2016) and Washington’s Robert Griffin III (2012, 1.27 percent). Injuries derailed Griffin’s career, while Prescott has been outstanding while playing next to Ezekiel Elliott and struggled without his running back.  

But the point here: Quarterbacks have to learn ball security at some point, and Trubisky may be ahead of the curve in that regard. That the Bears opened up their offense on Sunday, having Trubisky throw 32 passes in a blowout win, was a signal this coaching staff trusted him to operate a more expansive scheme and not turn the ball over (which he did). 

Trubisky, though, is only averaging 6.7 yards per attempt — 25th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in 2017. Of the 22 rookie quarterbacks in the last decade, though, 13 averaged fewer than seven yards per attempt as rookies:

Quarterback Rookie Year Y/A 2nd year Y/A +/-
Blaine Gabbert 2011 5.4 6.0 +0.6
Derek Carr 2014 5.5 7.0 +1.5
Sam Bradford 2010 6.0 6.1 +0.1
DeShone Kizer 2017 6.0 N/A N/A
Blake Bortles 2014 6.1 7.3 +1.2
Carson Wentz 2016 6.2 7.5 +1.3
Mike Glennon 2013 6.3 7.0 +0.7
Brandon Weeden 2012 6.6 6.5 -0.1
Andy Dalton 2011 6.6 6.0 +0.3
Mark Sanchez 2009 6.7 6.5 -0.2
Ryan Tannehill 2012 6.8 6.7 -0.1
Geno Smith 2013 6.9 6.9 0.0
Joe Flacco 2008 6.9 7.2 +0.3

That's an average gain of 0.5 yards per attempt from Year 1 to Year 2 isn’t exactly significant, and the names on this list (save for Wentz) aren't exactly inspiring. But here’s a more encouraging comparison: How the 17 quarterbacks in the last decade who’ve started at least 12 games in both their first and second seasons in the league improved in terms of passer rating:

Quarterback Rookie Year Rookie PR 2nd year PR +/-
Dak Prescott 2016 104.9 91.6 -13.3
Robert Griffin III 2012 102.4 82.2 -20.2
Russell Wilson 2012 100.0 101.9 +1.9
Marcus Mariota 2015 91.5 95.6 +4.1
Matt Ryan 2008 87.7 80.9 -6.8
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 85.2 88.7 +2.5
Cam Newton 2011 84.5 86.2 +1.7
Jameis Winston 2015 84.2 86.1 +1.9
Andy Dalton 2011 80.4 87.4 +7.0
Joe Flacco 2008 80.3 88.9 +8.6
Carson Wentz 2016 79.3 101.9 +22.6
Derek Carr 2014 76.6 91.1 +14.5
Andrew Luck 2012 76.5 87.0 +10.5
Ryan Tannehill 2012 76.1 81.78 +5.6
Blake Bortles 2014 69.5 88.2 +18.7
Geno Smith 2013 66.5 77.5 +11
Mark Sanchez 2009 63.0 75.3 +12.3

Trubisky, entering Saturday’s game against the Detroit Lions, has a passer rating of 80.0. 

Most quarterbacks made at at least incremental gains from Year 1 to Year 2, with Ryan probably the biggest outlier here given he was fine as a rookie, then took a step back in Year 2. Prescott and Griffin both had passer ratings over 100 as rookies and regressed as sophomores. 

Nine of the quarterbacks above had a rookie passer rating between 75-85: Winston, Wentz, Tannehill, Newton, Luck, Flacco, Dalton, Carr and Bridgewater (we’re including Bridgewater in here, because 85.2 is close enough). Those nine quarterbacks averaged a passer rating gain of 8.3 points from Year 1 to Year 2. Overall, these 17 quarterbacks saw, on average, their passer ratings increase by 4.8 points from Year 1 to Year 2. 

So beyond the encouraging signs we’ve seen from Trubisky on and off the field this year, the numbers point to the Bears’ franchise quarterback improving in his second season in the NFL. An that’s a good start to answering the question of how far the Bears can go in 2018, no matter who he’s throwing to or who’s coaching him.