Bears

Moon: O-line struggled, defense prevailed

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Moon: O-line struggled, defense prevailed

Players typically declare that they are not competing with their opposite numbers. Jay Cutler says he is not measuring himself against Aaron Rodgers. Julius Peppers doesnt watch film of Jared Allen. Defensive team goals are based on points allowed, yards allowed, takeaways and such, not whether their defense had better stats than the other guys.

But coach Lovie Smith said after the game that the Bears defense outplayed the other teams. Defensive players said the same.

What Im trying to say is we played a little bit better than them as the game went and that was why we were able to win, cornerback Charles Tillman said Monday, then included Matt Fortes 205 rushing yards and Devin Hesters touchdown return among other whys behind the Bears victory.

The Bears need to find a more meaningful measure of defensive performance than the other teams defense.

Smith in fact tempered that significantly on Monday, saying simply, We didnt play as well as we need to.. We wont play defense like that here very often.

That would be a good idea.

The Panthers had 10 plays of 20 yards or longer, and unlike in past Panthers nightmares when wide receiver Steve Smith abused the Bears, six different players made them. That doesnt include runs of 16 yards by running back Jonathan Stewart and 14 by quarterback Cam Newton plus a 15-yard completion to tight end Jeremy Shockey.

Newton was neither sacked nor hit hard enough to count except when he ran with the ball. Carolina ran 72 plays; the Bears had exactly one tackle for loss.

We need to get more pressure on them, Smith said, expanding the sweep of his not-goods. We didnt play the run well yesterday. We gave up big plays in the passing game. You just cant have that.
To be fair

A couple of perspective items to consider here:

The Panthers may not necessarily be a good prism through which to evaluate the Bears defense. Indeed, the wonder of Sunday may not be that the Panthers got 543 yards, but that they got only 543.

The Carolina offense has a No. 1 at quarterback (Cam Newton); two No. 1s at running back (Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams); two No. 1s at tight end (Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey; two No. 1s at tackle (Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah); and a Pro Bowl guard in Ryan Kalil, a No. 2. And thats not even including Steve Smith, a No. 3 but among the NFLs top wideouts over most of the past decade.

The time of possession disparity (Carolina had the ball 33 minutes 29 seconds, 7 minutes longer than the Bears) shouldnt be particularly surprising. The touchdown returns by Devin Hester and D.J. Moore meant that the Panthers had two more possessions than the Bears.

And very significantly, in a stop that was a decisive tipping point in the game, the defense allowed Carolina just three incompletions after a fourth-quarter Jay Cutler interception gave the Panthers the ball at the Chicago 29. Carolina missed a field-goal try from 52 yards to net nothing from the takeaway.
Yes, but

For the Bears to say that their defense out-played the Carolina defense carries a hint of whistling past the graveyard for a unit that is disarray. The Carolina defense, missing a Pro Bowl linebacker (Jon Beason) and cornerback (Chris Gamble) should not be any standard of comparison.

For the Bears to say that their defense out-played Carolinas, whether because the Bears scored a touchdown or because Carolinas gave up 224 rushing yards and that they only allowed 169,

A bigger problem looms up front, where games are typically won. The defensive line has just three sacks over the last three games, albeit against two quarterbacks among the NFLs more sack-proof in Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. Unofficial post-game stats had the Bears delivering zero quarterback hits on Newton after just two against Rodgers.

Without a pass rush, the difficulties in the deep secondary are magnified exponentially simply because receivers have time to get to the safeties level. And Bears cornerback play is far from the shut-down level.

Now the Bears get Matthew Stafford, who has not been sacked in three of the Detroit Lions four games. Stafford has been sacked five times but all came against the Minnesota Vikings, and the quarterback has been hit just 14 other times this season.

Updating

Guard Chris Spencers exact injury is a small fracture in his right hand, suffered in the first half of the Carolina game but not enough to sideline him Sunday or against Detroit. Anytime you have a player finish a game, Lovie Smith said, you feel pretty good about him going into the next one."
Scoring issues

The final Bears point total of 34 against the Carolina Panthers was ample but the offense is still not taking over games in any respect beyond Matt Fortes play.

The Carolina offense out-scored the Bears 29-20, with touchdown runs by Forte and Marion Barber augmented by two thwarted red-zone trips that resulted in Robbie Gould field goals of 20 and 24 yards.

But the Bears offense still has not scored more than two touchdowns in a game this season, scoring two each against Atlanta, Green Bay and Carolina. Only the Falcons offense was outscored by the Bears, and that game also featured a defensive touchdown, a fumble forced by Julius Peppers and returned by Brian Urlacher.
Not in a rush

The Carolina Panthers became the fourth straight team to rush for 100 or more yards on the Chicago defense. Running backs DeAngelo Williams (82 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (52) were supplemented by Cam Newtons 35 as the 169 rushing yards were the most since the New York Giants 189 in game four last Oct. 3.

More concerning perhaps, teams are averaging a stunning 5.1 yards per rush against a defense that ranked No. 6 in the NFL last season giving up 3.7 yards per carry.
Duly noted

Devin Hester is making history but hes also drawing unwanted attention and from more than just kick-coverage teams

For the second straight week Hester drew a 15-yard penalty for actions after a play was over. The first was a dead-ball foul for punching a Packer after a play in the loss to Green Bay. Sunday he drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for following his 69-yard punt return for a touchdown with a series of three somersaults in the Carolina end zone.

The 15-yard penalty was assessed on the kickoff, Carolina started from its 36, its best starting field position of the entire game, and the result was a touchdown in eight plays.

Right guard Chris Spencer left the game in the first half with what was diagnosed as a broken right hand, according to several reports. Spencer returned to the game and played the second half with what appeared to be a cast or heavy wrap on the injured hand.

Safety Brandon Meriweather, no stranger to fines from the NFL, is expected to receive a letter from the NFL this week for his helmet-to-helmet hit on wide receiver Steve Smith in the second quarter.

The good news is that the Bears have gotten points every time they reached or breached an opponents 20-yard line. Last year the Bears scored points of any kind on only 40 of 51 red-zone possessions, 26th in the NFL. The bad news is that the Bears are scoring touchdowns on just half their red-zone possessions (5 of 10).

I am not making this up.

Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick handled color commentary for the FOX telecast of the Bears-Panthers game, describing plays by individuals such as center Robert Garza and noting that offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants to run the ball." No, really, he said that.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term (Brett Favre).

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

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AP

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

So another playoff weekend and with it some takeaways of greater or lesser relevance for the Bears, not so much as any sort of measuring standard for how close the Bears are or aren’t from this level of NFL play (but if you actually are wanting to keep meaningless score, the Bears did beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by more points (6) than the Jaguars did (3), and whacked Carolina by 14, while the New Orleans Saints only outscored the Panthers by 5, so… oh, never mind… .).

But in a copycat league that looks desperately for things that are working for anyone at all, the playoffs do offer some object lessons to the also-rans. Of course, pretty much like diets, most systems for doing things in the NFL all work. You just have to do them the right way and shop right. So some from along a spectrum ranging from “Huh?” to “Wow”… .

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QB acquisitions

Some playoffs make it indelibly apparent that the only route to team excellence runs through quarterbacks drafted pretty much in first rounds, not even necessarily by their playoff teams. Last year the final three (we’re not including New England here, because Tom Brady is the ultimate outlier, and he and the Patriots have been in 11 of the last 15 seasons he’s been involved) were quarterback’ed by Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, all 1’s. In 2015, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. Every year, at least two of the final four finishers are led by former No. 1’s, even going back to the Bears’ near-miss in 2010 (Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez.) Plus Brady.

This year, not so much. Brady aside, two of the other three (Minnesota, Philadelphia) come in not only not with No. 1’s, but not even with intended starters – Case Keenum and Nick Foles, respectively.

A couple takeaways here:

  •       What is put around the quarterback, including coaches, is potentially everything. Jacksonville, which is riding former No. 3-overall Blake Bortles, is in the AFC title less because of Bortles than Leonard Fournette rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns. No. 1’s are far from necessarily a winning ticket: No. 1’s Roethlisberger, Ryan and Marcus Mariota all bowed out over the weekend, along with Drew Brees (a No. 2), with only Roethlisberger losing to a quarterback drafted higher than he was (Bortles).
     
  •       The Bears are on the right track with prioritizing quarterback at No. 3/2 last draft in the form of Mitch Trubisky. And GM Ryan Pace was on another right track in making a serious play for a backup quarterback. Mike Glennon turned out not to be the right one, and coaches arguably erred in choosing him to open the season over Trubisky in an extremely close decision. But Minnesota and Philadelphia are in the NFC title game because of backup quarterbacks (Keenum, Foles), and the whole New England thing happened because Bill Belichick and the Patriots went after a quarterback in the 2000 sixth round despite having previously durable Drew Bledsoe in place.
     

Pace neglected the quarterback spot in his first two drafts before addressing it last draft with Mitch Trubisky (plus Glennon and Sanchez in free agency). For comparison purposes, Spielman drafted zero quarterbacks over his last three, but had that luxury by virtue of landing Teddy Bridgewater with his second first-rounder in 2014, and augmented that after Bridgewater’s knee injury with a trade for Sam Bradford and free-agent signing of Keenum after Bradford’s injury.

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Remember when the Bears just absolutely had to, couldn’t stay in the NFL unless they did, switch to a 3-4 scheme? All four teams in the conference championships are base 4-3 teams.

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Targeting the targets

Ryan Pace and new coach Matt Nagy, along with incoming offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, are expected to devote money and draft capital in the wide receiver spot, and not necessarily including a wideout with the No. 8 pick. Good idea. But Nagy comes from the West Coast cult of Andy Reid, and from the weekend’s divisional round, one template stands above all others:

Using the Patriots as the standard, New England had seven players this season haul in 30 or more passes (the Bears had two, Tarik Cohen and Kendall Wright). None of the seven were first-round New England picks, although the Patriots did trade a No. 1 (32nd overall) and a No. 3 to New Orleans for Brandon Cooks and a No. 4. Three of them were running backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White) and one was a tight end (Rob Gronkowski).

Very noteworthy: Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick and Stefon Diggs a fifth, both going to teams with histories of stocking and then stocking again and then stocking a little more at wide receiver. Diggs is one of five wide receivers taken by draft and personnel chief Rick Spielman over the past three drafts. Pace went all-in with Kevin White at No. 7 of his initial draft, but Daniel Braverman is the only other wideout drafted by Pace; over the last eight drafts, Braverman, White, Marquess Wilson and Alshon Jeffery are the extent of Bears draft capital invested at wideout.

(Brandon Marshall could be counted in there, accounting for two No. 3’s. Whether that counts as properly building through the draft, your humble and faithful narrator leaves to the reader.

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Build through the draft…mostly

Speaking of building through the draft:

Everybody talks about it and it’s certainly the ideal. But Jacksonville is a game away from the Super Bowl (No. 2 in yardage and points allowed) because of a near-historic hit rate on defense in free agency: Calais Campbell, up for defensive player of the year, plus Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson on the defensive line; Paul Posluszny at linebacker; A.J. Bouye at cornerback; and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson.

Of course, the NFL’s No. 1 defense for points and yards allowed (Minnesota Vikings) can point to a starting unit that includes just two players (tackles Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph) who were significant pickup in free agency from other teams. Safety Andrew Zendejo was a Dallas castoff signed off the scrap heap back in 2011 but has been a Viking ever since.