Bears

Why the Bears are confident Nick Kwiatkoski can succeed in place of Jerrell Freeman

Why the Bears are confident Nick Kwiatkoski can succeed in place of Jerrell Freeman

The Bears would ideally go through the 2017 season without any significant injuries, but that's not the reality of a sport as violent as football. 

As the team scrambles to find replacemensts for Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, though, they can feel confident in the guy who will step in for inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. 

That shouldn’t make Freeman’s torn pectoral muscle any less disappointing, given he was voted a team captain and was the Bears’ most productive tackler (10) against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. It’s unlikely Nick Kwiatkoski will be better than Freeman, a six-year veteran with 70 career starts. 

But it’s also unlikely Kwiatkoski will be significantly worse than Freeman. He may be just as good by the end of the year. 

“He'll play a big role, and I have all the confidence that he'll do fine,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He came along last year as he played more and more. He's had a good camp for us this year and I have confidence in him to go in there and do a good job and nothing will change.”

Coming from Fangio, whose press conferences have a no-B.S., honest tone to them, that’s high praise. The Bears liked what they saw from Kwiatkoski last year, when he filled in for an injured Danny Trevathan for the final seven games of the season and totaled 32 tackles, two pass breakups, one sack and one forced fumble. 

“I think I feel a lot better about Nick right now than I probably I did in that Dallas game (his NFL debut) last season,” coach John Fox said. 

Kwiatkoski said he’s making decisions quicker and playing faster his second year in the league. Despite a concussion he suffered in August, Kwiatkoski participated in more of training camp this year than he did in 2016, which has helped him get ahead of the curve, too. 

“It’s a lot different this year,” Kwiatkoski said. “Just being able to do camp this year and getting the experience I did in the preseason, I definitely way ahead of the game than I did last year.”

Kwiatkoski will parachute into a front seven that limited the Falcons’ dynamic duo of running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — to 53 yards on 20 carries in Week 1. Against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense without suspended running back Doug Martin, stopping the run will be key in the Bears’ efforts to pressure quarterback Jameis Winston and, ideally, force throws into coverage that could be picked off. 

“He’s ready,” Trevathan said. “It’s going to moving fast, but he’s a young guy who’s going to be ready.”

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. 

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.