John Mullin

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

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USA TODAY

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

Great defenses, even individual units within some defenses, can engender nicknames: Doomsday Defense. Orange Crush. Killer B’s. Purple People Eaters. Steel Curtain. New York Sack Exchange. Legion of Boom.

The 2017 Bears defense doesn’t have a nickname. The reason is the problem:

“We haven’t earned one,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks.

Nicknames come with winning, and they also are reflective of a group identity. Bears haven’t won much of anything. More important than any clever moniker, however, the Bears haven’t particularly established a clear defensive identity that comes with being dominant somewhere, beginning on the scoreboard and pegged to the one stat universally cited as defining a defense.

“We need to get more turnovers,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee.  “Coach has been emphasizing that from day one and that has to be our main focus if we want to get to another level and be a dominant defense. “If you do that, people might start calling you ‘The Turnover Machine’ or something.

“But you’ve got to win some games. No matter how dominant your defense is, you still got to win games to get recognition.”

The overall has been serviceable. The Bears rank 10th in yardage allowed, the stat most used for ranking defenses but not the best for defining a defense. And turnovers by the offense have led to opponents’ points and difficult defensive situations. Of the 73 opponents’ scoring possessions last season, less than one-third (31.5 percent) needed longer than 50 yards for points. This year, that figure is up sharply: of 22 opposing possessions, nine (41 percent) have needed to go less than 50 yards.

Perhaps the absence of a collective identity shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The unit has lost its leading tackler and inside linebacker (Jerrell Freeman); its sack leader over the past three seasons (Willie Young); and its projected interception leader via free agency (Quintin Demps).

Regardless of reason, the Bears’ defense is not a ball-hawking one; they are one of only three teams (Oakland, Miami) with zero interceptions.

Theirs is not a unit that terrorizes quarterbacks. The sack total (13) is in the top 10, and the Bears are 10th in sacks per pass play. Opposing quarterbacks are posting an average passer rating of 101.5; only four defenses are being thrown on to that degree. Perhaps most alarming: The Bears are allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 45.5 percent, ahead of only Tampa Bay, Oakland, San Francisco and New Orleans. None of the five worsts on third downs have winning records.

They do not present not a run-stuffing wall, in the middle of the pack allowing a respectable but nothing-special 3.9 yards per rush and 101 rushing yards per game.

Forging an identity isn’t entirely within the control of the defense. Offenses can define themselves largely along lines of their own choosing: West Coast, run-based, vertical-passing, whatever. Defenses are tasked weekly with being the antidote to whatever offense breaks the huddle.

“We just need to be able to stop the different types of offense that we see week in and week out,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Offensively, you can do what you want, week in and week out. Defensively, we’ve got to be able to stop the various different offenses that we see from week to week. Some weeks, that’s going to be playing a lot of zone. Some weeks, it’ll be playing a lot of man. Some weeks, it’s going to be playing more of a loaded box. Some weeks, it’s not.

“I guess the identity is we need to be a versatile defense that can handle the variety of offense that we’ll see.”

Not flashy, but accurate and realistic.

Why timing of Bears quarterback change from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky was interesting

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USA TODAY

Why timing of Bears quarterback change from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky was interesting

Wringing out the notebook after the Bears’ 20-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings… .

The criticism the Bears are taking in some quarters for taking four regular-season weeks to switch from Mike Glennon to Mitch Trubisky is a little difficult to understand. A coaching staff desperately in need of wins NOW had a decision to make at the end of preseason, and the nod went to Glennon because he was judged to give the Bears the best chance to win right then. The rookie kept on developing as scout-team QB, and he was eventually going to get the job unless Glennon played to his anticipated level, which he didn’t.

This wasn’t exactly the Trubisky “plan” but sometimes things end up as they were supposed to, just their own pace instead of the anticipated one.

And coaches seldom make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of winning, even if public outcry is for something and someone else. It once took three weeks for the Bears and Mike Ditka to quit starting Bob Avellini and get to Jim McMahon. Last year the Bears staff never took leave of its senses, any more than it did last year when it took three games for coaches to decide that Jordan Howard was their bell-cow running back. Howard admitted this year that he just hadn’t been near NFL shape when the 2016 season started and it took until Game 4 before he was physically ready.

Quarterback change

The timing of the QB switch is interesting – not for how long it took, but more so how quickly it occurred. Consider it part of a bigger picture organizationally than just the quarterback position.

Glennon’s four games as starter may have seemed like a football eternity. But general manager Ryan Pace, who’d lavished a three-year, $45 million contract on Glennon, did not stand in the way of a change that effectively ended any chance that Glennon could reach some sort of equilibrium recover from his debacles. More than a few GM egos have compounded one mistake with another, forcing staffs to stay the course with a player. Ownership has undoubtedly had its questions about the signing, but Pace’s priority was for cutting his team’s losses, literally and figuratively, not proving he was “right” on Glennon.

And the Bears are far from the first team to mis-evaluate a backup quarterback and overpay to bring him in as a starter-wannabe: Packers backup Matt Flynn to Seattle in 2012, a few years after the Kansas City Chiefs gave Matt Cassel $28 million guaranteed as part of a six-year, $62 million contract after trading to get him from the New England Patriots.

Some sentiment had existed upstairs at Halas Hall for opening this season with Trubisky, an indication of just how accelerated his growth had been through training camp and the preseason. But Glennon didn’t lose the job in preseason, and in that case it made sense to start the more experienced quarterback, fully expecting Trubisky to continue developing, which he clearly did.

The benching does all but project to an end for Glennon’s time in Chicago after this season. His current 2018 base of $12.5 million is way too much for a No. 2 even if there were football reasons to keep him. An offset is in place for the $2.5 million roster bonus due on the third day of the league year, meaning whatever he signs for elsewhere reduces by that amount the Bears owe him.

The Glennon benching stamped the signing as an “official” mistake, even though NFL sources remarked that, while Glennon perhaps wasn’t expected to be much more than he’d always been, absolutely no one foresaw the abyssmal decision-making that was the biggest factor in his demotion.

But that’s all rearview-mirror stuff. Pace paid for two spins of the quarterback wheel and wasn’t stubborn about moving on from the first.

Moon: Bears fans can love 'Da Coach' and not agree with Mike Ditka's political views

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AP

Moon: Bears fans can love 'Da Coach' and not agree with Mike Ditka's political views

"So, what do you think of Mike Ditka’s comments?"

The question cropped up in more than one conversation the morning after the Bears’ 20-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. It was in reference to remarks from Ditka to Jim Gray on Westwood One’s pregame show Monday night, in which Mike declared, among other things, that he hasn’t seen the social injustice that some athletes have protested, and that "there has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of. Now maybe I’m not watching it as carefully as other people."

The problem here is where to start. Because the fact is that there are too many angles in what Mike voiced (social injustice, protest venues, disrespect) to have just one reaction, and because, perhaps surprisingly even to myself, I honestly don’t have a violent reaction one way or the other.

If that’s what Mike believes, so be it. He’s got as much right to think that as anyone who thinks the last 100 years were replete with oppression and social injustice. Mike did offer the example of Muhammad Ali rising to the top; he didn’t mention, though, that a younger Ali/Cassius Clay was denied service in one of his hometown restaurants even while wearing his Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal. But that’s digressing. Louis Armstrong or Yogi Berra (the original source is debated) famously remarked, “what some folks don’t know, you can't tell 'em."

As far as the protests, which Mike doesn’t think should be taken onto the sidelines, it’s probably not what I would do if I were standing on a sideline before a game. I might link arms with teammates (expressing unity doesn’t qualify as "protest" to me), but regardless of what I feel, I’m not going to disrespect something of immense value and pride to you. That’s just me. My choice.

(One thought/question: If every American throughout Soldier Field and in every other NFL stadium had linked arms after the events of 9/11, would that be derided as disrespectful? I doubt it. But that’s also digressing. "Disrespect" is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Donald Trump saying to Bill O’Reilly, in a conversation about Vladimir Putin being a killer, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" – I suppose that's showing respect for our nation, flag and soldiers; I'm just not seeing it.)

In fairness to Mike, he explicitly said that you've got every right to protest, and he wasn’t condemning or criticizing anybody. Also in the eye of the beholder.

I tend to second some sentiments expressed by Jack Nicklaus, who told Golfweek, “[Thoughts on the protests] is a very difficult question to answer when you ask me. Everyone who answers that question cannot properly answer it. They don’t want to disrespect the rights of the kids. And you don’t want to disrespect our country. So how do you answer it?”
 
Amen.