Cam Newton

Breaking down the play that sums up how good the Bears’ defense has been in 2017

Breaking down the play that sums up how good the Bears’ defense has been in 2017

The Bears’ defense proved to be a stout bunch through the first eight games of 2017, with major contributions coming from every unit within it. But there’s one play that stands out when evaluating just how good Vic Fangio’s group has been this year:

Midway through the third quarter of the Bears’ 17-3 win over Carolina on Oct. 22, the Panthers lined up to try to convert a fourth-and-two at the Bears’ 25-yard line. This was a pivotal point in the game: Carolina was down, 17-3, but was driving after 10 plays covering 51 yards. A first down could’ve begat a touchdown, which would’ve changed the entire complexion of a game in which the Bears were struggling to mount anything offensively.

So the Panthers called for a bread-and-butter play: QB power, with Cam Newton running behind the right side of his offensive line as well as a running back and a tight end. The 6-foot-6, 260 pound Newton is averaging 3.8 yards per carry on third/fourth-and-short downs in his career; only 28 of his 133 attempts (21 percent) in those situations have not gone for first downs. This was one of them, and it had everything to do with how good the Bears' defense -- specifically Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman -- played the call. 

This is right as Newton received the snap. Goldman is the blue arrow, blocked by right guard Trai Turner (70). Hicks is in the red circle and immediately draws a double team of tackle Daryl Williams (60) and tight end Ed Dickson (84). Leonard Floyd is the yellow arrow, coming from the edge, with running back Jonathan Stewart (28) identifying his rush. 

Goldman (blue arrow) quickly beats Turner to his inside shoulder, while Hicks takes on the double team and Floyd is met by Stewart. Danny Trevathan (black arrow) doesn't over-pursue and stays on his assignment. 

Goldman is free of Turner, Hicks doesn't give ground against the double team and Floyd beats Stewart to his outside shoulder. The play is quickly blowing up for Carolina. 

The purple circle is where Turner wound up after being beat by Goldman, who's ready to meet Newton at the 26-yard line. Carolina had to get to the Bears' 23-yard line to convert a first down. Floyd, too, now has an opportunity to get to Newton, even after Stewart gets his hands on him. And there's nowhere for Newton to push forward because Hicks proved to be immovable. 

Scene. Goldman (1) is credited with the tackle, but Floyd (2) is contributing. Adrian Amos (3), Trevathan (4) and Hicks (5) make sure there's no chance Newton can power his way forward for two yards. It officially goes as a one-yard gain and a turnover on downs. 

Here's how defensive line coach Jay Rodgers explained the play:

“(Goldman) was playing a left side shade,” Rodgers said. “Their right guard blocked down on him, he recognized the key read right there and knocked that guy back. He’s supposed to fit on the right side of that guard, but here comes Cam to the left side of that guard, he just gets rid of them and go makes the play. Now, that doesn’t happen unless Akiem anchors the double-team, and that’s what he had to do first. So those are two guys who are playing off of each other right there in a positive way.”

Here’s what Hicks saw on it:

“It was a heavy set to our side,” Hicks said. “Then they pull the guard from the back side, they take the running back through the hole and then they send Cam last, so it’s just a lot of meat coming through one area. I would say that’s a great play for their offense. That wasn’t the only time that they ran it, but we did a great job of shutting it down. Taking on those first two blocks that I did allowed guys to come around the sides and stop him before he got to the first down.”

The point here: The Carolina Panthers, a 6-3 team with a good chance of making the playoffs, ran one of its most effective offensive plays in a high-leverage situation, and the Bears stopped it. This was Carolina's best against the Bears' best. The Bears won. And that's what Fangio's defense can do. 

How a tired Bears defense shut down Cam Newton and dominated the Carolina Panthers

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USA Today

How a tired Bears defense shut down Cam Newton and dominated the Carolina Panthers

The Bears asked a lot of their defense on Sunday, and every single unit delivered in a big way. 

Midway through the third quarter, on the 11th play of a drive nearing the red zone, Eddie Goldman stuffed Cam Newton on fourth-and-2 to keep the Carolina Panthers from scoring while the Bears’ offense was sputtering to a string of three-and-outs. Akiem Hicks continued what should be a Pro Bowl season with a sack, a hurry and two tackles for a loss. Mitch Unrein teamed up with Goldman to record a sack and played well against the run. 

Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee each recorded sacks and consistently disrupted Newton. Danny Trevathan dropped Newton, too, and picked off a pass. Christian Jones was rock-solid next to Trevathan, helping limit Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey to 58 yards on 21 carries. 

Prince Amukamara tipped a pass intended for Kelvin Benjamin that fell into the waiting arms of Eddie Jackson for a 76-yard pick six; the rookie safety, of course, had that 75-yard fumble return score that set the tone for a dominant defensive day. Kyle Fuller continued to play like a shutdown corner, and Adrian Amos continued his solid play since stepping in for an injured Quintin Demps. 

This name-by-name breakdown is deserved for these players not only for their production, but for playing this well while the Bears’ defense was on the field for 38:35 and 69 snaps. 

Were these players tired?

“Heck yeah, we were tired,” Hicks said. 

But did it affect how they played?

“No,” Floyd said. “To be honest with you we were excited to go back out there, keep on executing. We just felt good today, just playing on a high level and hitting on all cylinders.”

The Bears’ defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since Jerrick McKinnon gashed them for a 58-yard run in the third quarter of Oct. 9’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive struggles this year, but the Panthers — led by Newton, McCaffrey and Benjamin — have plenty of playmakers on offense. Newton and the Carolina offensive line were bullied for five sacks and 11 hurries, McCaffrey was largely bottled up, and Benjamin managed three catches on six targets. 

“We want to be on the field, the defense,” Trevathan said. “That’s our job. When we’re put in a tough situation, we’ve got to rise, take that as a challenge. Guys coming in our backfield trying to run in our end zone? No, it’s not going to happen. It’s an attitude and it’s an execution of the plays called and being on the same page, having fun out there and making plays."

The message from the Bears’ defensive players after Sunday’s game was less about their accomplishments, though, and more about what else they can do. But the sense is this defense believes it can be the reason why the Bears can blow past their 2016 win total, which they’ve already matched. 

Still got a long way to go,” McPhee said. “Just keep building that chemistry, that bond. We got a long way to go. We ain’t really done nothing yet. It’s great, now I love it, but we just gotta stay focused, forget about this game and move on to the Saints and go take that.

“… We got a special group, man. We just gotta keep believing in the system and keep holding each other accountable and take it one play, one game at a time.”

This was already a confident group going into Week 7 — Hicks said the Bears’ defense had one of its best weeks of practice leading up to facing the Panthers — but that belief will surely grow after Sunday. If the Bears’ defense can play this well, against a good offense, while being on the field as much as they were, there’s no reason to think this level of success can’t continue. 

“We’re trying to wake the city up, bring the city back to loving the Chicago Bears,” Floyd said. “We’re just going to keep fighting, keep going in and executing. We’re looking forward to next Sunday.” 

Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

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Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw a lot of Mitchell Trubisky last year, with the North Carolina quarterback on TV quite a bit in the Charlotte area. The Panthers, set with Cam Newton, weren’t in the market for a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Trubisky nonetheless stood out to the seventh-year Carolina coach and former Super Bowl-winning Bears linebacker. 

For Rivera, more than Trubisky’s arm strength and athleticism jumped off the screen. 

“Leadership,” Rivera pointed to. “When you watch him when he was playing — I love watching guys that either get on their teammates when they’re not doing it or they take accountability when they make a mistake. And you saw that with him.

“… We think the young man has got what it takes. We like who’s he’s gonna become. We do. We think the future can be bright for him. We are big fans here.”

Trubisky took accountability for both of his turnovers against the Minnesota Vikings: The interception Harrison Smith baited him into was certainly his fault, but his sack-strip fumble was more the result of Everson Griffen jumping the snap and blowing past left tackle Charles Leno. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Trubisky also lost a fumble on a sack-strip when cornerback Lardarius Webb hit him and dislodged the ball.

Trubisky’s explanation of that fumble was that he moved off his first read too quickly, causing him to miss Webb making a beeline for him in the backfield. But according to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, that fumble wasn’t the quarterback’s fault. 

“That’s because he’s a stud,” Loggains said of Trubisky taking responsibility for it. “We screwed the protection up. We should have been sliding to the guy. The guy should not have been coming free. That’s Mitch taking a bullet that he doesn’t need to take. The reality is he saw the guy coming and tried to get over to the check down quickly but we got to do a better job up front protecting him.”

But that Trubisky was willing to say he was at fault for that fumble plays into why he quickly gained the respect of the Bears’ the locker room. That’s what a quarterback should be doing when speaking to the media after the game — accepting responsibility and deflecting off his teammates, even if he’s not at fault. That kind of stuff doesn’t go unnoticed. 

Stopping Superman

Pernell McPhee offered this goal up for his fellow defensive teammates this week: Make sure Newton stays as Clark Kent on Sunday. 

“He’s a very talented guy, but the only thing I told the defense is let's make him be Cam Newton, not Superman,” McPhee said, referring to Newton’s signature touchdown move. “We don't want him opening up the cape.”

So how does a defense stop Newton from being Superman?

“He’s a very versatile quarterback,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Obviously his running the ball, whether it be through his improvising with scrambling on called pass plays, or the called running plays they do have for him, that’s a strength for him. We can’t just focus on stopping that. We’ve gotta stop Cam Newton the passer and the runner. They’ve got good running backs they’re handing it off to and receivers and running backs he’s throwing it to, so you’ve got a total offense to stop.”

One point to note here: Newton threw three interceptions last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and had been picked off eight times this year. A Bears secondary that intercepted Joe Flacco twice last week could have some more shots at takeaways on Sunday. 

High praise

Sunday will mark Thomas Davis’ 156th game in the NFL, with the linebacker playing every one of those with the Carolina Panthers. He played for John Fox from 2005-2010. But where we’re going here is what he had to say about how the Bears run their offense with a rookie quarterback:

“I think this is probably the best running game that we’ve seen from an offense with a rookie quarterback,” Davis said. “You look at some of the other rookies that come in. Teams want to run the ball. But when you look at the physicality and the style of play that this team plays with, I think that really makes the job a lot easier for a young quarterback. So I definitely feel like that physicality in their running game is definitely going to help him out.”

The Bears ran the ball 50 times against a Baltimore Ravens defense that played a lot more Cover-2 than expected. With star linebacker Luke Kuechly out for Sunday, the Bears may try to use a similar strategy, even if Carolina loads the box more than Baltimore did (a little more than once one every three runs by Jordan Howard). 

But if the Bears’ offense is going to have success, it’s going to be behind Howard, Tarik Cohen and an improving offensive line. Maybe Davis’ comments are hyperbole, but he’s also played a lot more football than you and me.