Carolina Panthers

Can the Bears make enough plays to beat the Carolina Panthers?

Can the Bears make enough plays to beat the Carolina Panthers?

Everything changed for the Bears after going up 17-3 last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Mitchell Trubisky’s 27-yard touchdown to Dion Sims was immediately followed by Bobby Rainey running a kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown, then the offense was bogged down with three fumbles (two lost) on three consecutive possessions. 

But Adrian Amos seemed to seal the game with his 90-yard pick six — that is, until Michael Campanaro ran Pat O’Donnell’s punt back 77 yards for what wound up being a game-tying touchdown after a two-point conversion.

The point is the Bears should’ve cruised to a comfortable win last week; a few critical mistakes didn’t allow that to happen. The Bears haven’t led at the end of the fourth quarter this year, a pretty strong indicator they haven’t played a complete game yet despite having two wins. 

The Carolina Panthers have road wins over the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots this year, and only lost to the Philadelphia Eagles by five points last week (despite Cam Newton throwing three interceptions). The bet here is the Bears keep things close on the backs of a strong defense, but either can’t make enough plays or make too many mistakes to win. 

Prediction: Panthers 20, Bears 16

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

mitchtrubiskybears.png
USA TODAY

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

Mitch Trubisky is no longer an NFL secret (well, maybe a little one, after only two games). Now the real intrigue shifts in significant measure to what the rest of the NFL is going to do about him.

Because while the Bears have/had a plan to bring his development along at a measured pace, the rest of the league, beginning with the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, has quite a different plan in mind.

What do the Panthers (and others) have waiting for Trubisky?

The Baltimore Ravens presented a Cover-2 look on 40 or so of the Bears' 75 snaps, something “on film we really didn't see any of that at all, so it was really surprising for them to come out in that two-high shell,” Trubisky said. “Our plan was just to run them out of it.”

A simple NFL operating philosophy is to find out and understand what an opponent likes to do and does best, and then take that away from him. Trubisky is very good on the move; colleague JJ Stankevitz uncovered the fact that Trubisky against the Baltimore Ravens had the longest average time in a play of any NFL quarterback, meaning he works well out in space and extends plays.

The math from there isn’t especially complicated: A quarterback who is accurate and comfortable getting outside the pocket, extending and improvising plays, is someone to be kept inside the pocket, ideally one collapsing around him. By using a mush-rush, for instance, a controlled assault on the pocket without edge rushers selling out for max pressure and focusing on lane integrity, a defense potentially takes much of Trubisky’s mobility out of play. This is a common strategy against Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and mobile quarterback who is as or more dangerous when flushed from the pocket as he is in it.

A “Chico Plan” then?

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has done bad things to Bears quarterbacks and comes from an attack-dog mindset as a member of the 1985 Bears. He learned from then-coordinator Buddy Ryan that a prime directive of the defense is to simply get to the quarterback.

Rivera and then-coach Lovie Smith differed on the use of blitzing, with Rivera on the side of crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war. After Rivera was excused from his job as Smith’s defensive coordinator, he went to San Diego as Chargers linebackers coach and opened the 2007 season against the Bears blitzing, sacking and harassing Rex Grossman in a 14-3 San Diego win.

The next time the teams met, in the 2010 preseason opener, Rivera was by then defensive coordinator, and he had the Chargers blitzing Jay Cutler from the outset on the latter’s only series, sacking Cutler with a corner blitz on just the seventh play of the game. Not exactly gentlemanly conduct for preseason openers.

But if the past is prologue, Rivera’s past should be revealing to Trubisky.

Scouting Trubisky

But how do the NFL and the Panthers in particular scout Trubisky with a body of work consisting of just two regular-season games?

Rookies with little pro time on tape are scouted from their college play. The Bears took looks at Carson Wentz’s North Dakota State play before they faced Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles in game two last season. That was out of some necessity, since Wentz played 39 snaps in the Eagles’ first preseason game and not again until opening day after he’d been installed as the starter following Sam Bradford’s trade to Minnesota.

Predictably perhaps, Wentz powered the Eagles to a 3-1 start with 100-plus passer ratings in three of his first four games. Teams progressively adjusted and Wentz had only two games with ratings in the low 90’s the rest of the season, none better. He had seven TD passes and one interception through the first four weeks, then nine TD’s and 13 INT’s the rest of the way.

“You go back and look at his college film if you don’t have much film from the NFL,” said linebacker Sam Acho. “You may see that he moves well in the pocket or likes to move outside or whatever. But Mitch played in the preseason and now has played a couple games. It wasn’t like Wentz which was the first game or two of the season.”

Attention is indeed less likely to be paid to Trubisky’s college body of work for the simple reason that he did play extensively through the preseason, with 126 snaps and 53 pass attempts, the most of either for any of the Bears’ four quarterbacks through preseason. But Trubisky happened to play his college football at the University of North Carolina, down the road from Charlotte, so “we remember Mitch mostly because of what he did when he was here at UNC-Chapel Hill,” Rivera said. “We got to watch all 14 games and we were impressed. 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.”

Guessing that Chico wasn’t including next Sunday.

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

The Bears winning a road game against a perennial playoff contender, one with a winning record coming in – that’s great.

Winning in Baltimore with a rookie quarterback in only his second NFL appearance – that’s terrific.

Generating more takeaways than giveaways and netting points from them – that’s just outstanding.

And now what?

Because too often under John Fox the Bears have posted a victory and failed to have it mean much of anything because of what followed a week later – a largely self-inflicted loss. The Bears have not posted consecutive wins since midway through the 2015 season, and even then proceeded to unravel on by squandering opportunities sitting squarely within their grasp.

Why should this time be any different? Because if it’s not, and the Bears again fail to stack even one win on top of another, then a dominating performance against the Baltimore Ravens (leaving out special teams, which surrendered in two plays more points than the defense did in 14 entire Baltimore possessions) becomes another meaningless afternoon in the overall for a team determined to reinvent itself.

Coaches typically divide seasons mentally into quarters, and clearly in Fox’s mind, Sunday was part of a different quarter from the 1-3 first quarter. “Really it takes almost four games, it’s almost like the preseason anymore, where you kind of get it figured out,” Fox said. “So just developing that confidence, usually good things have to happen to gain that confidence. And we did some good things.”

But the Bears have done “some good things” in games past and it becomes much ado about nothing, sound and fury signifying less than nothing. So again: Why should this time be any different?

Two reasons, actually. Neither absolute, but neither very complicated, either.

Reason No. 1: Trubisky

Without making too much out of one individual player, the chief reason arguably lies in the person of Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback who already has palpably changed the psyche of a previously languishing team.

“The team didn’t make nearly as many mental errors this week because of his patience,” said wide receiver Kendall Wright, who supported Trubisky with a leaping catch of 18 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Unlike Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer and 2016 Jay Cutler, each of whom won one game and one game only over the past 22, Trubisky delivered the ball security of Hoyer with added impact that none of his predecessors did manage, or arguably even could have managed.

Put simply, the Bears do in fact have a quarterback who even at this point appears able not only to make plays as drawn up, but also to create something out of nothing or at least avert catastrophe.

“Mitch made some great plays,” Fox said. “I mean, if you look at the snap over his head in the end zone, there’s probably only five or six or seven quarterbacks in this league that could get out of that. I go back to the touchdown pass to Dion [Sims, tight end]. He flushed [from the pocket], we adjusted and he dropped a dime in the end zone for a touchdown. And the play obviously at the end where more than likely if we don’t get that, we’re probably punting, the play he made to Kendall. I think Mitch played outstanding… .

“Those are really good decisions. It beats six interceptions, for sure. There’s a 3rd-and-3 play in the red area, low red, sprint out to our left. It wasn’t all perfect but he did the next best thing and that’s throw it away. So those are really, really good decisions that I think sometimes the casual or un-casual fan does not see.”

The noteworthy element in Trubisky’s game was the impact achieved by a Bears quarterback who completed all of eight passes. The reality is that Trubisky doesn’t need to attempt more than 20 passes a game (including the four sacks his protection allowed, which absolutely needs to be fixed).

For perspective purposes: Ben Roethlisberger in his first two seasons averaged 17.4 and 15.9 passes per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship game and won the Super Bowl in those two seasons, running an offense that was just short of 60 percent runs.

Reason No. 2: Mistake reduction

A mistaken notion as to how improvement happens is the belief that it comes from just getting better and better, skill sets rising to the loftiest heights.

Not necessarily. Anyone who has had the good fortune of working their golf handicap down knows that the stroke reductions come less from suddenly adding 30 yards to drives or developing a draw on a 200-yard three-iron, than from eliminating the fluffed pitch shots, the approach shots pushed into traps, the drives into the woods. Cut down the mistakes and good things happen.

So it is with the Bears, who effectively lost the Minnesota game by allowing a 58-yard TD run by Jerick McKinnon, and sealed it with a poor Trubisky pass on a possession with a chance to tie or win. They lost the Atlanta game simply by dropping passes. They aren’t as good as the Green Bay Packers – at least not until Trubisky reaches full extension and proves to be a challenge to Aaron Rodgers.

But only in the Atlanta near-miss did they self-destruct with fewer penalties (four) than they did at Baltimore (five). Sunday was the first time since Atlanta that they threw zero interceptions. And the defense limited the Ravens to three third-down conversions out of 18, one indicator of fewer breakdowns on the most important down.

“As long as we eliminate those mistakes that we’ve been making,” Fox said, “we’re gonna be right there going into the end of the game.”

The Bears have had positive spikes in the past and then collapsed; even after winning three of four in late 2015, the inept home losses to San Francisco and Washington were arguably a tipping point in the Fox era.

The point next Sunday against Carolina is to determine if the Bears are through with their one-and-done ways.