Mitchell Trubisky

Bears handling of Mitch Trubisky, run-pass balance fits a pattern as Leonard Floyd heats up

Bears handling of Mitch Trubisky, run-pass balance fits a pattern as Leonard Floyd heats up

Shaking some last crumbs out of the notebook after the Bears reached 3-4 with their 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers…

The thought that offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains somehow needs to loosen the leather restraints he’s put on quarterback Mitch Trubisky may be the head-scratcher of the weekend; more than just this weekend, really.

Set aside the mistaken notion that the only goal of the 2017 season is Trubisky’s development. First of all, that’s an objective, not a goal (winning is a “goal”); and somewhere in all this, the developments of Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair might be at least a little important, but that’s digressing...

Realize that Loggains has been the boots-on-the-ground prime mover behind the plan and program that has had Trubisky on a developmental fast track practically since the quarterback was drafted. And Loggains is a self-professed “’I like to throw it’ guy” even if John Fox isn’t, although the 2016 season is worth a look regarding the latter’s feelings about throwing. More on that in a minute.

More to the play-calling specifically: Carolina was No. 2 in the NFL in sacks and a top-10 pass defense. Baltimore is 12th against the pass and tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (10). Loggains and the offense overwhelmingly ran the football against both of those defenses.

Against Minnesota, which is a more workable 17th in passing yardage allowed, the Bears ran 56 plays. Of those, 27 were pass plays, not counting Trubisky running three times.

Fold in this perspective: Loggains was part of the Adam Gase staff in 2015 when the Bears were a 54:46 pass:run ratio offense. Last year, with the quarterback mayhem of Jay Cutler-Brian Hoyer-Jay Cutler-Matt Barkley, Loggains as OC threw the ball 61 percent of the time. Anyone who cared to look really closely at the “why” there would have seen that Loggains didn’t have an in-shape Jordan Howard early, by Howard’s own assessment, or a fully healthy Jeremy Langford late.

Meaning: Loggains has worked with what he had, both last year and now this year, when he doesn’t have Alshon Jeffery and Cameron Meredith, or Markus Wheaton (inactive for four of the seven games) for that matter, for Trubisky (or Mike Glennon) to catch passes. Fox wants an offense that, of its top five priorities, not turning the football is Nos. 1-4, and that’s what Loggains and Trubisky have given him.

The “culture” that’s increasingly evident in and around Halas Hall

Not every fun or revealing locker room quip should be reported. So when Leonard Floyd was bantering not too long ago with Akiem Hicks, the outside linebacker issued a declaration that I thought oughta stay in its corner of the locker room, at least until the young man played up to the bar he was setting for himself.

“I’m hot,” Floyd had informed Hicks, who gave every appearance of dismissing the boast as the overly self-hyping rant of a second-year NFL pup, more intent on finding a missing sock than indulging the youngster. “I…am…hot,” Floyd repeated to ensure that Hicks was on notice.

The good-natured by-play was more than just a little smack.

Floyd and Hicks have a friendly but definitely intense sack competition, Floyd has had four sacks over the last four games, to which Hicks has to up his game with four sacks over the last three. But for Floyd, his year heated up with his first 2017 sack, at Green Bay.

“It was that sack – when I sacked Aaron Rodgers – I felt ‘hot,’” Floyd said on Sunday after the Carolina win, in which Floyd was credited with four tackles, one for loss, and two quarterback hits. Floyd did sack Rodgers last season at Green Bay, forcing a fumble that Floyd recovered in the end zone. But “I didn’t have any sacks going into Green Bay [this year],” Floyd said, “so when I sack Aaron Rodgers, I know I can sack anybody."

Not that Floyd is superstitious or anything, but “I’m still wearing the same cleats I wore in that Green Bay game,” Floyd added, rummaging through his bag and extracting the well-worn, good-luck footwear.

Winning makes everything a little more relaxed, although conversely, actually “playing” football not uncommonly leads to winning as well. Whichever is cause and which is effect, something is noticeably different inside a team that not too long ago too many had been given up for NFL dead.

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5. 

View from the Moon: Another sign of culture shift evident within emerging Bears team

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AP

View from the Moon: Another sign of culture shift evident within emerging Bears team

Just win, baby. That really is the whole point, or maybe points – the scoreboard points, not the style points. On Sunday, however, the defense in the Bears’ 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers accounted for enough of both kinds of points for the Bears (3-4) to matching their win total of last season, and in the process win two straight games for the first time since mid-2015.

How much or what it really means, though, as was the case with the Bears’ win at Baltimore a week ago, will have to play out in New Orleans next Sunday. Because the last time the Bears stacked two victories, it got them to 5-6 in John Fox’s first Bears year, whereupon Robbie Gould missed some field goals and the Bears went into a two-year death spiral, fueled by a year of quarterback turmoil. “I don’t know if [the 2016 win total] is really a benchmark for us, to be honest,” Fox deadpanned.

But that was then, this is now. And a lot is different. A lot. Because in the past handful of weeks, which have seen victories over Baltimore and Carolina after a failed final possession with a chance at a winning score over Minnesota, the Bears have seemed to be pulling up from the death spiral that followed the last time they won two straight.

“We’re definitely trying to change the culture,” said linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose first-quarter sack of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was Floyd’s fourth in the last four games. Right now, it is difficult not to sense the culture change, regardless of whether the Bears go into their off-week 4-4 or 3-5.

One of the hallmarks of success, in fields far beyond just football, is to win when you’re not performing anywhere close to your best. Everybody does well when they’re “on” and cylinders are firing. Winning when they’re not is another matter.

And the Bears won a game Sunday despite their quarterback taking as many sacks (four) as he had completed passes – this after winning a game (Baltimore) in which Mitch Trubisky threw away almost as many passes (six) as he completed (eight). Probably a pattern that neither he nor the Bears are looking to as some weird winning formula, but if they can win when they don’t play well, just maybe… .

This time at least the Bears managed to close out a game in the standard 60 minutes, which was critical since the defense was on the field more than 30 minutes as it was, while holding Newton and the Panthers to three points. This marked the first time since midway through Newton’s rookie season (2011) that Carolina has been held to that few points, a span of 94 games.

“We didn’t score [a touchdown] as an offense, and defense carried us so we kind of felt salty that we didn’t help out more,” Trubisky said. (Consider that another small culture tweak – in eight years of Jay Cutler and, before that, Kyle Fuller and Brian Griese and Rex Grossman, “salty” was never an accusation anyone would have leveled at the offense, win or lose).

Credit Trubisky with candor and accuracy. The defense did indeed carry the offense, holding Carolina out of the end zone and in the process making it nine-plus quarters and 29 straight opposing possessions that have ended short of the end zone, extending back to Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon’s TD run in the third quarter of the Minnesota game.

It wasn’t always elite on defense. In the course of the first four games this season, the Bears defense allowed nine scoring drives of 60 yards or longer; over the past three games, a total of just two. 

Pulling the camera back to look at more than just the defense:

To put this in some sort of NFL context: No Bears opponent has been below .500 at the time they faced the Bears (Atlanta and Tampa Bay hadn’t played before they faced the Bears). This was not only the Bears’ third win; it was their third win over a team with a winning record (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Carolina) at the time the Bears faced them. 

Sunday was not without its obvious concerns, big ones in fact.

For the second straight game, Trubisky was sacked four times. This time he appeared to take sacks rather than throw balls away as he did in Baltimore, but Trubisky was still unofficially the only starting NFL quarterback completing less than 50 percent of his passes, and his 4-for-7 day only managed to pull him even at 50 percent.

And an offensive line with a supposedly elite interior-three and a left tackle recently given a contract extension has been complicit in Trubisky taking nine sacks over the past 11 quarters. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, that would be nine sacks in the last 46 drop-backs, although some of those were admittedly Trubisky electives.

“We had more plays called [Sunday], I was just pulling them down, being conservative and taking sacks,” Trubisky said. “I was just trying to play smart, protect the football and get out of here with a win.”

That would be the informal football Gospel according to John Fox, so Trubisky is indeed learning; the downfield fireworks will come when they come. And the Panthers did come into Sunday ranked No. 2 for total sacks in the NFL.

In the meantime, the Bears could go into their off-week following New Orleans within a game of first place in the NFC North, if next weekend they defeat the Saints (4-2) and Minnesota (5-2) loses. The latter isn’t terribly likely given that the Vikings play Cleveland, but the game is in London and the Browns do have to beat SOMEBODY (don’t they?).

Regardless, that’s the math of it all, and the Bears have played themselves back from the abyss to this point. And they clearly are looking forward, not back.

“Guys just know we have a good chance of winning every week,” Trubisky said. Maybe that’s the biggest culture change taking place.