JJ Stankevitz

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Cowboys

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Cowboys

1. Handily win the turnover battle. 

No team has fewer interceptions than the Cowboys’ four, and Dallas hasn’t forced a turnover since playing the fumble-happy New York Giants a month ago in Week 9. Takeaways haven’t come in bunches for the Bears’ defense, but will be critically important against a Cowboys offense that’s bizarrely No. 1 in yards per play but No. 8 in scoring. 

Meaning: The Bears need to not only generate a short field or two for Mitch Trubisky and their offense, but will probably need to take the ball away from Dak Prescott and the Cowboys deep in Chicago territory. And, too, don’t throw a silly interception against a team that doesn’t get them very often. 

Do this and the Cowboys’ talent advantage is negated — as it has been for Jason Garrett’s squad in recent weeks. 

2. Don’t let your weakness get exposed on defense. 

The potential (if not likely) absence of Prince Amukamara, who’s doubtful for Thursday’s game with a hamstring injury, comes at a concerning time for the Bears. Chuck Pagano’s scheme, like Vic Fangio’s before, doesn’t have its cornerbacks travel with receivers, trusting one guy (Amukamara) to play press and another (Kyle Fuller) to thrive in off coverage. That could mean on Thursday the Cowboys are able to get star wideout Amari Cooper away from Fuller and matched up against second-year undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver II. 

Cooper already is a matchup nightmare who has 64 catches for 971 yards with seven touchdowns this year. It’s unlikely the Bears can stop Cooper, but containing him — meaning limiting his explosive plays and yards after the catch — will be critical. If Cooper gets loose, the Cowboys will have no problem marching the ball downfield against a good Bears defense. 

And even if the Bears are able to get Fuller on Cooper quite a bit, Michael Gallup is a strong No. 2 receiver, checking in with 49 catches for 796 yards this year. Toliver will need to play well and/or Pagano will need to figure out a way to consistently get him help. 

3. Give Mitch Trubisky time to throw. 

It didn’t feel like a coincidence that Trubisky’s best game of 2019 came in Detroit when his offensive line consistently gave him clean pockets and time to go through his progressions, make good decisions and step into throws. 

The Cowboys’ front is much better than Detroit’s. While edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is having a down year by his standards (five sacks), he’s still a menacing threat who needs to be contained. Opposite him is a resurgent Robert Quinn, whose 9 1/2 sacks lead Dallas. And Michael Bennett and Maliek Collins are an effective interior duo, with seven sacks despite Bennett being a midseason acquisition from the Patriots. 

Thursday night will be a critical test for the Bears’ offensive line. Pass it and this offense will have a good chance of finding success against a solid defense. Fail it and the Bears’ already-slim playoff hopes will disappear. 

Prediction: Bears 16, Cowboys 14. The Cowboys will come to Soldier Field with a more talented roster than the Bears, but that hasn’t stopped Garrett’s side from losing some gutting close games this year. Dallas is 1-5 against teams with a .500 or better record on gameday, a surely infuriating stat for a team that, truly, should be better than 6-6. But this deep into the season, the Cowboys are who they are — and that’ll crack the door open for the Bears to eke out a narrow, tough win to improve to 7-6. 

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Should the Bears go after Cam Newton in the aftermath of Ron Rivera's firing?

Should the Bears go after Cam Newton in the aftermath of Ron Rivera's firing?

The ripple effects of the Carolina Panthers’ decision to fire longtime coach Ron Rivera extend to Chicago beyond just seeing an old friend in “Chico” lose his job. It feels like the Panthers are hitting the reset button as a franchise, which seemingly increases the likelihood they move on from quarterback Cam Newton this offseason.

Could Newton’s next stop be in Chicago?

It makes sense on the surface. The Bears’ Super Bowl window may be a quarterback away from being open, even if it’s only for a year or two as the core of this roster grows older and/or more expensive. Newton has a league MVP and conference title on his resume, and if he enters 2020 healthy after appearing in just two games this season, he’d be a good bet to be an upgrade over Mitch Trubisky (and a lot of quarterbacks around the league, to be fair).

Should the Bears pursue Newton? Given how great the payoff would be for betting on his health, the simple answer is yes. But there are no simple answers in the NFL.

It would be a massive shock if the Bears were even interested in Newton this offseason, let alone managed to land him in the event the Panthers make him available. Here’s why:

1. The Bears still believe in Trubisky.

It’s fair to be skeptical of the scope and sustainability of Trubisky’s progress over his last four games — in which, statistically, he’s been a league-average quarterback — but it’s another thing to be skeptical of the Bears’ internal belief in the 2017 No. 2 overall pick.

General manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy both have had up-close looks at quarterbacks who took longer to develop success in Drew Brees and Alex Smith, and both have been dropping breadcrumbs for weeks about their long-term confidence in Trubisky.

“The past two weeks he’s made strides just with decision-making and conviction,” Pace said in an interview with WBBM-780 prior to their Week 12 win over the New York Giants. That comment came before Trubisky’s games against the Giants and Lions, both of which have been viewed as further positives inside Halas Hall (Pace does not talk to the media in-season beyond weekly in-house interviews with the Bears’ flagship radio station).

Nagy has said he’s noticed progress in Trubisky ever since the Bears’ Week 10 win over the Lions, a four-game stretch culminating with Trubisky’s 338-yard showing in Detroit on Thanksgiving.

“If you play well and you don’t have great numbers, that’s fine if you win,” Nagy said. “We want to win. That’s the No. 1 objective — are you helping your team win is the big one. Are you making the right decisions and are you making plays when you’ve been asked to make plays — and that’s not just the quarterback. That’s everybody. And so if you have a nice statistical game with that, you’re going to feel good about it because it makes you feel like you really helped the team win.”

So before this four-game stretch, the mantra was the offensive struggles and losing streak weren’t all Trubisky’s fault. Now, the drumbeat is about Trubisky’s progress.

That doesn’t sound like an organization ready to move on from the guy in which they invested so much two and a half years ago. Pace’s career is riding on Trubisky, and to an extent, Nagy’s is too. And it feels like Trubisky has done enough in the eyes of the Bears’ decision-makers to keep him entrenched as the team’s 2020 Week 1 starting quarterback.

2. The money doesn’t work.

Even if the Bears remain confident in Trubisky’s ability to start in 2020, they’d be smart to bring in a backup quarterback who can at least provide a modicum of competition for him either via a draft pick, free agent signing or both.

Alternatively, too: If the Bears were to determine they needed a new starting quarterback in 2020, they don’t have the kind of funds necessary to sign a top-tier player like Newton while still addressing other looming holes on their roster (right guard, safety and inside linebacker, to name three). The Bears can save about $10 million in cap space by cutting Kyle Long and Adam Shaheen, but doing so would only give them about $23 million in cap space, per Spotrac. 

That’s a very rough number — it could be higher or lower — but the ballpark estimate is the Bears won’t have gobs of cap space with which to work.

So in this scenario, the Bears still have to be on the cheaper side of things to create true competition for Trubisky. And that means no Newton.

NBC colleague Josh Norris is absolutely right about this:

The Bears could barely fit Newton’s $19 million cap hit for 2020 anyways, and while they could structure his contract to give themselves some wiggle room next year, chances are Newton will sign a shorter-term, high-value deal. Even a cap hit of $12 million — which is what Nick Foles’ is in the first year of his four-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars — would be pricey for a team that’s consistently said it’s not all the quarterback’s fault, hinting at the need for upgrades elsewhere on the roster.

3. Why would Newton come to Chicago?

Let’s say Newton hits free agency and the Bears decide they want to explore signing him. Given all the public support of Trubisky and Newton’s uncertain injury status, it’d seem unlikely the Bears would hand the former Heisman Trophy winner their starting gig.

And if Newton wants to resurrect his career, why would he go somewhere he’s not guaranteed to be the starter?

Newton has reportedly sent signals he’d be willing to come to Chicago, but that was during the Bears’ four-game losing streak — the current nadir of the Trubisky era. With Trubisky playing better, and with more angling from Halas Hall regarding the organization’s belief in him, it’d be an uncertain proposition for Newton to come to Chicago in an effort to spark his career.

Never say never on anything when it comes to Pace — we learned that lesson from the Khalil Mack trade — but Newton coming to Chicago feels awfully unlikely. 

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Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

The Bears identified David Montgomery as the centerpiece of their run game overhaul earlier this year, trading up in the third round to draft him with the 73rd overall pick. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, then, didn’t envision Montgomery averaging just 3.5 yards per carry a dozen games into his rookie year. 

But that’s where the Bears stand with Montgomery, who’s rushed 172 times for 594 yards as the Bears enter the final four games of 2019. It feels like Nagy trusts Montgomery, but not the Bears’ run game. 

“I’m very happy with where he’s at,” Nagy said last week. “Love the kid to death and I think he has a really bright future.”

But the Bears need to get more production out of Montgomery, whose three best games have come against bad and depleted defenses (Washington, the Chargers, the Lions). He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry in five games this year, leading Nagy — who has a quick trigger finger with going away from the run anyway — to have games like Green Bay and New Orleans where he shows no trust in the run game at all. 

But the Bears’ positive assessment of Montgomery is grounded in reality. All the things he did at Iowa State have showed up in the NFL — the shiftiness, the toughness, the patience, the vision, etc. It’s how he was able to turn this...

And then this...

... Into a 10-yard gain and a first down on the Bears’ game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The stop-start ability, patience and toughness to grind out five extra yards after contact are all reasons why the Bears wanted Montgomery, and felt comfortable trading Jordan Howard — who, based on his running style, would’ve been stopped at the line of scrimmage — to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Plays like that one are why Nagy, in the game, said he felt like the Bears were gaining five yards per carry (Montgomery averaged 4.7) — a feel which helped him open up his playbook and call more running plays. 

“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy said. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally (different). 

“You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. … It’s different every week, so we’ve gotta try to scheme things up as much as we can. But last week felt good.”

The question, then, becomes: How do the Bears get this out of Montgomery on a consistent basis, and not just against sub-optimal run defenses missing guys like Damon “Snacks” Harrison?

Part of it, certainly, is Nagy’s scheme and playcalling. Montgomery is the kind of back who can wear down a defense with his physicality, even if he’s only gaining three yards per carry over the first two or three quarters. There needs to be a greater long-term commitment to getting Montgomery touches. 

Of note: It does not necessarily mean running more under center. Montgomery is averaging three yards per carry when the Bears are under center (91 attempts) and four yards per carry from the shotgun (81 attempts), though that latter number is skewed thanks to a 55-yard run against the Chargers in Week 8. Even removing that run from Montgomery’s shotgun runs, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry in those — still higher than his under center average. 

But there’s a larger issue in play here, and it’s the Bears’ offensive line. 

It’s a problem that pre-dates Montgomery and Nagy’s scheme and playcalling, too. Pulling from Football Outsiders’ offensive line database:

3.65 adjusted line yards (28th)
58% power success (26th)
26% stuffed (28th)
1.2 second level yards (11th)

3.92 adjusted line yards (28th)
67% over success (18th)
20.5% stuffed (22nd)
0.96 second level yards (31st)

2019 (through Week 12) 
3.61 adjusted line yards (29th)
46% power success (30th)
21% stuffed (24th)
0.73 second level yards (32nd)

The pattern here: The Bears have not been efficient running the ball with different schemes and running back depth charts, though they've largely had the same personnel on their offensive line. Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie have accounted for 66.8 percent of the snaps played by Bears offensive linemen in the last three years, serving well as pass protectors but not as run blockers. 

The addition of James Daniels in 2018 did not help improve the Bears’ run game, nor has replacing Long with Rashaad Coward in 2019 under the watch of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. 

And the Bears have little wiggle room for changes to this unit in the offseason. Massie and Whitehair signed new contracts in 2019 and aren’t going anywhere. Leno carries a dead cap figure of over $7 million in 2020. Daniels’ cap hit is a shade over $1.5 million next year, too, making him a valuable asset for a team lacking gobs of cap space. 

Effectively, you can expect all four of those players to return in 2020, with the only question being where Daniels and Whitehair play on the interior. At this point in their careers, Leno, Whitehair and Massie are all who they are, for better or for worse (Whitehair, to be fair, is still one of the Bears’ best players). So expecting significant improvement from that group may not be fair, Daniels aside. 

That leaves right guard as the position up for grabs, with Long likely to be cut and Coward likely to slide into a reserve role in 2020. But how much improvement, realistically, can the Bears get out of one addition to their offensive line room?

Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the top guard free-agent-to-be, but the Bears would have to get creative — and not address other holes on the roster — to sign him to, say, a five-year, $65 million deal with $35 million or so guaranteed (he might even command more than that). Someone like New Orleans’ Andrus Peat, a former top-10 pick who’s currently out with an arm injury, could be a less-pricey — but still pricey — option, given he was a Pro Bowler in 2018. 

The Bears could also target a guard with one of their two second-round picks, seeing as they used one on Whitehair (2016) and Daniels (2018). 

It feels like the Bears need a physical brawler to play right guard, sort of along the lines of what Long was in his prime. But those guys are not necessarily easy to find, especially with limited resources. 

This is the root of the Bears’ run game problems. An offensive line consistently generating a run push would give Nagy the confidence to call more running plays, giving Montgomery more opportunities to carve out a consistent four or five yards per carry. 

But finding the solution to this problem does not appear easy. And that may mean the Bears go through 2020 without an effective run game, again. 

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