John Mullin

Bears-Lions takeaways: A toughening route to the playoffs, a run game defying fixing?

nagy_moon_nov_12.jpg
USA TODAY

Bears-Lions takeaways: A toughening route to the playoffs, a run game defying fixing?

The Bears putdown of the Detroit Lions provided a critically important statement start to the second half of a season that now would stand as a disappointment if the Bears fail to reach the playoffs. Not so much because of the missed-playoffs themselves, but because to misfire now after a pair of three-game win streaks will mean a couple of bad losses.

Or so-called “bad” because of expectations being raised above ground-level. But the Bears face a remaining schedule with some dark corners.

The Bears haven’t beaten a team currently with even a .500 record. No reflection on the Bears; they can only play whoever shows up. But it puts the remaining seven-game race to the postseason under a cloud of justifiable doubt, leaving it to the Bears to prove they belong in the tournament that starts in January.

The schedule has three A-list games: two against Minnesota, which has won four of its last five and comes to Soldier Field on Sunday following an off-week; and one against the Rams, the highest-scoring team in the NFC.

Three games are against bottom-feeders – the Lions again, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. The problems here are: 1) all three games are on the road and 2) those teams will beat someone over the final the final seven weeks.

And the seventh of the remaining games is against the Green Bay Packers, who’ve lost all four of their 2018 road games but have a quarterback who hasn’t lost to the Bears in Chicago since 2010.

Tiebreakers are likely out of play for the division, with Green Bay and Minnesota having a shared tie. But winning the division outright seemed a given, as it does now, in 2012 when the Lovie Smith Bears had an elite defense and stood 8-3.

Run game redux

Concern over the Bears inability to run the football may come off as nitpicking or saying nay about an offense leading a team that is on pace to set a franchise scoring record.

But it does matter that of the 10 teams with six or more victories this season, the Bears, Patriots, Saints and Texans are the only ones not in the top 15 in rushing average. Houston and New Orleans, however, rank in the top 11 for rushing yardage, and New England does have Tom Brady in addition to being tied for third with 12 rushing touchdowns.

The overarching point here is if the Bears hope to challenge for a spot among the NFL’s elite, it behooves them to fix this weakness in an offense without many.

The bigger point is whether the Bears can fix it. Put another way, they may not be able to within the parameters of the offense as being designed and operated by Matt Nagy. He has a No. 1 back who needs carries to build a game, yet he is a coach who does not run his offense through a featured back.

Nagy didn’t isolate blame for his team’s running woes on Jordan Howard, the offensive line, coaches or anyone else. Nor should he, because the problem indeed lies with none of them and all of them.

With a Detroit gameday roster with five backs and three tight ends, the result was the lowest rushing total (54 yards) and average (2.5 yards per carry) of this season and came a week after the previous lows (64 yards, 2.6 yards per carry).

But the issue is more than one back (Howard). It’s the group of running backs (leaving the offensive line out of this point purposely), none of which are likely ever going to give Nagy the identity or consistent production that he wants for this element of his offense.

For one thing, no back is likely to see anywhere near the workload that ostensibly is needed to get Howard “lathered up.” Nagy doesn’t lather anybody up, and until a back emerges who can do a microwave impersonation and heat up in a huge hurry, the Bears rushing upside is hazy.

Using the template Nagy most relates to, Kareem Hunt has gotten 20 carries in just seven of 26 career games as a Kansas City Chief, only once in a 2018 season that has the Chiefs at 9-1.

Run-run-run is simply not in the Nagy offensive DNA, nor is it anything close to a dominant philosophy, even among teams who have been its leading practitioners. Nor is there a consistent formula for winning with an integrated run-pass offense.

The NFL’s three top rushers – Todd Gurley, Rams, 9-1; James Conner, Steelers, 6-2-1; Hunt, Chiefs, 9-1 – come from teams that went into this weekend running the football 46.6 percent of their snaps (Rams), 36.3 percent (Steelers) and 40.5 percent (Chiefs).

The Nagy Bears have in fact been at the high-run end at 45.1 percent, while the coach and staff have struggled for a run-game identity. But that includes nearly 30 percent of the rushing yardage coming from Mitchell Trubisky – not exactly the preferred run-game identity.

Bears stack wins (again) and stay No. 1 in NFC North with win over Lions

11-11_bears_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Bears stack wins (again) and stay No. 1 in NFC North with win over Lions

In-season accomplishments are incomplete benchmarks at best, but the Bears’ 34-22 win Sunday over the Detroit Lions had the feel of more than simply another victory for a team that in nine games has matched its best full-season win total in any of the previous four seasons.

The win, in which the Bears (6-3) exploded to a 26-0 lead before Detroit scored with one minute remaining in the first half, then overcame their own sloppiness in the second, was at the expense of a division rival, the first in more than two years. It was against the ever-enigmatic Lions (3-6), whose three 2018 wins were decisive ones over the three teams who’d beaten the Bears – Green Bay, Miami, New England, by an average of 12 points – and who’d beaten the Bears in nine of the 10 matchup games since Lovie Smith left after 2012.

“It feels good,” said cornerback Kyle Fuller. “It feels good to get any win, so we’ll take that. We’ll take that style, learn from it, get better and keep going.

It was also the first time quarterback Mitch Trubisky directed a win over a division opponent. He’d lost his first two against each of Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, with the Vikings (5-3-1) coming to Soldier Field next Sunday night after an off-week.

While the Bears maintained their position atop the division with Sunday’s victory, to stay there for the next time they meet the Lions, in Detroit on Thanksgiving, they remain tasked with winning or slipping behind the Vikings, the last NFC North opponent the Bears defeated (Oct. 31, 2016) before Sunday. In any wild-card scenarios, still meaningless at this juncture, only the Bears and Carolina Panthers have as many as six wins, other than division-leaders Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington.

The win also was the second time the Bears have “stacked” wins this season, a third straight for the second time this year. What that really means is, of course, up to the Bears: The last time the Bears won three straight twice in the same season (2010) they finished a touchdown short of the Super Bowl. But a 6-3 record itself means little: The 2012 Bears stood 8-3 and missed the playoffs.

But Sunday was marked by an unofficial marker the Bears need. Their win was led by their “best” players, the ones in which the organization has made its biggest investments of draft and financial capital:

Trubisky: 23-of-30 passing, 355 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s, 148.6 rating, the third 100-plus rating in the last six games. “I thought Mitch had his best game of the season,” said coach Matt Nagy. “Without a doubt ”;

Allen Robinson: 6 catches on 8 targets, 133 yards, 2 TD’s, first multi-TD game since Sept. 2016. “He made a huge impact,” Trubisky said. “He’s so hard to cover one-on-one. I’m going to continue to look for him.”

Khalil Mack: 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss. “Our defense becomes better when he’s in there,” Nagy said. “But our defense is pretty good when he’s not in there”;

Roquan Smith: team-high 10 tackles, 1 pass defense, a sack, third time in five weeks leading Bears in tackles.

Dominance growing?

The overall result continued a growing power statement by the Bears, who scored 23 or more points for the eighth time in nine games, missing only in the 16-14 win over Arizona. The Bears limited quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense to 305 yards, the sixth of nine opponents failing to net 315 yards against a Bears defense that produced four sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. The game marked just the third time in nine games that the Lions were held under 315.

On offense, through the end of the first half the Bears had scored on six straight possessions extending back into the final two at Buffalo. The last five of those were touchdowns, including TD drives of 75, 86 and 71 yards the first three times they had the football against the Lions. They might’ve run that string of scoring possessions to eight on Sunday but for kicker Cody Parkey missing field goals of 41 and 34 yards on successive possessions in the third quarter.

Defensively, before the Lions’ touchdown just before the end of the first half, the Bears defense had allowed just two touchdowns in the previous 30 possessions dating back into the fourth quarter of the New England game. The unit sacked Stafford six times, this in the wake of Minnesota sacking him 10 times last week.

“It’s excellent to see both sides of the ball dominant,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “Our offense, running down the field, you want to tell them, ‘Don’t score so fast, we just came off! But I think the offense has something real nice going and our defense is playing at a high level.”

Not so high on special teams. In addition to his field-goal gaffes, Parkey missing two PAT’s – all four kicks hitting an upright, and the missed field goals coming on successive possessions after the defense forced a first-down Detroit turnover.

“It can mess with you a little bit,” Nagy said. “We have trust in him, we know he’s going to make them and it’s just one of those days… . My trust is not shot at all with him.”

Compounding problems on ‘teams: After the Lions scored in mid-fourth quarter, the Bears twice failed to control an onside kick, once on an illegal-batting call against Anthony Miller for swatting the ball out of bounds, and then failing to pick up the re-kick. Detroit turned that into a touchdown and 34-22 score. The defense was able to turn aside a two-point conversion try which appeared to drain any remaining drive from the Lions.
 
Running to nowhere

If there was one nagging concern in a game where the Bears built a four-score lead, it was the continuing inability to run the football with any appreciable success. Jordan Howard accounted for just 21 yards on 11 carries (1.9 ypc) and the offense finished with 54 yards only because Trubisky was able to carry or scramble for 18 yards on three attempts.

Adding to the unsettled feel, the Bears had committed to the run even before the game, opting to keep five backs and three tight ends active. Yet the Bears were still unable to take control of game against the 31st-ranked run defense, averaging a combined 2.5 yards against a Detroit group that had been allowing 5.1 yards per carry before Sunday.

“We need to figure something out there,” said Nagy, blaming neither the running blacks or the blocking as the cause. “As we get going, as the weather gets nastier, we have to be able to run the football. It’s plain and simple.”

Ditka and Lovie were right: Bears, Nagy need to control their division first – or else

Ditka and Lovie were right: Bears, Nagy need to control their division first – or else

Cliché’ly speaking, there are no unimportant NFL regular-season games, short of ones after playoff positions are either clinched or mathematically eliminated. The simple math is that one NFL game equates to a 10-game win-or-loss streak in Major League Baseball, or about five in the NBA or NHL.

But the upcoming three games against Detroit-Minnesota-Detroit take on added significance for considerably deeper reasons than just the obvious of being division games.

For incoming Bears head coaches, division games have too often been early indicators of what the future held for them and the organization. Coaches who fail to control the Bears’ division don’t last.

For nearly 20 years, since Dick Jauron defeated the Minnesota Vikings in 1999’s game five, no first-year Bears head coach has won his first division game. That extends from Matt Nagy (game-one loss to Packers) back through John Fox (Packers), Marc Trestman (Lions) and Lovie Smith (Lions). Smith recovered; the others didn’t.

What happens next, however, is the real point. Because with rare exceptions, Mike Ditka was right with his axiomatic, “control your division, control your destiny” has proved true. Unless Nagy can begin doing just that within the next two weeks, his fate may mirror that of his unfortunate division-challenged predecessors.

And Nagy needs to be joined in this division quest by Mitch Trubisky, who stands 0-6 against NFC North opponents.

Fox opened with a Packers loss and never recovered, finishing 3-15 in the NFC North, including an 0-6 wrap last year, and was fired after three seasons. Trestman went on from his game-four loss at Detroit to a 3-9 division mark and was gone after two.

Smith was criticized for playing to the crowd when he listed beating Green-Bay as the first of his three objectives when hired in 2004. But his teams went 6-2 vs. Green Bay from 2004-07, a stretch in which his Bears were 14-10 within the division, and not coincidentally won the division twice and reached a Super Bowl. He finished a game short of a second Super Bowl in 2010 when he lost in the NFC Championship – to the Packers.

The three years the Smith Bears reached the postseason were also the three in which they went 5-1 in the division.

The main reason: Smith’s Cover-2 defense with its Brian Urlacher-Lance Briggs core “owned” Brett Favre, going 8-5 in games against the Green Bay legend. Matters turned decidedly for the worse when Aaron Rodgers succeeded Favre as the Green Bay starter and, in a dismal 6-10 first season, established a template for his Bears dealings with a 37-3 smackdown in their first meeting. (Rodgers’ arrival coincided within a year with that of Jay Cutler but that’s for another discussion.)

Rodgers welcomed Nagy to the NFC North with a demoralizing loss opening night. Next Sunday Nagy, Trubisky and the Bears will be about the task of changing rather than repeating history.

“We're trying to really create our own culture and create our own history,” Nagy said. “It's week by week; it's practice by practice.”

At 0-6, Trubisky is behind the division greats in establishing himself and his team where it matters most. By comparison, Favre’s .651 winning rate in the NFC North/Central was second only to his 72.7 percentage against the NFC West. Rodgers’ 73.2 win percentage against the NFC North, against which he is 41-15-1, is his best against any NFC division.

Nagy isn’t playing Favre or Rodgers, though. But he and his quarterback are playing to change a pattern.

“We're in such a good place right now as an organization,” Nagy said. “The vibe that we have. We're learning how to win in different ways.”

Winning in the NFC North would be a “different way.”