Bear PAWS: Zero is the key against Broncos in Week 2

Bear PAWS: Zero is the key against Broncos in Week 2

Going from football "hero" to a quarterbacking "zero" is a fate most NFL quarterbacks potentially face weekly. Currently, Mitchell Trubisky is under media and fan scrutiny due to a lackluster performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Chicago-Green Bay is the NFL's most historically celebrated rivalry, and their matchup was chosen as the spotlight game to open the league’s 100th season. The Bears scored zero touchdowns at home on national television. Ouch!

The Denver Broncos have a new head coach and it is the Bears' former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Even first-year head coaches are not immune to criticism when losing to a bitter foe as Denver did to the Raiders on Monday Night Football. So, with the Bears and Broncos charting zero wins, just how significant does the number zero become in changing their fortunes? Let’s use P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Statistics) to dig out an answer.

A total of 16 first-time NFL head coaches were hired between 2017 and 2019, selected from a professional pool of offensive and defensive coordinators. The league trends toward picking offensive coordinators to helm franchises, believing innovative scoring methods are key to winning in today's game. Yet former defensive coordinators like Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, and others have won 10 of the last 15 Super Bowls, suggesting that defensive-minded coaches know how to derail high-powered offenses.

Typically, a first-time head coach does not hire a coordinator opposite his expertise with zero NFL experience in that position. Last year, new head coach Matt Nagy kept the veteran Fangio as his defensive coordinator, and this season Matt LaFleur of the Packers retained defensive coordinator Mike Pettine on his staff. This year there are three teams (Bengals, Dolphins, and Broncos) taking a less conventional path toward their recent hires. Each team lost last week.

Vic Fangio has zero NFL experience as a head coach and his choice for an offensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello, also has no pro experience in his new role. Scangarello spent some time in the NFL as a quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers, learning offensive schemes under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Last year, Scangarello was the offensive coordinator for college football's Wagner Seahawks, an FCS school with a 3,300-seat stadium, and they averaged 26 points per game. Fangio, on the other hand, is a widely-respected defensive guru that has orchestrated some of the best NFL defenses of this decade. Against the Raiders last Monday, the vaunted pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb recorded zero sacks and Scangarello's offense had zero rushing touchdowns.

For the past few years, both the Bears and Broncos have been known more for outstanding defenses than their inconsistent offensive production.

During the 2018 season, the Broncos recorded a sack in every game, totaling 44 quarterback takedowns on the year. However, when Von Miller (their best pass rusher) didn't get a sack, Denver had an 0-5 record.

Conversely, in games last year where Khalil Mack went without a sack, Chicago finished with a 5-2 record.

Both Miller and Mack shared a strange quirk, in that neither had a sack in Weeks 16 or 17 of the 2018 NFL season. Miller's Broncos finished with two losses, while Mack's Bears went 2-0 in those weeks and made the playoffs. This season, they once again share a stat line of zero sacks. The only difference this time is that both teams have zero wins.

Zero has been a more intimidating number for Bears opponents than for Chicago itself since last season.

The Bears held teams to zero rushing touchdowns 12 times, going 8-4 in the process. More impressively, the Bears were 5-0 when they allowed zero passing touchdowns. Chicago forced more turnovers than any other team last season, but when they committed none themselves, they had a 4-0 record. The Bears defense is key to their continued winning, but Trubisky must be the focal point if they are to ascend to Super Bowl contender status.

As a starting quarterback, even going back to college, Trubisky has lost his first start of each season, going 0-4. To his credit, Trubisky has won the very next start each time so far. Nine times in his professional career, Trubisky has thrown zero touchdown passes, winning 44% of those games. When he's thrown at least one or more, he has won 61% of those contests.

Trubisky must repeat his trend of winning after losing an initial start because going 0-2 in the NFL is hazardous to one's playoff hopes. Since 1990, when the league expanded to a 12-team playoff format, only 13% of teams make it to the second season when they lose their first two games. Only 16 teams since 2002, when the league went to eight divisions, have gone to the playoffs after losing their first two games, an 11% rate. Come Sunday, one of these two teams will be staring at zero wins and two losses, consequently looking at an uphill battle to make the playoffs.

The Bears will win.....

- if they keep Von Miller sack-less.  Denver is 0 - 6 since 2018 win he's without a sack

- should their pass defense prevent a passing TD ( 5 - 0 in 2018 )

- if Trubisky continues his trend of improving after season-opening losses

The Bears' run game hasn't been good. Yet in a weird way, it's also why they win

The Bears' run game hasn't been good. Yet in a weird way, it's also why they win

Is the Bears’ run game working? 

It’s a simple (fine, lazy) question that, however binary, continues to have a complicated answer. It quickly became pretty clear that the David Montgomery-Tarik Cohen combination would be a work in progress, and on the surface, neither have particularly impressive stats thus far. The team ranks 29th in rushing DVOA and only the Dolphins (3-10) and the Jets (5-8) have a lower average yards per carry than the Bears (3.5). 

But check this out: The Bears are 7-2 when they rush the ball 20+ times. They’re winless (0-4) when they run it any less.

“For our offense, I just appreciate the way that our guys have continued to just fight through this year and try to figure out where we're at,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “I do feel a lot better with where we're at right now as an offense. That part, that's good, and that's a credit to our guys.” 

The obvious talking point when it comes to the Bears’ running woes has been Tarik Cohen’s decline in production. As a rusher, he’s on pace to set career worsts in yards per attempt (3.1), yards per game (12.1), and attempts per game (3.2). The analytics are brutal too: according to Pro Football Focus, his Yards After Contact per Attempt (YCO/A) is under 2.0 for the first time in his career; Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric says he’s 18% less effective, per play, than the average NFL running back. 

Before the Bears’ Week 12 game against the Giants, Nagy talked at the podium about wanting to get Cohen more touches. “Trust me,” he said. “Just like everybody, we want to do everything we can to get 29 going. He’s a playmaker and every time he’s on the field, even if he doesn’t touch the football, the defense has to know where he’s at.”

That Sunday Cohen would have 9 targets and six rushes. Since then? 10 targets and six rushes. 

“Teams are doing a good job game planning for him,” running backs coach Charles London said. “I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but every time he’s out on a route, there’s a lineman trying to hit him. He’s usually double-teamed. They’re usually trying to stay on top of him so he can’t go deep. Teams have done good jobs scheming him, but we’ve just got to continue finding ways to give him the ball.” 

Cohen was never meant to be the feature back, and his struggles to regain that explosive form is felt far more in the pass game than it is on the ground. He’s having a weird year as a pass-catcher: he’s on pace to set a career high in receptions per game (4.6), but his yards per game (25.4) is barely half of what it was last season, as is his yards per reception (5.5). As well as any stat can, this one says it all: Cohen had a 70-yard play in each of his first two seasons. This year his longest play, so far, has gone for 31. 

“It’s just about moving the chains,” London added. “It may be a three or four yard route, but maybe it’s third-and-three and we move it and get another set of downs. I think that’s the biggest thing – obviously we’d like some more explosive plays there, and we’ve got to do a better job as coaches of getting him those touches. But as long as we’re moving the chains, we’re good with it.” 

There’s also no denying that Cohen’s usage coincides with David Montgomery, who’s on pace to get more carries in his first season (roughly 265 by back-of-napkin-math) than the Bears gave Jordan Howard in 2018. Montgomery’s season started slowly, but the rookie had his breakout game (27 rushes, 135 yards and a touchdown) against the Chargers in Week 8, and most recently has strung together back-to-back games averaging over 4.0 yards per rush for the first time in his career. 

“I think it’s just him seeing the holes,” London said. “I think he’s done a good job, especially the last 2-3 weeks, of just seeing how the line is blocking and getting a feel for how the game’s going, getting a feel for how the run’s being blocked. I think he’s done a really good job of it the last few weeks.” 

Running the ball isn't what Nagy was hired to do – or wants to do – but it’s hard to say the ground game isn’t working when the Bears are a far better team when they commit to it. 

“I think that just right now, what the feel is with our offense is that it's not just the running back, it's not just the quarterback, it's not just the O-line,” Nagy added on Monday. “Everybody is just kind of syncing right now.” 

Bears' Anthony Miller earning Mitch Trubisky’s trust at the right time

Bears' Anthony Miller earning Mitch Trubisky’s trust at the right time

With Mitch Trubisky playing tentatively at times this season, the automatic assumption was that the problem was entirely with the Bears quarterback.

That’s not entirely true.

“Don’t surprise your quarterback” is a wide-receiver commandment, and the fact is that Trubisky was hampered early this season by his receivers’ poor routes, drops or both all too often. That led to sacks, incompletions and interceptions.

Anthony Miller, for instance, was called out for running an improper route against the Rams in Week 10 that resulted in an interception. That was, however, the moment when a light appeared to go on for the second-year receiver. His subsequent increase in targets indicates that Trubisky is trusting him more. Miller was targeted 30 times over the season’s first nine games, 37 times over the past four. In the Bears’ win over Detroit on Thanksgiving, Miller was targeted a season-high 13 times. He caught nine of those throws for 140 yards.

“I think with every receiver, the timing and the trust comes with experience,” head coach Matt Nagy said going into the Dallas game. “There's a little bit of trust that gets earned over time. So the more plays you have with that guy, the more trust you'll get in particular routes.”

Miller’s emergence over the past month has offset Taylor Gabriel’s diminished presence due to concussion issues. Plus, the early success of newfound tight ends J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted has given Nagy more play-calling options.

And all the Bears’ pass catchers are doing a better job of, well, catching passes. Every one of the team’s nine main pass receivers has a catch percentage 60 percent or higher. Last year Trubisky’s targets included Josh Bellamy (56 percent), and star receiver Allen Robinson was sub-60 (58.5 percent).

“Going back to last year, it was our first year in this offense,” Nagy said. “All these routes and the different coverages you get take time. So, yeah, there's a little bit of trust that gets earned over time. It's starting to develop more and more with more receivers on our team.”

None more than with Anthony Miller.

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