Bears' defense must be wary of Washington's play action, even without a good run game

Bears' defense must be wary of Washington's play action, even without a good run game

A core tenant of football’s analytics revolution is that an offense does not need to establish the run to be effective using play action. The 2019 version of Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington has been a perfect example of that thought.

Only three quarterbacks entered Week 3 with a higher passer rating on play action than Case Keenum’s 145.8 clip. And he’s done it while his offense has averaged 2.5 yards per rushing attempt (30th) and 37.5 rushing yards per game (also 30th).

“Jay Gruden does a great job of creating a great offense and scheming against certain opponents,” Bears safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who played with Washington last year, said. “We just have to be good with our eyes, pay attention to the little things.”

It seems unlikely that Washington will be any better running the ball on Monday night against a dominant Bears front seven — even with Bilal Nichols (hand) all but assuredly out — than they were in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.

Adrian Peterson, a healthy scratch in Week 1, is Washington’s No. 1 running back with 2018 second-rounder Derrius Guice on injured reserve. Left tackle Trent Williams, one of the best run blocking tackles in the NFL, is still holding out. And the Bears are allowing a shade under three yards per carry, good for sixth in the league (and two of the teams ahead of them played the tanking Miami Dolphins).

But that doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be susceptible to getting beat on play action. Part of what makes Washington’s play action so good is the respect around the league for Peterson, who defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano quickly pointed out is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer the team still needs to take seriously.

The Bears stopped the run effectively against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, yet still were beat on a deep ball following a play fake, too. Safety Eddie Jackson pointed to Aaron Rodgers’ deep heave to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in Week 1 — safety Deon Bush bit on play action on that chunk gain — as something the back end of the defense can’t let happen again.

“You've just got to keep your eyes in the right spot and play your keys and just focus in on your job or your man,” Jackson said. “If you've got man, they do a lot of things where they're you know chip-blocking, somebody free releases late or things like that to try to get you off your mark. We've just got to stay on top of our keys and play with discipline.”

Keenum has attempted three passes over the middle that traveled at least 40 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hitting rookie speedster Terry McLaurin on one for a 69-yard touchdown in Week 1. The 31-year-old Keenum is 7/13 on passes traveling at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with all seven of those completions coming over the middle. It's not just the deep balls where he's had success, it's the intermediate throws, too. 

So there will be a decent amount of pressure on the back end of the Bears' defense on Monday night, even if Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan etc. are making sure Peterson isn’t a legitimate threat.

“They do a great job of selling the run on their play action with their offensive line,” Pagano said. “(Washington offensive line coach Bill) Callahan does a great job coaching those guys so it opens up big cavities in the big spaces between your second and third levels. And then you get one-on-one, big post routes, you know what happened to us in the first game against Green Bay.

“… They do a great job of it so between the run game, the play action, the boots, the waggles, the throwbacks, the screen game it's difficult. Because if it's not there then he checks it down and everybody's turning, they've got their backs turned and they're trying to find all those crossers and then they hit a back on a checkdown and you're having a hard time trying to get him on the ground.”

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Washington QB Jacob Eason has the confidence Bears need

Washington QB Jacob Eason has the confidence Bears need

General manager Ryan Pace made it clear Tuesday from the NFL Combine that the Chicago Bears will add competition to the quarterback room this offseason. They'll have a chance to accomplish that goal in the 2020 NFL Draft, especially in the second round where Washington's strong-armed gunslinger Jacob Eason is expected to come off the board.

Eason is considered one of the more naturally gifted passers in the 2020 class with an arm that ranks alongside Oregon's Justin Herbert, who's projected to be picked in the first seven selections. So why is Eason more likely to be a second-rounder?

“There are little nitpickers here and there," Eason said Tuesday from Indianapolis. "They nitpick about [my] speed and the pocket awareness, footwork, all of those things. There are things [I] need to work on and there’s always room to improve.”

One thing about Eason's game that there's no debate on is his right arm, which will instantly be one of the strongest in the NFL in 2020. He models his game after another big-armed quarterback who spent nearly two decades haunting Bears fans.

“A guy like Brett Favre. A guy like Peyton Manning. They are both big inspirations,” Eason said. “I like the way they play the game. Their toughness and competitiveness; those are the guys I modeled my game after.”

There's no doubt Eason would offer the Bears more of a pure passer's skill set; there's no comparing his arm talent to Mitch Trubisky, who routinely struggled to place the ball on target on deep throws in 2019. Eason would instantly expand Matt Nagy's playbook and make downfield chunk plays more realistic.

Confidence is important too. Eason, who said he's stressing the confidence he has in his arm during team meetings at the Combine, isn't afraid to take shots downfield. Trubisky, on the other hand, doesn't play with that killer's instinct. And as we saw last season, it impacts the overall effectiveness of Nagy's system.

This Eason discussion assumes, of course, that he's on the board at No. 43 overall. A big week in Indianapolis could skyrocket his draft stock into the first round; there's been some speculation that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could even take him at No. 14.

Adding a player like Eason would create one heck of a storyline for training camp and a quarterback battle that would likely end with the rookie as the victor.

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't come across as a guy willing to go down in flames with his decision to sign tight end Trey Burton back in 2018 when he met with the media at the NFL Combine on Tuesday. Instead, he confirmed the Bears will be heavily invested in the tight end market this offseason, both in free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said of this year's available tight ends. "It’s deep in different areas. That’s an area of focus for us, I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end, so we’re exploring every avenue."

It's hard to envision a scenario where Pace would be willing to travel down the big-money free-agent path again, but Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper could be too tempting to pass up.

Atlanta confirmed on Tuesday Hooper will be allowed to test the open market, and if he ranks high enough on Pace's wish list, we could be setting up to see a $10 million per year offer. It may seem like a waste of resources to tie that much money up in the tight end position (he and Burton would cost the Bears close to $20 million in 2020), but they experienced just how limited Matt Nagy's offense is without a capable playmaker at the position. Hooper would fix that.

The cheaper alternative for Pace to upgrade at tight end would be the draft, where several quality prospects will be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Players like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, FAU's Harrison Bryant and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could all be available when the Bears are on the clock, and all three of them would represent a marked uptick in talent for the depth chart.

Pace is being logical and rational when it comes to his evaluation of the tight end group. It's especially impressive considering the top two options currently on the roster -- Burton and Adam Shaheen -- were hand-picked by him and cost Chicago a top-of-the-market free-agent deal and a high draft pick (second round, 2017). 

Pace has a great opportunity to right his wrongs at tight end over the next couple of months.