Bears

The Bears have issues moving the ball downfield. But what – or who – is the key to fixing that?

The Bears have issues moving the ball downfield. But what – or who – is the key to fixing that?

The Bears have a big play issue. 

They had a big play issue last year, when they finished 29th in the league in plays of 20+ yards (39). It wasn’t a lack of trying, either – per NFL’s Next Gen stats, in 2018, Mitch Trubisky ranked 10th in the NFL in Intended Air Yards (IAY), with an average of 8.8 per attempt. However, when it came to Completed Air Yards (CAY), Trubisky came in 15th (6.0). 

It doesn’t tell the whole story – and there’s probably a decent case to be made that some of Trubisky’s deep ball troubles are overstated – but what the stats don’t cover, the eye test does: through the first two games of Nagy 202, the offense isn’t any more explosive than it was last year. In fact, it's probably even less so. 

“We need to make more plays period,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “And that's on all of us…” 

It may be on everyone, but it starts with Trubisky. Through two games, the third-year QB is averaging roughly the same IAY (7.9). The problem, though, is that he’s averaging almost two yards less per completion (4.0) this year. His Average Air Yards Differential (AYD) is -3.7, which is the third-worst in football. The only ones higher are Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick. 

All in all, it’s just a fancy way of saying that Trubisky’s struggling to make big plays happen with his arm. But if teams are going to see how Green Bay and Denver sat their safeties back and dared him to throw the ball downfield, how do you adjust to that?

“There’s plays in your playbook to go after the Cover 2 safeties,” Matt Nagy said. “You gotta be able to run the ball. When they have less guys in the box, they have seven guys in the box, you gotta be able to run the ball. So, that’s answer number one, and any coach will tell you that.

“Then the second part is being able to protect -- they’re in Cover 2 for a reason, they’re protecting the shots down field. There’s ways to scheme it and if they take away the deep balls, you go ahead and you hit the intermediate throws.” 

Those intermediate throws are where receivers not named Allen Robinson come into play. As of Friday afternoon, Taylor Gabriel has three receptions on the season. Anthony Miller has one. Getting those guys involved – and not having to count on Robinson’s 13 yards per reception to get you down field – will be how the offense unlocks some more of the potential those around Halas Hall have been talking up all offseason. 

“It's kind of always an early season deal where hey, these two guys are doing something, what about these guys, what about that guy,” Helfrich added. “I think that'll all come. I think [Miller] from a mental standpoint in this last game did a great job. He ended up playing a lot of reps and played well.” 

Bears to activate Akeim Hicks off IR on Saturday

Bears to activate Akeim Hicks off IR on Saturday

The return of Akiem Hicks is upon us.

In a widely expected the move, the Bears activated Hicks off injured reserve on Saturday. Hicks is be eligible to play Sunday against the Packers.

Hicks suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 5 against the Raiders. He hit IR on Oct. 15, where players are required to spend a minimum of eight weeks before returning, per NFL rules.

The Bears defense hasn't been the same with Hicks out, and during his absence, linebackers Danny Trevathan (elbow) and Roquan Smith (torn pec) have both gone down with injuries.

Simply put, Hicks is a much-welcomed return for the Bears.

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Three keys and a prediction: Bears at Packers

Three keys and a prediction: Bears at Packers

1. Don’t let Aaron Rodgers beat you. Really! 
You’d think this goes without saying, and yet here we are, going and saying it. There’s some truth to the counter-argument, I guess: Rodgers hasn’t thrown for more than 243 yards since mid-October, and over the last 2-3 years, his QBR has leveled out well below where it was when he was tearing the souls from every other NFL team’s body. It helps when you have Aaron Jones and the 4th-ranked (DVOA) rushing attack, but I just find it hard to believe any Bears fan can look at this game and think they have a better chance to win if they let Rodgers throw the ball 40+ times. Over his career, he’s averaged more yards per game, and has more touchdown passes, against the Bears than any other NFC North opponent. Getting Akiem Hicks back, even in a limited fashion, obviously helps on both fronts. If the Bears are going to be comfortable putting the ball in someone’s hands and hoping they don’t beat them, maybe don’t make it the first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback who has a history of humiliating your franchise? 

2. Give the ball to David Montgomery and let him cook. 
Montgomery’s finding a groove, evident by the fact that he’s been given more rushes and gained more yards in each of the Bears’ last three wins. I’ve probably hammered this point a half dozen times already this season, but the Bears are 7-2 when they run the ball 20+ times. 7-2! And they’d be 8-1 if Eddy Pineiro hit the game-winning field goal against the Chargers. And while you could probably find one or two moments in most NFL games that swing the outcome, the bigger point remains: the Bears’ run game isn’t pretty, but they win when they commit. It’s also going to be like, four degrees out and the Packers’ have the 26th-ranked run defense (DVOA) in football. Run the ball! 

3. It’s just a football field – treat it like that. 
The Bears talked at length this week about how the spectacle of Week 1’s Bears-Packers game kind of got to them, and that they were disappointed with how players and coaches seemed shell-shocked for much of it. Now think back to Week 1 of 2018, when the Bears let a big halftime lead slip away. Since then, Nagy’s admitted that the moment may have been a little big for him that night, too. And frankly, there’s so much noise and so many narrative retreads during Packers Week, so it’s not exactly hard to blame them. It’s a lot easier said behind a keyboard than done on a (cold, so damn cold) field, but if the Bears want to find themselves in bigger moments down the road, they’ll need to minimize the one coming on Sunday. 

Prediction: Bears 27, Packers 24 (OT)
I don’t think the Bears are going to make the playoffs, and I think if you got them in a moment of honesty, they’d agree and admit they’re playing these last three games for pride. That’s not a slight against them at all – they’ve looked legitimately better across the board over the last month. The Packers don’t seem like a 10-3 team to me; they’re a 7-5 team according to their Expected W-L, football’s version of baseball’s Pythagorean formula. Their best win of the season came against a Chiefs team that didn’t have Patrick Mahomes. And while this game means everything to Chicago, there is actually not a whole lot on the line for Green Bay: per FiveThirtyEight, the Packers’ odds of winning the division currently sit at 93%. A loss would drop that to 86%. There are fair gripes out there about what Nagy’s shown as a play caller though two seasons, but these types of motivational situations are where he does his best work. The Bears get their biggest win of the season, and are rewarded with a week of Pat Mahomes prep.