Bears

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

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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.

Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

The Chicago Bears offense was uninspiring once again Sunday night in the team's 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. While they could've had another six points had kicker Eddy Pineiro connected on two early-game field goals, it still wouldn't have been enough to win the most important game of the season.

After 11 weeks (10 games), the Bears rank 28th in points per game with 16.9. To put their brutal season in perspective, the New York Jets, who've been atrocious this year, are averaging 16.4 points per game.

Essentially, Matt Nagy has coached Chicago's offense as effectively as Adam Gase has coached the Jets'. 

Still, it's worth acknowledging strong individual performances in the midst of an overall letdown, and in Week 11's loss to the Rams, it was running back Tarik Cohen who stood tallest among his Bears' offensive teammates.

Cohen posted Chicago's highest Pro Football Focus grade on offense with a 74.3. He logged 45 snaps, 10 more than David Montgomery, and was effective when he touched the ball. He totaled 74 yards and a touchdown on 14 touches en route to being the Bears' most effective running back against a tough Rams defensive front. Montgomery managed just 31 yards on 14 carries.

Cohen hasn't had the kind of season that was expected from his role as a do-it-all offensive weapon; he's way behind his normal pace of production as both a runner and receiver. Cohen had 99 carries for 444 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 71 catches for 725 yards and five scores in 2018. He's on pace for just 186 rushing yards and 402 receiving yards this season.

Still, Sunday night's effort was a step in the right direction for him and a sign that he may continue to get more touches as the season comes to a close.

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

During the Bears’ 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, quarterback Mitch Trubisky suffered a hip pointer, an injury that involved monitoring by the coaching and medical staffs from halftime on. Kicker Eddy Pineiro was missing field goals to the point of appearing to affect his coach’s decision-making. The offense was sputtering – again – and the defense, after some early takeaway success, appeared to be sagging emotionally. There were issues at tight end. Aaron Donald had to be accounted for and blocked.

All of which and more was on the head of Matt Nagy, now all of 27 games into being an NFL head coach, and who late in the game needed to stop and have a heart-to-heart, heads-together talk with his quarterback about how he was feeling.

The “and more” on Nagy’s head continues to include calling the individual plays for his bad-and-getting-worse offense.

So Nagy spent a chunk of his morning taking a hard look at whether defenses are on to him, presumably personally as well as schematically. And some of that hard look was whether he indeed should continue being the play-caller in the wake of the offense running 74 plays, netting 7 points and failing to gain 300 total yards for the ninth time in 10 games.

For now, after that look in the mirror, Nagy will remain in control of the play sheet.

“What I would say is this,” he said, acknowledging that if he felt he was the problem, “I’ll be the first to tell you, then we need to be better or if there’s a rhythm to something.

“I have zero ego and I have zero care of giving play-call duties to somebody else. I really do not care about that, and if that’s what we feel like from going through it that that’s what we need to do, then I would do that, I really would.

“But when you go through the tape and you look at things and you know schematically where we’re at and what we’re calling and when we’re calling it…. There’s without a doubt a few plays in that game that I would go back and say, ‘You know what, that’s our fault. We didn’t scheme it right,’ and that starts with me. And I need to be able to accept that and know how do I fix that. But we’ll do everything we can … we’re turning over every stone to get this thing right.”

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