Bears

Bears at midseason: 5-3, with a chip on the shoulder after crushing Bills

Bears at midseason: 5-3, with a chip on the shoulder after crushing Bills

With their 41-9 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Bears finished their first half-season under a rookie head coach with as many wins – five – as they had all last season under John Fox. For a franchise groping and flailing in large part ever since the end of the Lovie Smith regime, reaching 5-3 at midseason represents an accomplishment in itself, at least a numerical one, if for no other reason than the Bears for a second straight week showed they can indeed win a game without a Khalil Mack or Allen Robinson.

The record isn’t the real point, though, so much as the progress, or how real that progress it actually is.

“I feel like myself and the guys on the team, we still carry ourselves with a chip on our shoulders,” said quarterback Mitch Trubisky. “We’re trying to earn that respect across the league that we are a good team in all three phases and that we can play with anybody.”

Grading on a curve: Last season the Bears lost five games by 10 or more points, down from six in 2016. With coaching and personnel changes, the Bears’ three losses this year have been by a total of 11 points. The Buffalo game was the fifth straight with the Bears scoring 24 or more points, the longest stretch since five consecutive 24-plus outings in 2011, a run that ended, along with the season, when Jay Cutler broke his thumb against San Diego.

The Bears were 5-3 halfway through Marc Trestman’s first year (2013), then lost at home the next week to the Detroit Lions (coincidentally, the Bears do happen to host the Lions next week) to begin a spiral from which they never really recovered.

Until now.

Leading one’s division means absolutely nothing at midseason. So the Bears being ahead of Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota won’t count for anything if quarterback Mitch Trubisky can’t reverse his division fortunes for the 0-6 he’s produced in his 20 games as Bears starter. He’ll get the chance to start that next Sunday when the Bears begin a Lions-Vikings-Lions schedule stretch over the period of 12 days.

And mauling a team establishes nothing as to whether the Bears are a good team or not. The Bills are a top-five yardage defense, were second in the NFL in interceptions before Sunday (they intercepted Trubisky once), and annihilated the Minnesota Vikings by 21 points.

“You have to keep on building on what you’re doing well,” said tight end Trey Burton, holder of a Super Bowl ring from last season as a Philadelphia Eagle. “Fortunately there’s a lot of things that we’re doing well right now… You know all we have to do is win. Don’t listen to what the guys are saying on the outside and focus on what we’re doing on the inside.”

For the time being, though, the Buffalo game suggests another step in the growing-up process for the Bears. This was a situation that could have fallen into the trap of the Florida Follies (Tampa Bay-Miami), in which the Bears whacked a bad team (the Buccaneers back in September, the Jets last week), then took their feet off the gas in a game against a shaky, severely quarterback-challenged team.

Nagy’s charges appeared to have learned a lesson from the Miami debacle (defensive players were talking the night before about the prospect of getting to face Brock Osweiler because of the injury to Ryan Tannehill), and simply attacked Buffalo from the outset and kept attacking.

In that respect, pounding an offense-less Bills team represented a significant midseason step forward beyond just the scoreboard. The Bears won with a pedestrian Trubisky performance (12-of-20 passing for 135 yards, the second-lowest output of his last 19 games, and his lowest rushing total (six yards) of the season. Trubisky still has some accuracy issues to work through but the problems Sunday were caused by the other side of the football.

But Trubisky, the centerpiece of so much of the Bears for ’18 and beyond, won a game when he wasn’t strikingly dominant. That alone is noteworthy.

“I cannot begin to tell you how good this [Buffalo] defense is,” Nagy said. “The No. 1 thing is we won. That always is the only thing that matters. No. 2, there were times in that game where he just led that team and he made plays when we needed him to make plays. That’s what’s most important as we go through this process with Mitch. He’s putting us in great situations. I really am just proud of him.”

This year has been a learning process, for coach and players, each getting a true sense of each other, and doing that learning in very real time, as in an NFL season. Nagy has described several steps of that process, some good, some not-so: goods being learning to recover from a devastating loss (Green Bay); learning to respond to a comeback win (Arizona); the not-so’s being not learning how to play after an off-week (Miami) or learning not to let up against a quarterback-challenged opponent (also Miami). The Bears didn’t that this time.

As for the game at hand, Sunday was a rare triumph for all three phases, with the offense scoring three touchdowns, the defense scoring two, and special teams setting one up with a 38-yard Tarik Cohen punt return in addition to two-for-two field goals by Cody Parkey. All of this despite 14 penalties. You can only play the team across from you, and thrashing a doormat is what an aspiring young team is supposed to do.

Five of the requisite division games remain on the schedule, three coming in the span of 12 days, beginning next Sunday against the Detroit Lions at home and Minnesota the next week, followed on Thanksgiving by a trip to Detroit. If there’s a concern it would be that Trubisky is 0-6 against NFC North opponents, albeit four of the defeats coming by seven or fewer points.

“I feel like we’re in a good spot as a team, but we’re also eager to get into the division play,” Trubisky said. “We’re excited to get back to work and prove ourselves in the division. We can’t wait to get back to Soldier Field to defend home field, so we feel like we’re in a good place.”

 

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Six years ago, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix recruited a three-star wide receiver recruit named Eddie Jackson to play his college ball at Alabama (Jackson, of course, played for Nick Saban as a safety). In March, it was Jackson who was recruiting Clinton-Dix, this time to play for the Bears. 

He did so with a simple message: “It’s just like ‘Bama.”

And from there, “I was ready to sign,” Clinton-Dix said. 

The friendship between Jackson and Clinton-Dix developed in Tuscaloosa and continued after Clinton-Dix became a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2014. But Clinton-Dix didn’t decide to sign with the Bears — on a cheap one-year prove-it deal — just because of the opportunity to team up with one of his friends. 

Jackson and quarterback Mitch Trubisky chatted with Clinton-Dix on his visit to Halas Hall back in March and offered another critical pitch centered around coach Matt Nagy. 

“I told him coach Nagy is one of those coaches, he lets us be us, go out there and have fun with swag,” Jackson said. “But he knew it. He was like man, I know, I’m a fan of y’all, I’ve been watching. He was on board.”

Jackson and Clinton-Dix combined for 14 interceptions since the beginning of the 2017 season, though Clinton-Dix left the Green Bay Packers via a midseason trade last year with a reputation for missing tackles (for what it’s worth, Clinton-Dix missed one fewer tackle than Adrian Amos did in 2018, per Pro Football Focus). The Bears see Clinton-Dix’s one-year deal as a win-win for all parties: The Bears get a starting safety with proven past production and playoff experience, while Clinton-Dix slides into one of the league’s most talented defenses with an excellent opportunity to rebuild his value on the free agent market in 2020. 

“I always like to focus on the positives guys have,” safeties coach Sean Desai said. “He’s shown that he’s a highly instinctual player, he’s shown that he’s got good ball skills and good range and those are traits that we’re going to develop.” 

Jackson and Amos forged a strong relationship on the back end of the Bears’ defense the last two years, with good communication between the two helping accentuate each player’s strengths. A thought here is replacing Amos with Clinton-Dix will help ease the transition for Jackson, given his friendship with his new safety mate. But there’s more that goes into a good safety pairing than a strong friendship. 

“They gotta build that communication,” Desai said. “It’s different to speak a personal language off the field and then a football language on the field. So that’s what we’re all building.”

Still, a good off-the-field relationship with Jackson got Clinton-Dix in the door at Halas Hall. And the Bears hope it can be an important part of the league’s best defense in 2018 holding on to that title in 2019. 

“I’m just glad to be on the back end with him, man,” Clinton-Dix said. “This is a special defense and I’m glad to be a part of these guys.” 

Reworking his fundamentals might be the key to unlocking Leonard Floyd's potential

Reworking his fundamentals might be the key to unlocking Leonard Floyd's potential

If new outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino was looking to make a strong impression during his first media availability on Wednesday afternoon, he certainly hit his mark. 

“I think Leonard [Floyd] as a pure, natural pass-rusher has a bigger tool box than anybody else I’m coaching right now,” Monachino said. “I want everybody to understand what I just said. The better rusher right now is [Khalil Mack] but the natural pass-rush ability, the pass-rush gene? 94 has it.” 

Comparisons to Mack aside, it’s easy to see Monachino’s point. Since being drafted out of the University of Georgia 9th overall in 2016, coaches in Halas Hall have spoken with a sense of wonder about Floyd’s athleticism. He did, after all, have the 5th-best 40-time (4.60) among OLBs at the 2016 combine. Not to mention the 3rd-best broad jump (10’7”). And the 2nd-best vertical jump (39.5). 

“His length and his explosiveness in a short space, those things negate all other disadvantages,” Monachino added. “As a power rusher at the top of the pocket, I don’t think he’s going to have any problem. I don’t think he’s ever been groomed that way.” 

OTAs are about as laid back as team-sanctioned activities get in the NFL; it’s slow-paced and conceptual by nature. Basically, it’s the perfect environment for a player who’s looking to strengthen fundamentals. For every Floyd conversation that’s started with his raw athleticism, there’s one that’s ended with his lack of production. 

“I’ve been focusing on getting better at what I’ve been bad at last year, so I’ve just been grinding,” Floyd said. “I just wanted to just really get back and learn the fundamentals. I’ve just been practicing them and trying to elevate my game.

“It’ll help me when we start in Training Camp. Just really working on my hands, playing with good technique, and learning the new defense. I’m trying to elevate myself by learning as much as I can about that.” 

It’s important to note that injuries have played a major role, as he’s missed time in each season with a concussion (2016), MCL tear (2017), and hand fracture (2018). Still, Floyd has yet to record more than 7 sacks, and that came in his rookie season. Since then, he’s had 4 and 4.5. 

“I think the sacks will come...” Monachino said. “... As he gets better at one or two things, his numbers will go up. The thing that may happen first are the effective rushes. He may affect the quarterback, he may affect the launch point, he may move a guy off the spot. The more those come on, the more productive rushes he’s going to have.” 

The Bears are banking on Floyd finding those effective rushes, quite literally. At their end-of-season press conference, GM Ryan Pace announced that they intended to pick up Floyd’s 5th-year option in 2020. They officially did so in March, and are now on the hook for for paying him $13.2 million that year. Good pass rushing doesn’t come cheap, but the Bears will be expecting more out of Floyd from here on out. He’s certainly expecting it out of himself. 

“It’s exciting, me and coach were talking about it,” he said, when asked about getting closer to his ceiling this season. “ I’ve just got to come in every day and keep working hard and it’ll payoff. So I’m coming in every day focused and trying to help the team.”