Bears

A Bears' offense lacking results needs to hope messy start to 2019 is an early-season mirage

A Bears' offense lacking results needs to hope messy start to 2019 is an early-season mirage

DENVER — Through two games, the Bears’ offense hasn’t shown any evidence of being better in Mitch Trubisky’s third year in the NFL, and in its second year running Matt Nagy’s scheme. 

If anything, it’s looked worse than it did in 2018.

Yes, the Bears won on Sunday, beating the Denver Broncos, 16-14, in what might’ve been a season-saving victory. But teams were 2-16 in 2018 when their quarterback passed at least 25 times and averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per attempt. Trubisky completed 16 of 27 passes for 120 yards on Sunday, good for a paltry average of 4.4 yards per attempt. The Bears were incredibly lucky to escape Colorado with a win.  

“We know we’re not where we want to be as an offense,” Trubisky said. “I’m not where I want to be as quarterback, but you use these games and these wins as momentum to keep getting better and finding ways to win and keep improving our skills.”

Papering over the issues that arose over the game’s first 59 minutes and 51 seconds was the clutch 25-yard strike Trubisky fired to an open Allen Robinson, which set up Eddy Pineiro’s game-winning 53-yard field goal as time expired. That play came on a do-or-die fourth and 15, and Trubisky climbed the pocket well and bought just enough time to connect with Robinson over the middle.

It was reminiscent of the connection he had with Robinson at the end of January’s wild card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, only this time, his kicker made the kick.

“I’ve always been taught that quarterbacks are evaluated by how they finish games and what they do,” Nagy said. “So, this is again one of those games that you saw where there just happened to be some more runs that went on. We tried to control Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, two guys that are real game changers. We wanted to make sure that we controlled them.

“We wanted to get back to throwing the ball a little bit, but when the time presents itself to throw the ball, we will do that. For me, I’m just proud that he made that throw at the end.”

The Bears’ offensive balance was monumentally better than it was in Week 1, with 28 handoffs standing against 27 drop-backs for Trubisky (those numbers don’t account for RPO decisions, but safe to say, Nagy’s playcalling was indeed balanced). David Montgomery looked better than his 3.4 yards-per-carry average may indicate, while a well-designed toss to Cordarrelle Patterson gouged 46 yards — easily the Bears’ most explosive play of 2019.

And credit Nagy and his offensive brain trust for scheming Miller and Chubb out of making an impact — Miller was invisible, and Chubb’s most notable play was a dodgy roughing the passer penalty that helped move the Bears closer to field goal range in the dying embers of the fourth quarter. Those two players accounted for 26 1/2 sacks in 2018, and the Bears’ offensive line can head back to Chicago feeling positive about the impact they made Sunday. 

So the Bears’ offense did show improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, though the bar was awfully low. And it still wasn’t exactly good Sunday — one touchdown and three field goals is not what this team needs if it’s serious about making the playoffs again, let alone reaching the Super Bowl.

The best-case scenario is that the Bears’ offense will be significantly better in Week 7 and Week 11 and Week 15 as it develops an identity. The Bears won an uninspiring 16-14 game against a bad team out west last year — Week 3 over the Arizona Cardinals — but at least before that they showed the ability to sustain a certain level of offensive competence.

Through two weeks, the most competent drive the Bears had was powered by nothing but running plays. Otherwise, this offense has been a mess.

Nagy and Trubisky have time to figure this out, especially with a suboptimal Washington side awaiting them a week from Monday. Few teams are lucky enough to form a season-long identity in the first four weeks of the regular season (remember when the New England Patriots lost to the Detroit Lions last September?) and the Bears can point to that fact as a reason for hope about this offense.

But right now, it’s all about hope. Because the results haven’t shown much of anything to provide hope.  

“Nothing in the NFL is easy at all, especially early in the season when you’re trying to figure out who you are,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said. “That’s why there’s 16 games and 17 weeks.”

 

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(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

Cam Ellis

1. Akiem Hicks has a sack on the first series of the game
The Packers have the best pass-blocking unit in football, and Aaron Rodgers is averaging something like three seconds per dropback to throw. Still, there are going to be far more one-on-one matchups on the line because of his return, but I imagine the Packers' are still focused on stopping Khalil Mack first and foremost. With so much attention to both edges – because you'll remember Leonard Floyd is basically Khalil Mack against the Packers – Hicks is going to get some single-man looks. Hicks gets to Rodgers somewhere on the Bears' first defensive series, and the upset is off. 

2Kyle Fuller finally connects on jumping a route ... twice 
It feels like Fuller's been painfully close to a pick-six a bunch of times this season. There was the one in Denver, and in Los Angeles, and the latest came against Dak Prescott last Thursday night. I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting one or two also. At one point, he's going to connect, and the weirdest possible moment would be against a quarterback that doesn't throw interceptions that plays on a team that doesn't turn the ball over. We'll say only one goes for a touchdown, but if tomorrow gets weird, it's going to get weird. 

Rob Schaefer
1. Khail Mack logs three sacks in Akiem Hicks' return
Our long national nightmare is over. Akiem Hicks is back, and with him, could come an unleashing of Khalil Mack the likes of which we haven’t seen this season.

We’ve written about the impact of Hicks’ presence on Mack’s production before. The theory is simple: With another all-world talent eating up the inside of opponents’ offensive lines, teams have less capacity to focus extra attention on Mack. Granted, the Bears have gotten decent production along the line this season in the form of Nick Williams (six sacks), Roy Robertson-Harris (10 QB hits) and flashes of Leonard Floyd. But this week, the potential is there for their pass rush to return to its 2018 form, and that starts with Mack.

The Packers have the fourth-highest PFF pass block rating (79.4) in the NFL and Aaron Rodgers is notoriously slippery, which is what makes this prediction bold. But Mack has been trending up recently (two of his 7.5 sacks and six of his 13 QB hits have come in the Bears’ last three games). Perhaps the return of Hicks will push him to new heights.

2. David Montgomery has his 2nd 100+ yard rushing performance of the season.
If there’s a soft spot in this Packers defense, it’s in the heart of their front seven. On the outside, Preston and Za’Darius Smith are often used to edge-rush and contain — roles they’ve been effective in — but the two backers in the middle of their base 3-4, Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson, both enter this one with average PFF grades (as do defensive ends Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster). Frank Clark is, admittedly, a beast, but again… Bold predictions.

As a team, the Packers allow the eighth-most rushing yards per game (122.8) in the NFL, and Matt Nagy has displayed intention in establishing the run as the season has worn on. With conditions set to be frigid and Montgomery coming off his third game with 20+ rush attempts of the season last week against Dallas, a breakout from him is plausible. 

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

All week, reporters at Halas Hall tried to get Matt Nagy and the Bears to compare who they were during Week 1’s game against Green Bay to where they are now. And all week at Halas Hall, Matt Nagy and the Bears wouldn't bite. 

“We're both different. They're a little bit different, we're different,” Matt Nagy said. “They did a great job both as players and their coaches, so like I said yesterday, it feels like a while ago and that's why you play. You have a 16-game season and in division you get two chances. We'll just do everything we can to put it behind us and try to be better.” 

Different might be an understatement. Gone are Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. The Starting-Center-James-Daniel experiment is over, and Mike Davis is playing in the NFC South now. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton – though the latter didn’t play in Week 1 – are on IR, too. Normally, losing two starting tight ends, a ‘starting’ running back, and the entire right side of the offensive line means you’re spending the last month of the season scouting for 2020. Instead, the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a path to the playoffs still in front of them. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now. We’re a different team,” Mitch Trubisky said. “There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. 

“I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 15 has been the play of Trubisky, who looked like he was headed for a clipboard in 2020 before regaining his form over the last month or so. His comfortability in the offense is night and day compared to some of the struggles he went through during the first half of the season. If you ask him – which, duh, we did – he’ll tell you he’s felt the most growth off the field. 

“I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside,” he said. “Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence.” 

The 14-week turnaround isn’t all about confidence, as Nagy 202 has morphed into something not expected but effective nonetheless. The running game has stabilized and they’ve found successful plays out of 4 WR sets – even if one of those receivers is Montgomery/Tarik Cohen. In Week 1? Montgomery had six rushes and the Bears ran two plays out of 10 personnel. Nagy said that he thought something clicked on Trubisky’s touchdown pass to Ben Braunecker against the Lions. 

“There's something there,” he said. “We felt it a little bit in the Chargers game, we just weren't effective in the red zone. But because we won the [Lions] game it magnifies it a little bit more … And then we just kind of started putting things together and I think over time we've just felt like it's just started to click. I don't know if it's specifically one play or not but that's probably my best guess.” 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team prepares for what Nagy calls a “cat-and-mouse” game against Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who perhaps knows Trubisky better than any other opposing coordinator in the game. 

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” he said. “And they’re even better now with how they deploy those guys, and it’s kind of a perfect, perfect storm of scheme and talent, and the guys on the back end help them out too.” 

The Bears are playing with a looseness that might come from essentially being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but oddly, it continues to work for them. And when you have to go play Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau with your season on the line, you don’t question what works. 

“I love it. You want to go against the best all the time,” said Akiem Hicks, who was taken off IR and will start on Sunday. “If you’re a true competitor, you want the best competition.”