Bears

Bears stack wins (again) and stay No. 1 in NFC North with win over Lions

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USA TODAY

Bears stack wins (again) and stay No. 1 in NFC North with win over Lions

In-season accomplishments are incomplete benchmarks at best, but the Bears’ 34-22 win Sunday over the Detroit Lions had the feel of more than simply another victory for a team that in nine games has matched its best full-season win total in any of the previous four seasons.

The win, in which the Bears (6-3) exploded to a 26-0 lead before Detroit scored with one minute remaining in the first half, then overcame their own sloppiness in the second, was at the expense of a division rival, the first in more than two years. It was against the ever-enigmatic Lions (3-6), whose three 2018 wins were decisive ones over the three teams who’d beaten the Bears – Green Bay, Miami, New England, by an average of 12 points – and who’d beaten the Bears in nine of the 10 matchup games since Lovie Smith left after 2012.

“It feels good,” said cornerback Kyle Fuller. “It feels good to get any win, so we’ll take that. We’ll take that style, learn from it, get better and keep going.

It was also the first time quarterback Mitch Trubisky directed a win over a division opponent. He’d lost his first two against each of Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, with the Vikings (5-3-1) coming to Soldier Field next Sunday night after an off-week.

While the Bears maintained their position atop the division with Sunday’s victory, to stay there for the next time they meet the Lions, in Detroit on Thanksgiving, they remain tasked with winning or slipping behind the Vikings, the last NFC North opponent the Bears defeated (Oct. 31, 2016) before Sunday. In any wild-card scenarios, still meaningless at this juncture, only the Bears and Carolina Panthers have as many as six wins, other than division-leaders Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington.

The win also was the second time the Bears have “stacked” wins this season, a third straight for the second time this year. What that really means is, of course, up to the Bears: The last time the Bears won three straight twice in the same season (2010) they finished a touchdown short of the Super Bowl. But a 6-3 record itself means little: The 2012 Bears stood 8-3 and missed the playoffs.

But Sunday was marked by an unofficial marker the Bears need. Their win was led by their “best” players, the ones in which the organization has made its biggest investments of draft and financial capital:

Trubisky: 23-of-30 passing, 355 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s, 148.6 rating, the third 100-plus rating in the last six games. “I thought Mitch had his best game of the season,” said coach Matt Nagy. “Without a doubt ”;

Allen Robinson: 6 catches on 8 targets, 133 yards, 2 TD’s, first multi-TD game since Sept. 2016. “He made a huge impact,” Trubisky said. “He’s so hard to cover one-on-one. I’m going to continue to look for him.”

Khalil Mack: 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss. “Our defense becomes better when he’s in there,” Nagy said. “But our defense is pretty good when he’s not in there”;

Roquan Smith: team-high 10 tackles, 1 pass defense, a sack, third time in five weeks leading Bears in tackles.

Dominance growing?

The overall result continued a growing power statement by the Bears, who scored 23 or more points for the eighth time in nine games, missing only in the 16-14 win over Arizona. The Bears limited quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense to 305 yards, the sixth of nine opponents failing to net 315 yards against a Bears defense that produced four sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. The game marked just the third time in nine games that the Lions were held under 315.

On offense, through the end of the first half the Bears had scored on six straight possessions extending back into the final two at Buffalo. The last five of those were touchdowns, including TD drives of 75, 86 and 71 yards the first three times they had the football against the Lions. They might’ve run that string of scoring possessions to eight on Sunday but for kicker Cody Parkey missing field goals of 41 and 34 yards on successive possessions in the third quarter.

Defensively, before the Lions’ touchdown just before the end of the first half, the Bears defense had allowed just two touchdowns in the previous 30 possessions dating back into the fourth quarter of the New England game. The unit sacked Stafford six times, this in the wake of Minnesota sacking him 10 times last week.

“It’s excellent to see both sides of the ball dominant,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “Our offense, running down the field, you want to tell them, ‘Don’t score so fast, we just came off! But I think the offense has something real nice going and our defense is playing at a high level.”

Not so high on special teams. In addition to his field-goal gaffes, Parkey missing two PAT’s – all four kicks hitting an upright, and the missed field goals coming on successive possessions after the defense forced a first-down Detroit turnover.

“It can mess with you a little bit,” Nagy said. “We have trust in him, we know he’s going to make them and it’s just one of those days… . My trust is not shot at all with him.”

Compounding problems on ‘teams: After the Lions scored in mid-fourth quarter, the Bears twice failed to control an onside kick, once on an illegal-batting call against Anthony Miller for swatting the ball out of bounds, and then failing to pick up the re-kick. Detroit turned that into a touchdown and 34-22 score. The defense was able to turn aside a two-point conversion try which appeared to drain any remaining drive from the Lions.
 
Running to nowhere

If there was one nagging concern in a game where the Bears built a four-score lead, it was the continuing inability to run the football with any appreciable success. Jordan Howard accounted for just 21 yards on 11 carries (1.9 ypc) and the offense finished with 54 yards only because Trubisky was able to carry or scramble for 18 yards on three attempts.

Adding to the unsettled feel, the Bears had committed to the run even before the game, opting to keep five backs and three tight ends active. Yet the Bears were still unable to take control of game against the 31st-ranked run defense, averaging a combined 2.5 yards against a Detroit group that had been allowing 5.1 yards per carry before Sunday.

“We need to figure something out there,” said Nagy, blaming neither the running blacks or the blocking as the cause. “As we get going, as the weather gets nastier, we have to be able to run the football. It’s plain and simple.”

Under Center Podcast: Shedding light on the Bears new DC from the golf course

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Shedding light on the Bears new DC from the golf course

Former Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt joins Luke Stuckmeyer and Bears insider JJ Stankevitz from the golf course in sunny Florida to shed light on his recent conversation with new Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano (1:30), Ed Reed's Hall of Fame belief in Eddie Jackson (3:00), whether he'd prioritize Bryce Callahan or Adrian Amos in Free Agency (6:15).

Plus how he'd handle the Cody Parkey situation, since he had a similar experience with Jim Harbaugh when he was coaching the Bears (9:30).

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Under Center Podcast

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Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

2018 depth chart

1. Akiem Hicks
Usage: 16 games, 74.1 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $10.1 million cap hit

Hicks is one of the very best interior defensive linemen in the NFL, leading all players at his position with 34 run stops (defined by Pro Football Focus as tackles that constitute a loss for the offense) while contributing eight sacks and 53 pressures. He finally earned the Pro Bowl bid he’s deserved for years and will remain an anchor of the Bears’ defense as it transitions from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano. That he played nearly three-quarters of the Bears' defensive snaps, too, is a testmant to A) how tough is was to take him off the field and B) how well he conditioned himself to be able to play that much. 

2. Eddie Goldman
Usage: 16 games, 52.5 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $7.55 million cap hit

With so much star power highlight reel appearances surrounding him, Goldman perhaps was under-appreciated outside the walls of Halas Hall. But inside the Bears’ facility, Goldman’s impact was celebrated. His ability to absorb interior double teams allowed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to shoot gaps and each rack up over 100 tackles, and coupled with Hicks few teams were able to effectively run the ball on the Bears. 

While Goldman indeed only played a little over half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, that was possible because of good depth behind him. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers — the lone position coach holdover from Fangio’s staff — crafted a plan that allowed Goldman to stay healthy, fresh and effective all season. With Pagano keeping the Bears’ 3-4 base scheme, Goldman will still have a highly important role a year after signing a four-year, $42.04 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. 

3. Roy Robertson-Harris
Usage: 16 games, 33.6 percent of defensive snaps, 27.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Robertson-Harris’ 28 pressures tied for fourth on the team behind the three guys you’d expect to be ahead of him (Khalil Mack, Hicks, Leonard Floyd). He was a disruptive presence able to play just about every defensive line technique, and he used his 6-foot-7 length to bat down two passes, too. 

Robertson-Harris will turn 26 in late July and could still have some untapped potential as a defensive lineman, a position he switched to only a few years ago. 

4. Bilal Nichols
Usage: 14 games, 31.2 percent of defensive snaps, 5.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $644,870 cap hit

Nichols came up with one of the biggest plays in the early part of the Bears’ season when he dropped Cardinals running back for a three-yard loss on third-and-two just after the two-minute warning, with Arizona driving in Bears territory. From there, Nichols was good for a few plays per game, immediately fitting in as an adept rotational player a few months removed from being a fifth-round pick.

Nichols tied with Robertson-Harris for fifth on the team with four sacks, and in Week 17 he thoroughly terrorized Minnesota’s offensive line: Four hurries, two hits and one sack (after the sack, he mimicked the “Viking Clap” to a largely empty U.S. Bank Stadium). Ryan Pace appears to have unearthed a solid contributor in Nichols, someone who will be a key part of the team’s defensive line rotation again in 2019. 

5. Jonathan Bullard
Usage: 16 games, 28.3 percent of defensive snaps, 15.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,026,630 cap hit

Bullard hasn’t quite capitalized on the potential that led Pace to draft him in the third round back in 2016, and was passed on the depth chart by Robertson-Harris and Nichols last season. He’s adequate against the run and his cap hit is low enough for him to stick on the roster in 2019. 

6. Nick Williams 
Usage: 2 games, 4.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Williams won a camp battle to secure a roster spot, but only appeared in two games (Week 1 and Week 9). 

7. Abdullah Anderson
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bucknell alum and 2017 Patriot League defensive player of the year hung around the practice squad in 2018, and will get a shot at sticking in that role in 2019. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 3

Between Hicks, Goldman, Robertson-Harris and Nichols, the Bears have four strong contributors to their defensive line rotation. Add Bullard in there and the “need” lessens, though defensive line is one of those positions where you can never have too many bodies. 

Previous grades and needs: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | OL

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