Bears

Chris Simms says the Bears' offensive struggles make the defense, Khalil Mack easier to gameplan for

Chris Simms says the Bears' offensive struggles make the defense, Khalil Mack easier to gameplan for

What a difference a year makes.

On November 14, 2018, the Bears — with a record of 6-3 — were riding a three-game winning streak into a Week 10 matchup with division rival Minnesota Vikings. They would go on to win that game, and the next one, en route to an eventual 12-4 regular season record and NFC North title. The offense was humming, the defense was dominant and, at the heart of it, their best player: Khalil Mack.

But 2019 has been a different story. Heading into Week 10 of this season, the Bears are 4-5 and living in a reality where every game is a must-win. A sputtering offensive attack, helmed by the increasingly-maligned duo of Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy, has catalyzed struggles across the team — including a half-step back for a defense that once appeared unassailable. They are still one of the league’s best, but not quite the death star of a unit they were in 2018.

Though many of his stats are comparable to his 2018 pace (outside of raw sack totals), Mack, specifically, hasn’t wreaked the same kind of havoc this season as he did last. Recently, NBC Sports NFL analyst, Chris Simms, posited a few theories for that development:

“In the big picture of the Chicago Bears: In general, when you’re not playing from a lead ever, to where the team playing against Chicago goes, ‘Oh man, we’re down by 14 or we’re down by 20. We gotta start throwing the football more,’ you know, those were the opportunities last year where Khalil Mack and the Bears were in control of the game,” Simms said.

“When you’re playing the Chicago Bears right now, you gameplan and you go, ‘Ok, what’s the big picture here?’ We’re not scared of their offense, so you can play it conservative on offense when you are playing the Bears,” he continued. “We know the one way we can lose to the Bears this week is if we let Khalil Mack get off on us, and we try to throw complete passes down the field, and then stripe-sack[s], fumbles and things happen.

“Within playing the Bears, most teams go into the games with conservative offensive gameplans because they don’t trust that the Bears offense is going to be able to move the ball a whole lot on their defense, and it’s short passes and things like that to where one guy that may be able to ruin a game on a weekly basis… Khalil Mack kind of gets taken away in those circumstances.” 

Opposing offenses have also been able to devote even more attention than usual to Mack in the form of double-teams and chips, given the increasing amount of injuries the Bears have sustained in their front seven — a fact Simms also acknowledges.

“[Mack] really creates a lot of attention,” Simms said. “And without Akiem Hicks there, a lot of offenses don’t have to worry about that beast in the middle and we can focus on our attention [to] let’s not let 52 ruin the game for us on that side.”

With the loss of Danny Trevathan on Sunday, that special attention Mack receives is only like to increase.

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Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

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USA Today

Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

Roquan Smith’s season is over. 

During his Monday morning press conference, Matt Nagy announced that Smith did in fact tear a pectoral muscle and will be placed on injured reserve. 

“[It’s] unfortunate for him,” Nagy added. “He’s really putting together a good year. But he’ll bounce back and that’s that.” 

Not only did Smith’s injury come at the worst possible time for the Bears – two of their last three games are against NFC North rivals on the road – but the injury ends what was the best extended run of play in the second-year linebacker’s career. He'll undergo surgery to fix the muscle, and the timeline for his return is still unclear. 

“I really thought you felt him – especially here in the last several games – really turning it on, really playing fast,” Nagy said. “He’s always had that – every play that he gets, every game that he plays, for the rest of his career, he’s only gonna get better and better in my opinion.”

Comparing his two seasons on paper would suggest that Smith regressed after a Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. It's remarkable that he may still finish the season as the team leader in tackles, not to mention the fact that he was on pace to eclipse last season's stats. He would have needed a few more big games, but going into Thursday night, Smith had logged double-digit tackles in four of his last five starts, including a career-high (16) in their Thanksgiving win just a week before. He finishes 2019 with 100 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 12 games played.

“One thing you can say about Roquan is he will run sideline to sideline,” Akiem Hicks added. “I mean, he just has a pair of wheels on him that just won't stop. That's one of the things that separates him is he can get anywhere you need him to be, whether it's coverage or chasing a running back in the flats. It's pretty impressive.”

Nagy and the Bears talked at length on Monday about the ‘ebb and flow’ of an NFL season, especially as it pertains to younger players. He was quick to dismiss the idea that the mysterious-now-bordering-on-infamous personal absence, which caused Smith to miss Week 4’s win over Minnesota, in any way negatively affected how the organization views Smith’s year-to-year progress. His toughness has never been questioned – Prince Amukamara admitted that he was pretty confident Smith tore the muscle several plays before he came out – and coaches have been pleased with how he stepped up as a leader, especially in Danny Trevathan’s absence. 

“Well last year, coming in missing training camp and then being a rookie with an experienced defense – that can be challenging and he did a good job,” Nagy said. “Then coming into this year, you could sense his personality – you could see it extend a little bit more. You could see the relationships he had with those guys. You could see Danny Trevathan really take him under his wing and that was very important. So he's a guy that's really been growing …” 

And now the Bears head into the three straight weeks of playoff games that aren’t playoff games with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis as their starting inside linebacker duo. It’s a far cry from what the envisioned in Bourbonnais, but Kwiatkoski has earned himself more money every week, and as his top-grade performance against the Cowboys showed, KPL is no slouch either. Pierre-Louis is in line to make only the second start of his six-year career when the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday. 

“Once again, it’s just going back to knowing your ‘Why,’” Pierre-Louis said. “Why you grind each week, why you do the drills, why you go through the reps in practice. It’s times like this when you lean on your brothers. Ro’s down right now, and he’s going to need us for moral support…

“We have the right pieces. I just have to make sure that I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

Bears coach Matt Nagy has maintained a steady and calm demeanor throughout the 2019 season, one which has fallen short of expectations in Chicago and around the NFL. But his team's current three-game winning streak has kept postseason hopes alive, even if just barely. 

And while Nagy may fill postgame press conferences with a bunch of cliches and coach-speak, his on-field personality is a better reflection of the former quarterback he actually is. 

Nagy was mic'd up for the Bears' Week 14 win over the Cowboys and it's easy to see why he's been able to keep this team together despite such a trying season. Other locker rooms might have fractured under the pressure that comes along with failure. Not Chicago's. And it's in large part due to the culture Nagy's created.

Here's a sneak peek into what's led to Nagy's 19-10 record through nearly two seasons on the job:

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