Clearing a major NFC North hurdle, Bears 'closers' handle Vikings to cement hold on first place

Clearing a major NFC North hurdle, Bears 'closers' handle Vikings to cement hold on first place

In order to supplant the king, you first must defeat the king, or in the case of the NFC North, maybe kings, plural. The Bears took a major step toward that goal with their downing of the Minnesota Vikings 25-20 Sunday night in Soldier Field, in the process stepping over the team that won the NFC North division two of the past three years and has been to the postseason three times since the Bears last went. 
“Being able to play four quarters of good football against that [Minnesota] team says we’re headed in the right direction,” said coach Matt Nagy. “I don’t know if it was making a statement. We feel like we can play with anybody in this league…. .[The Vikings] are good. We know that. Our guys want to be a part of that… .
“This defense we just faced is one of the best defenses in the NFL. We did enough on our side on offense to get the win.”
The win comes a week after a dominant victory over the Detroit Lions, who’d beaten the Bears (7-3) nine of their previous 10 encounters and who host the Bears in Ford Field on Thanksgiving. The matter of Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers remain to be addressed a second time this season (Dec, 16). But with the Packers wobbling at 4-5-1 with their loss on Thursday, the more immediate and larger problem was the Vikings, who had vanquished the Bears in eight of their last nine meetings.
Sunday’s win is the ninth time in 10 games that the Bears have tallied at least 23 points, and it also left the Bears as one of only three NFC teams with as many as seven wins (Los Angeles and New Orleans are both 9-1), with only Carolina and Washington, both 6-4, the only other conference teams with more than five wins.
“Division games are all very important,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “We didn’t win any last year so to get two back-to-back is great. We are definitely going in the right direction.”
But for the Bears to move deeper into the NFL playoff discussion, certain things had to happen. For the most part on Sunday, they did.

Closers in the making?

The win was more than just another win for a team starved for them since that season. This victory was a significant step on the 
the Bears’ climb from cellar to respectability and then some in a division they once ruled but have been more recently barely an afterthought.

“We’ve got to keep it rolling, continue to stay hungy, stay humble and continue to believe in one another,” said quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, whose 61.9 passer rating was his lowest of the season, in large part because of throwing a pair of interceptions amid his 20-of-31 passing for 165 yards and a TD.

For the Bears to ascend to elite levels in the NFL, where winning margins are declining, they needed their young quarterback to demonstrate not only that he can obliterate the bottom feeders, but also close out games against the good teams.

Trubisky was in his 22nd NFL start Sunday night, with an arrow pointing up but still in need of defining moments where, with a game on the line, the young quarterback takes his team down the field for a clinching score. One of those moments presented itself against the Vikings late Sunday night.

Trubisky was equal to that moment. 

With Minnesota closing to within one score at 22-14 and a little less than 5 minutes to play, and his team having failed to get farther than the Minnesota 44-yard line on its first four possessions of the half, Trubisky guided the offense from the Chicago 25 on an eight-play, 45-yard drive to the Vikings 30. From there kicker Cody Parkey’s third field goal of the game, this one from 48 yards, put the Bears up by a critical second score in a game where the Vikings had almost imperceptibly been taking the game away from the Bears after a dominant Chicago first half.

The Vikings (5-4-1) managed an answering touchdown but failed to convert their go-for-two when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks blocked a Kirk Cousins pass to close out a 25-20 win for the Bears’ first four-game win streak since 2012. It was one of multiple critical defensive stops, topped by safety Eddie Jackson’s 27-yard pick-6 of a Cousins pass midway through the fourth quarter at a point where the Vikings were in position for a potential tying score.

“That was a huge play,” Nagy said. “We were fighting and clawing on offense a little bit, there wasn’t a lot of rhythm.”

The Bears were limited to 106 second-half yards but outgained the Vikings 308-268 and, against a Minnesota defense historically good on the money down, converted six of 12 third downs.

The defense, which held its seventh of 10 opponents to fewer than 315 total yards, got a fitting prime-time game from Khalil Mack, with the rush-linebacker delivering a sack, a second hit on Cousins, a pass broken up, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The Bears were credited with 9 tackles for loss, with Hicks adding a sack and five tackles for loss.

This on top of Parkey converting three field goals in a game ultimately decided by five points.

Shaking of danger indicators
Ominous signs surfaced early. The Bears pushed the Vikings backwards for 64 yards on 12 plays to the Minnesota 15 on the first Chicago possession. But the offense lost six yards in two plays and was forced to settle for three points – often a harbinger of disaster against good teams.

The defense managed a takeaway to stop the Vikings on the ensuing possession but Trubisky threw toward Taylor Gabriel bracketed in crowded coverage and was intercepted. The Bears had gotten points and at least a field-goal attempt after 17 of their 22 takeaways before Sunday that weren’t followed by the end of the game or a half.

The Bears left that first half with a 14-0 lead and had deferred after winning the coin toss, so had the football to start the third quarter. But they failed to cross midfield on that and the next two possessions, Minnesota driving for field goals after the latter two. The Bears only reached the Minnesota 44 on their fourth possession of the half, where Trubisky narrowly avoided a pick-6 on a sloppy third-down throw off his back foot.

All that was rendered moot when Jackson intercepted the careless Cousins throw for a pick-6 of his own. The Bears went for a two-point conversion for the second time after touchdowns and got the lead to 22-6 on a toss from Trubisky to tight end Adam Shaheen. It was the first time active for Shaheen this season, sent to IR with a foot injury to open the season, out of a formation that included defensive lineman Hicks inserted as an eligible wide receiver.

In the interest of perspective, the last times Bears teams stood 7-3 at the 10-game mark, they flamed out. Those were in 2011, at which point the season collapsed along with Jay Cutler’s right thumb. In 2012 the Bears even went to 8-3 but then lost three straight and eventually lost out in a tiebreaker with the Vikings, who finished 4-2 in the division vs. the Bears at 3-3.

The last time the Bears won four straight was in that 2012 season, when the Lovie Smith group ripped off six straight before reversing course with five losses in the next six.

But for a team that now has topped all full-season win totals since 2013, the focus was on Minnesota, the only team with a winning record other than New England that the Bears have faced so far.

“It shows we can battle with the best of them,” Cohen said. “It shows we are still getting better and that we haven’t reached our ceiling yet.”

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


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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