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Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

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Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

NBC Sports Chicago’s John "Moon" Mullin talked with The MMQB's Albert Breer, who shared his thoughts on where the Bears stand — and if they’ll be able to compete — in a highly competitive NFC North.

Moon: The Bears have made upgrades, but they’re in the NFC North and not many divisions are tougher, given the strength at quarterbacks.

Breer: Yes. You look at the other three teams, and they all very much believe they’re in a window for winning a championship. The Packers are going through some changes, but they’ve gotten Mike Pettine in there as defensive coordinator and a new general manager who was aggressive on draft day. I know that internally they feel that’s going to give them a boost, and bringing Aaron Rodgers back obviously is the biggest thing of all.

Minnesota, all the things they did this offseason, signing (quarterback) Kirk Cousins, (defensive lineman) Sheldon Richardson, and they were knocking on the door last year.

The Lions have been building for two years under (general manager) Bob Quinn and (new coach) Matt Patricia, who lines right up with the general manager — the two of them worked together in New England. They really believe that Matthew Stafford is ready to take the sort of jump that Matt Ryan made in Atlanta a few years ago, where you see that mid-career breakthrough from a quarterback that we see sometimes now.

It’s one of the toughest divisions in football, and every team in the division believes that it’s in the position to contend right now.

Moon: We didn’t see a lot of Mitch Trubisky — 12 games — so it sounds possible that the Bears could improve and still lose ground.

Breer: The Lions were pretty good last year. The Vikings were in the NFC Championship game. And who knows where the Packers would’ve been if Rodgers hadn’t broken his collarbone. The biggest change is that Aaron Rodgers will be back, and that’s the best player in the league. It was a really good division last year, and you’re adding back in a Hall of Fame quarterback.

As far as the Bears, there’s going to be questions where the organization is going. It’s been seven years since they were in the playoffs. I think they certainly got the coach hire right. This is a guy who I know other organizations liked quite a bit and was going to be a head coach sooner or later.

And I think he matches up well with Mitch. I think the Bears are in a good spot, but as you said, they’re competing in a difficult environment, so it may not show up in their record.

Moon: A lot of love for the Vikings after they get to the NFC Championship and then add Kirk Cousins.

Breer: A lot of people look at Minnesota and think Kirk Cousins’ll be a huge improvement. And maybe he will be. I think he’s a very good quarterback, top dozen in the league. But Case Keenum played really, really well last year, so it wasn’t like they weren’t getting anything out of that position last year.

The NFC right now is clearly the strength of the league. If you picked the top 10 teams in the league, you could make a case that seven or eight of them are in the NFC. I think there will be NFC teams that miss the playoffs who could be in the Super Bowl coming out of the AFC. There’s a little bit of an imbalance there.

Moon: Trubisky projects as part of a wave of new quarterbacks league-wide, a sea change in the NFL.

Breer: The interesting thing is that this is probably as stable as the league has been at quarterback in a long time. There’ve been questions where the next great quarterbacks will come from, but I don’t know that there’s a team right now in the NFL like you looked at the Jets or Browns last year, where you say that team is definitely drafting a quarterback in 2019.

Everyone either has a big-money veteran or former first-round pick on their roster. One team that doesn’t is the Cowboys, but they’ve got Dak Prescott who’s played really well. Every team in the league has some stability at the position. I think the position is as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and you’ve got a lot of good young prospects.

Drew Brees injury: Bears likely to face Saints without Brees in Week 7

Drew Brees injury: Bears likely to face Saints without Brees in Week 7

The Chicago Bears got into the winning column Sunday with their miraculous last-second victory over the Denver Broncos, 16-14,  thanks to the right leg of kicker Eddy Pineiro. 

Pineiro's 53-yard strike with time expiring exorcised the Cody Parkey demons from Halas Hall and may have been exactly what was needed to jumpstart the 2019 season, one that includes a difficult stretch of games from Weeks 7 through 11.

The Bears will face the Saints (Wk 7), Chargers (Wk 8), Eagles (Wk 9) and Rams (Wk 11) in a five-game run that will probably determine whether this team makes the post-season. One of those games may have just become much more winnable, however.

Saints QB Drew Brees suffered a torn ligament in his throwing thumb against the Rams in Week 2, one that will require surgery and is expected to keep him sidelined for at least six weeks.

Assuming the timetable for his return is accurate, that puts Brees back on the field around Week 8 or 9; the Bears welcome the Saints to Soldier Field in Week 7.

While no one wants to see a player -- especially one of Brees' stature -- suffer an injury, it's certainly a change in New Orleans' lineup that will benefit Chicago and increase their odds of surviving that brutal mid-season run of games.

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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