Bears

Final thoughts: Bears’ defense searching for small answers to big plays

Final thoughts: Bears’ defense searching for small answers to big plays

The 2017 Bears defense was one of the NFL’s best at not allowing explosive plays. That hasn’t carried over to 2018. What happened?
 
The answer to the question is simple: The Bears haven’t tackled as well in 2018 as they did in 2017. But the root of the problem is more difficult to discern, especially for a defense that’s been buoyed by continuity and the splash additions of Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack. 
 
“We just gotta get back to it,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “Mental errors, little things, attention to details, things like that effort-wise. But that’s some things that we can control. We just gotta get those negative things out and go back to playing the football we were at the beginning of the year.”
 
The 2017 Bears allowed 27 plays of 25 or more yards, an average of fewer than two explosive gains per game. Only five of those plays resulted in touchdowns, and drilling even further, only two of those touchdown plays were passes (an 88-yarder to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper and a 28-yarder to Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones). 
 
In 2018, the Bears have allowed 17 plays of 25 or more yards through six games, an average of nearly three per week. Five of those 17 have gone for touchdowns, and all five have been passing plays. Worryingly, four of the five big-play touchdowns have come in the fourth quarters of losses to Green Bay and Miami. 
 
“Just misplacement, communication — it could be anything,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m not really looking why it happened, I’m looking to get it fixed and to keep it from going on and on. That’s the thing about the season. I’m glad that we got it early, some different looks, great teams, Tom Brady and those guys came and gave us some stuff that challenged us, and it’s only going to help us through the season and it’s going to make us better. We’re on the right page. There’s no downfall, no let-off in us. We’re just going to keep putting our head down, going to work and getting better.”
 
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have missed 42 tackles in six games — an average of seven per game. Nineteen of those game against the Miami Dolphins, and the Bears did improve in that regard against the Patriots, with six missed tackles credited to the defense. 
 
The Bears are less concerned with finding the reason for why their previously-sure tackling escaped them in the fourth quarters of losses to the Packers, Dolphins and Patriots and are more concerned with finding a fix for the problem. But an in-season fix to tackling issues may be difficult to come by — working on it in practice isn’t practical, given the contact limitations in those practices. Tackling drills in the controlled setting of practice is another way, as is an emphasis on tackling while watching video, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. 
 
Every defense misses tackles (the Bears did miss 95 last year, a rate of about six per game) but not every missed tackle has to lead to an explosive play. Another concerning thing for the Bears is how many of those explosive plays have featured multiple missed tackles — Josh Gordon’s 55-yard gain Sunday, for example, featured missed tackles by both Jackson and cornerback Prince Amukamara. The Bears had multiple opportunities to bring down Albert Wilson on his 75-yard touchdown in Miami earlier this month, too. 
 
“The one with Josh Gordon was there,” Amukamara said. “It probably could’ve been a 20-yard play, but missed a tackle and it turned into a 55-yarder. And missed tackles was the name of the game against the Dolphins, also. But we’ve been doing a great job of trying to get those reps in practice and we’ve improved (our) tackling from last game to this game. We just gotta keep improving.”
 
There may not be a good explanation for why the Bears’ have had these issues tackling, or why all of a sudden a defense with talent and continuity has allowed a rash of explosive plays. But whatever the reason, it has to get fixed, otherwise the big gains will continue no matter who the quarterback is — Aaron Rodgers, Brock Osweiler, Tom Brady, Sam Darnold, etc.. 
 
“We just get back to — we all can make tackles, we just gotta get back to making tackles,” safety Adrian Amos said. “I don’t think it’s really a formula or anything. We just gotta get back to wrapping up.”
 
Message Received
 
While Kevin White has played more snaps (90) than Josh Bellamy (65), Bellamy has been targeted six times compared to White’s two. The explanation for that disparity, coach Matt Nagy said, is Bellamy is able to play all three of the Bears’ receiver positions, while White is only an “X” receiver. 
 
But beyond the White-Bellamy question, there’s this, too: How does seventh-round rookie Javon Wims crack into an established group of five receivers who will be active on gamedays so long as they’re healthy? 
 
It’s a difficult task for Wims, who impressed during training camp but spends team drills in practice running scout team routes, which aren’t always the ones the Bears’ offense uses. That makes it difficult, but not impossible, for Wims to flash during practice in a way that could get him on the field on Sundays.
 
“It's not easy because of the numbers,” Nagy said. “So what he has to do when he's out there on scout team, he has to use that time to really hone in. If he sees a particular route that's similar to what we do while he runs with the (play) cards, you have to run it like you would in practice. When it comes to playing in our offense and our system, when he does get reps he has to make the most of it. 
 
“That's probably the hardest part for a young guy that's at that line right there of reps, that's the hardest is being able to get the route completed and then on top of it, build trust with your quarterback."
 
The Bilal Bowl is Cancelled
 
The only two professional athletes named Bilal in American sports history play for the Bears and Jets, between defensive tackle Nichols and running back Powell. That is, until this week, when Powell was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury. 
 
Nichols felt bad for Powell, saying he knew about him and  was looking forward to tackling Powell in some Bilal vs. Bilal action. 
 
“I was gonna say a little something to him,” Nichols said. “I was gonna say man, you got a fantastic name.”

Is Marcus Mariota the most logical QB target for the Bears?

Is Marcus Mariota the most logical QB target for the Bears?

Chicago Bears fans are sick and tired of the quarterback conversation surrounding this team as we enter the most important two month stretch of the offseason. My Twitter timeline (and vicious replies) are evidence of that. 

Duly noted.

That said, it's an unavoidable truth that GM Ryan Pace has no choice but to do something at quarterback in free agency or the NFL Draft. The most diehard Mitch Trubisky fan has to admit that. The former second overall pick hasn't developed into a franchise player through three seasons under center, and while the optimist would argue there's still time for him to become that guy, the realist is who must prevail when it comes to roster construction.

Marcus Mariota may be the perfect compromise. He doesn't have a resume that will immediately threaten Trubisky in 2020, but his sneaky upside combined with his youth and overall skill set is an ideal combination that could make him a long-term answer if Trubisky fails in the short-term.

According to Sports Illustrated, Chicago -- and coach Matt Nagy -- would be an ideal destination for Mariota, even if there's an inherent conflict of interest because both Mariota and Trubisky are represented by the same agent.

There are coaches out there—cough, Chicago, cough—who could slide him in easily under the guise that Mariota is a high-quality backup and develop him into a weapon under center who could take over when the starter falters.

Mariota, like Trubisky, hasn't lived up to the hype that he entered the NFL with back in 2015 when he was the second overall pick of the Titans. He's logged 61 starts and a career record of 29-32. He's completed just under 63% of his 1,110 career pass attempts and has 76 touchdown passes to 44 interceptions.

His stat sheet isn't impressive. His on-field play, at times, hasn't been, either. But he'd be an ideal reclamation project that the Bears can sell as the perfect backup even if the hope is for him to emerge as a starter.

There’s an advantage for QB-needy teams here who don’t want to deal with the public courting of Tom Brady, who don’t want to sacrifice mobility by signing Philip Rivers, who don’t want to roll the dice on every snap by signing Jameis Winston, and who don’t have the trade capital or cap space to go after someone like Nick Foles or Derek Carr.

Chicago won't be able to get into a bidding war for the bigger names like Tom Brady or even Teddy Bridgewater because of their limited cap space. Mariota won't command nearly as much to sign, and he's likely to get nothing more than a one-year commitment from a team hoping he can be like the guy who replaced him, Ryan Tannehill.

Of all the quarterbacks who've been pegged as a possible option for the Bears, Mariota feels like the most logical and, more importantly, cheaper targets who realistically could be lining up as the Chicago's starter by Week 4 of the 2020 season.

Bears should pay close attention to TE Cole Kmet at NFL Combine

Bears should pay close attention to TE Cole Kmet at NFL Combine

The 2020 NFL Combine kicks off on February 23, and the Bears will be one of 32 teams in attendance poking and prodding the 337 prospects who will try to run, jump and lift their way to a higher NFL draft grade.

General manager Ryan Pace will do his due diligence on all the players participating, but the Bears are without a first-round pick (again) and as a result, Pace's focus will be tailored to the cluster of prospects who are most likely to slide into Day 2. Chicago has two second-rounders and can upgrade the roster with two potential starters.

One player who should be at or near the top of the Bears' wish list is Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet. According to former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, Kmet would be a perfect fit for Chicago in the second round and the prospect they should pay the closest attention to at the combine.

The Bears' biggest need on offense is tight end. There are several guys who would fit well in Matt Nagy's scheme, including Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, but why not aim for the best TE in his class in Kmet?

Kmet certainly checks most of the boxes for an NFL starting tight end. He ended 2019 with 43 receptions for 515 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that aren't a true reflection of his upside as a receiver in the pros. He'll be a classic case of a player who has a more productive NFL career than he had in college.  He's a good athlete who has upside as an inline blocker, too, even though he needs to get stronger to be a truly reliable player in the run game.

Even with some of the deficiencies in Kmet's game, he'd be a massive upgrade over the tight ends currently on the Bears roster like Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Jesper Horsted. He's a virtual lock to come off the board in the second round, so if Pace wants him in Chicago next season, he won't be able to wait long to draft him. In fact, it could require using the Bears' first pick -- No. 43 overall -- to lock him up.