As large swaths of the Chicagoland area succumb to full-blown panic about the 3-3 Bears, there’s one sanctuary from all that anger/disappointment/frustration felt by a city that, two months ago, expected its football team to compete for a Super Bowl.
Inside the walls at 1920 Football Drive in Lake Forest, there’s an understanding of why those on the outside are worried. But players who spoke to the media upon returning to Halas Hall Tuesday didn’t project any concern about their ability to fix a season critically close to falling short of expectations.
“I understand the panic from the outsiders,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “They're not in it. They don't see what's going on. And plus (the media) want answers, you guys have questions, I'm assuming because you guys are thinking like, Why, this is almost the same team as last year, what's going on?
“From our side, we're on the inside, we know what's going on. Even though we might give you guys the PC answer, we're still hurting inside, (it’s) still frustrating but we know what's going on and the reason why we're not panicking is because we're confident we're going to fix it.”
So those inside Halas Hall are confident in their collective ability to turn this season around. But how can they do it? Here are five critical ways:
1. Quarterback play raises all boats
Nothing can do more for an entire team than good quarterback play. It’s the sort of thing the team talked up while evaluating quarterbacks prior to drafting Mitch Trubisky in 2017, that ability to “raise all boats,” as then-coach John Fox put it. There’s some truth to that.
Would Mitch Trubisky making better decisions and throws help Eddie Jackson get his first interception of 2019? Not necessarily. But the Bears are averaging 71 defensive snaps per game, fourth-highest in the NFL behind another bad offense (Washington) and two of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL in the Lions and Chiefs (Detroit is second and Kansas City is sixth in that category, per Sharp Football Stats).
The Bears’ offense is struggling to stay on the field and give its defense a breather. Only four teams — the woebegone Steelers, Dolphins, Washington and Jets — are averaging fewer first downs per game than the Bears’ 17.
And it’s notable how the Bears’ defense has faltered late in games (fourth quarters against Denver and Oakland, and the second half against New Orleans) when it’s been subjected to a high volume of snaps.
Better play from Trubisky would mean more first downs and more touchdowns, and less pressure on a defense missing Akiem Hicks to win games week in and week out.
This isn’t meant to completely absolve the defense — more on them later — but the lack of any consistency on offense is absolutely not helping Chuck Pagano’s group. Notably, Nagy admitted after Sunday's game that the Bears' offensive struggles are starting to impact the defense.
2. A better commitment to the run
We touched on this yesterday, but David Montgomery has been at his best when he’s been given consecutive carries. Even if he only picks up one yard on first and 10, Nagy needs to stick with him to give Montgomery and the offensive line a chance at establishing a rhythm in the run game.
Trubisky has not proven to be good enough to pass to set up the run, as Nagy said he hoped he could accomplish against the Saints. This run game may not prove to be very good, either. But it at least needs a chance on a week-to-week basis to prove it can be a reliable part of this offense, and in turn help Trubisky do the things he needs to do to be that boat-raiser the Bears have wanted for two years.
"I'm not an idiot," Nagy said Monday. "I know we need to run the ball more."
3. Take the invisibility cloak off the tight ends
Trey Burton is averaging 5.2 yards per reception this year, exactly half his 2018 average. The Bears guaranteed Burton $22 million for him to be an “adjuster” in their offense, the kind of guy who helps Trubisky identify coverages while also being a weapon for which defensive coordinators have to account.
But because Burton hasn’t shown much of anything this year — his longest reception is 11 yards — opposing defenses don’t need to be deeply concerned with his ability to impact a game. Burton hasn’t looked fully healthy since missing Week 1 with a groin injury (this after he underwent offseason sports hernia surgery), and worryingly did not look any better after resting up during the Bears’ off week.
Still, the Bears need to get more out of Burton both as a receiver and run blocker. The same goes for Adam Shaheen, though that he only played 32 percent of the Bears snaps against the Saints — after an off week of coaches self-scouting — does not offer much a sign of encouragement.
At some point, Burton is what he is in 2019, and Shaheen is what he has been since debuting in 2017.
4. Unlock Tarik Cohen’s explosiveness
Cohen’s average of 2.1 yards per reception was the second-lowest in NFL history for a player with at least nine catches, per Pro Football Reference’s Play Index. The Bears’ most explosive offensive weapon is now averaging 4.0 yards per touch — which, for reference, is over a yard lower than his average in 2017 with Dowell Loggains and John Fox designing the offense. Also for reference: Jordan Howard averaged four yards per touch in 2018.
This is mostly, but not all, a coaching and quarterback matter. It’s true Nagy has tried to get Cohen the ball downfield, with his quarterback not coming close to connecting on those throws:
Three RBs in the NFL have at least 3 targets of 20+ air yards: David Johnson, Miles Sanders, and Tarik Cohen.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) October 22, 2019
Johnson and Sanders have caught 7 passes on 7 catchable targets for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Cohen is 0/3 with no catchable targets.
But Cohen is averaging 5.4 yards after the catch per reception, per PFF tied for 165th in the NFL. Cohen averaged 7.4 yards after the catch per reception in 2018. A lot of that falls on coaches not unlocking his explosiveness, but some of it falls on the diminutive running back getting the ball and seeking out the sidelines.
Whatever the reason, the Bears’ offense will not operate near full capacity if Cohen is basically 2018 Jordan Howard when he has the ball in his hand.
5. More big plays on defense.
Worse turnover luck does not fully explain why Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson — who were No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL last year with seven and six interceptions, respectively — only have one interception between the two of them through six games. Those two guys need to harness the route-jumping aggressiveness they had in 2018 and bring it back to a defense in 2019 that sorely needs it.
Similarly: The Saints in all likelihood offered a preview of how opposing offenses will block up Khalil Mack going forward, by committing two or three players to No. 52 on every passing play. Without Hicks to dominate in the interior, and without Leonard Floyd winning one-on-one matchups with much consistency, Pagano may need to find different ways to scheme pressure on opposing quarterbacks (though Mack remains good enough to beat those double/triple-teams on occasion).
This Bears defense is still good, but in the absence of major offensive improvements it needs to be great for this team to have a shot at contending for a playoff spot.