Insider

Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: Matt Nagy facing biggest test yet

Insider

The Bears suffered their worst loss under Matt Nagy Sunday, getting blown out by Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 38-3. Monday morning, things got worse, as Nagy tested positive for COVID-19.

Here are this week’s 10 Bears Things as the Bears try to turn their attention to the San Francisco 49ers with Nagy away from Halas Hall:

1. A brutal start

A lot went wrong Sunday, and the first play from scrimmage was a bad omen.

After winning the coin toss and electing to receive the football to try to get a lead on Tom Brady (which is logic I completely agree with), the Bears immediately went three-and-out. The first play was a toss to Khalil Herbert and it had no chance because the Bears left the box safety completely unblocked. At the snap, tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Darnell Mooney both crashed down to block edge rusher Shaq Barrett and neither picked up safety Jordan Whitehead, who shot upfield and got enough of Herbert to take him down for no gain.

“Sometimes if you have a certain alignment where you start, then that can affect, basically, how they line up and where you go and to mess with some of your rules,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Monday. “So you're right. On that play, we had an issue.”

Nagy spoke on a Zoom call Monday after testing positive for COVID-19 and unfortunately his connection was unstable. He cut out right as he explained that issue. But the bottom line is that either Kmet or Mooney didn’t follow through on their blocking assignment.

 

“Those are the little details we all gotta lock in on,” Nagy said. “And our guys know that. Our coaches know that. We take that very seriously.”

Here’s why that play is particularly maddening: the first drive is always scripted and the players usually know what the very first play is well before kickoff. There’s no excuse for not knowing your assignment or blocking the wrong player on the first play. It’s unclear whether or not Kmet or Mooney made the mistake, but it erased any chance at a sizable gain on first down and set the whole drive back.

Then, on second down, Herbert was put in a very tough position, tasked with picking up a blitz from safety Antoine Winfield Jr. on the opposite side of a play-action fake. Herbert’s run fake was to Justin Fields’ right, but the blitz came from the weak side, which meant he had to reach across and try to pick up the block.

For the record, Herbert took responsibility anyway (which is a topic we’ll dive into later): “Yeah that was my responsibility. I've got to get there. I seen it, just got over there late. But I've got to get on that faster.”

It didn’t help that left tackle Jason Peters whiffed on his block after oversetting to the left, possibly because he saw the blitz coming to his side too. Left guard Cody Whitehair was working on a combo block with center Sam Mustipher, meaning that a protection slide to the left would have helped pick up the blitz. Perhaps that’s on Fields, but the blitz was disguised pretty well.

That’s an instance where two rookies in the backfield were put a tough position against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bears knew all week that Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would stress them with his blitz scheme, so to have one turn into a strip-sack on the second play of the game was disheartening. Herbert was fortunate enough to be able to jump on the loose ball.

The only way those first two plays could have gone worse is if the Bears had actually turned the ball over. But they essentially did when the punt team gave up a 43-yard return two plays later.

It’s not often you can say a team lost the game in the first two minutes, but in this case, the Bears basically did.

2. What team bonding?

Nagy made an interesting claim in Tampa after the game when he said:

“The last couple days with our team, we’ve become really close. For us to become as close as we have the last 24-48 hours, I just trust and believe in them. And they’ve done it before.”

He said it right at the end of his press conference and a follow-up wasn’t allowed, so it left many people wondering: what exactly happened that brought the team together?

 

Monday, Nagy was asked to clarify. This was his full answer:

“We always have a team meeting every Saturday night at the hotel, right? That’s really after our meeting and before we shut it down for the night into the next day. And so I just thought it was a good opportunity right there just to kind of speak from the heart a little bit from where I’m at as a head coach and where we’re at as a team and where we want to go. And I think that’s very important to do that, is to have those every once in awhile. You can’t have those every week, but sometimes you got to have some that are real conversations that mean a lot and that’s what we did. That’s all that was.

"I think the question (on Sunday) was something about are you concerned after this type of loss of losing your locker room, losing your team? That's why I responded the way I did. I'm not because I know the feedback I got after that talk. To have that feedback from your players feels good.”

Perhaps it was a calculated talk the night before a game the staff knew would be tough to win. For the record, Nagy managed to hit the right note by gathering his team to watch the Fury-Wilder fight at the hotel the night before they beat the Raiders in Las Vegas.

In this case, you have to wonder if the feedback from his players changes at all following a 38-3 loss.

3. Appreciation for Roquan Smith

The Bears should be grateful they have linebacker Roquan Smith. Tasked with short fields all day long, Smith never stopped flying around the field and ended up with 13 tackles and one tackle for loss. He played fast the whole game despite the blowout score.

Oh, and he was the only defensive player to speak to the media after the game — just like he was after the Bears’ 34-14 loss to the Rams in Week 1. Win or lose, Smith has answered questions from the media after every single game this season.

Which brings us to a conversation about accountability…

4. Three players talked to the media in Tampa

By my unofficial count, 13 reporters and three camera operators from Chicago made the trip to Tampa to cover Sunday’s game. After the loss, only two players not named Justin Fields were made available to the traveling media. By league rules, the head coach and starting quarterback are required to talk to reporters. Linebacker Roquan Smith and running back Khalil Herbert were the only two other players to speak postgame.

Here’s why that matters: From a football standpoint, there’s a certain level of accountability that comes from answering questions after a game — especially a loss. It is notable when a player only chooses to speak after wins. For example, Bears safety Eddie Jackson hasn’t addressed the media after a loss this season — and not just postgame, but for the entire week following those losses.

 

He’s far from the only one not fulfilling his contractual media obligations. Khalil Mack hasn’t spoken since Oct. 8. Akiem Hicks hasn’t spoken since Sept. 29. Jason Peters hasn’t spoken since Sept. 21. Jimmy Graham hasn’t spoken since Sept. 16. And Danny Trevathan hasn’t spoken since Aug. 26. In his defense, Trevathan spent the first four weeks of the season on injured reserve, but has played the last three weeks.

Locker rooms haven’t been open to reporters since the 2019 season and that’s provided players — and teams — an opportunity to dodge their media obligations. For the Bears, there’s been an obvious trend based on wins and losses.

After wins, the Bears have averaged five postgame interviews (not including the mandatory head coach/QB), with a high-mark of six following their win over the Bengals in Week 2. After losses, they've averaged just three postgame interviews, with only two non-QBs speaking after losses to the Rams and Bucs (although both Fields and Andy Dalton spoke after the Rams game). 

Fans should care about that because it’s a reflection of the accountability that exists within the locker room. Again, Roquan Smith deserves praise for always showing up at the podium win or lose. Other young players like Kmet, Mooney and Jaylon Johnson are regularly available during the week. Rookie Khalil Herbert is always willing and engaging too. David Montgomery was regularly available before he got hurt. Fields is required to talk twice a week, but he shows accountability regardless of how he plays.

It’s just too bad that so much of that responsibility has fallen on the young guys instead of the veterans.

5. Concern about Fields grows

It’s way too early to make any grand conclusions about Justin Fields. Frankly, even a year from now will be too early for that.

But excuse Bears fans for being worried. Ups and downs were expected, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s in the best position to develop right now. The scheme issues are one thing, but Fields is getting very little help from his receivers. The Bears don’t have many wide open options and in tight spaces, they aren’t making many plays for the young quarterback. Drops have also been an issue.

On the other hand, Fields is getting help from his running game. With all the issues the Bears have had running the football under Matt Nagy, they suddenly have the league’s sixth-ranking rushing offense, averaging 131 rushing yards per game. Who would have thought the Bears would have a 100-yard rusher against the league’s top-ranked rushing defense Sunday?

And yet, despite that very positive development, the passing offense has fizzled completely. The Bears rank dead last in passing yards per game (124.4), passing yards per play (4.81) and sacks/passing attempt (14.36 percent). They’re also 31st in interception rate at 3.87 percent. It’s really bad.

Despite all that, Nagy insisted Monday that Fields’ growth hasn’t been stunted:

 

“He's growing and we knew that when we named him the starter. We all knew there were going to be growing pains, that's with every single rookie quarterback that has ever played in the history of this game. And so what is important for us to understand is learning how to do things as a NFL quarterback and some of these times that we have, whether good or bad, he's going to use those to make him a hell of a quarterback in this league for a long time. That's the exciting part for everybody.”

I’ll say this: I’m not that worried about Fields. I’m more worried about the situation he’s in. It’s unfathomable how bad the Bears have been in the passing game considering the success they’ve had running the football. Right now, I put that more on the scheme, the poor offensive line play, and the lack of help Fields is getting. He can play a lot better, but every rookie needs help and he’s getting very little of it.

6. The weirdest stat of the season

The Bears are 2-0 against the current top two seeds in the AFC. That’s right. At 5-2, the Bengals and Raiders are currently sitting at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the AFC — and the Bears beat both of those teams.

Neither game appeared to be a fluke either. Go figure.

7. The COVID-19 problem

The Bears’ COVID-19 problem began on Oct. 14 when running back Damien Williams went on the reserve/COVID-19 list four days after he accounted for 84 yards of offense in the win over the Raiders. Williams, who is reportedly unvaccinated, went mask-less in his postgame press conference after that game.

Since Williams first went out with COVID-19, the following players and coaches have either been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list or missed practice time:

Defensive end Robert Quinn

Tight end Jimmy Graham

Linebacker Caleb Johnson

Right tackle Elijah Wilkinson

Wide receivers coach Mike Furrey

Head coach Matt Nagy

Johnson and Wilkinson had to get home from Tampa separately from the team after getting placed on the COVID list Sunday, but Nagy was on the team plane before testing positive Monday morning. He said there were no other positive tests Monday, but it seems doubtful the Bears are out of the woods yet.

As of Monday, the team entered enhanced protocols, which includes daily testing and wearing masks inside the team facility at all times, regardless of vaccination status. In short, the Bears are moving back to how things were last year before vaccinations were available.

“It’s a reminder for all of us to be extremely cautious and to understand where we’re at,” Nagy said. “We’ve seen it with other teams in the league and society in general, so we’re working through that. In OTAs, we kind of went through this before where I was out. I know our group of coaches and players are extremely resilient.”

 

Nagy missed some of rookie minicamp in May after being deemed a close contact to a family member who tested positive for COVID-19. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor led team meetings with Nagy out, and the Bears will follow that same plan this time around.

8. Packers also dealing with COVID issues

The Packers are also in the enhanced COVID protocols after star wide receiver Davante Adams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday and defensive coordinator Joe Barry tested positive.

Interestingly, the Packers played the Bears at Soldier Field Oct. 17, after the Bears’ COVID issues began. Green Bay plays the Cardinals in Arizona on Thursday and it looks like they’ll be shorthanded against the league’s only remaining undefeated team.

9. Opponent look ahead: San Francisco 49ers

At 2-4, the 49ers have been one of the more disappointing teams in the NFL so far this season. Both Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance have played at quarterback and both have dealt with injuries. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that Garoppolo will start in Chicago, but the team is expected to get Trey Lance back at practice Wednesday, so he could see some playing time too.

Perhaps the Bears are getting the 49ers at a good time, but San Francisco is still a -3.5 favorite for good reason. The 49ers defense is ranked No. 6 in the NFL, and their passing defense is ranked No. 5, so things won’t get any easier for Fields.

10. Final word

I guess we’ll find out how close the Bears really are this week. Nagy’s big conversation with the team happened before Sunday’s 38-3 blowout and before the head coach tested positive for COVID-19, which will keep him out of Halas Hall until he is asymptomatic and tests negative twice 24 hours apart.

The Bears are facing a lot of adversity right now and Nagy can’t afford to slide into another lengthy losing streak for the third season in a row. Maybe the team comes together and gets a big win for him this week. Or maybe the regression continues. Both options appear to be on the table.

Either way, Justin Fields needs to show tangible growth against the 49ers.