Bears

Khalil Mack has dominated the Broncos in his career, and might have Von Miller to thank

Khalil Mack has dominated the Broncos in his career, and might have Von Miller to thank

Khalil Mack, in his six-year NFL career, has 53 sacks. Ten have come against the Denver Broncos. 

Mack’s outlandish play against the Broncos was a staple of his four years with the Oakland Raiders — in addition to those 10 sacks, he had 14 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and three pass break-ups in eight games. His next-highest team-specific totals: 5 1/2 sacks (Chiefs), nine quarterback hits (Chiefs), two forced fumbles (Buccaneers) and two pass break-ups (Chiefs). 

The Broncos team Mack will face Sunday is different than the one he last faced in 2017, though left tackle Garett Bolles is still there. Mack in those two games in 2017 totaled three sacks, three hits and 13 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, though he lined up more over the right tackle and not Bolles at left tackle. 

Mack will likely square off against Broncos reserve right tackle Elijah Wilkerson, who’s slated to fill in for the injured Ja’Wuan James on Sunday. The Broncos trust Wilkerson, but he’s only played 65 snaps at tackle in his three-year NFL career. He’ll likely get plenty of help, leaving Bolles to go one-on-one against Leonard Floyd for most of the afternoon. 

So the challenge will be a little different for Mack as he plays his ninth game against the Broncos. But Mack pointed to one constant factor on Friday that just might be the fuel behind his incredible production every time he faces Denver: Von Miller. 

“He’s raised my level of play just watching him out there on the field,” Mack said. “I look and I see what he’s doing and I’m like, ‘OK, I can’t let him show me up.’ That kinda raises my level of play, and I appreciate him for that.”

Mack and Miller aren’t really similar players other than one trait — “greatness is great,” as Broncos coach Vic Fangio put it. But they’re two of the best, if not the two best, edge rushers in the NFL. It’s no surprise that two players who’re so competitive and so good at what they do would be motivated by each other, while also holding immense respect for one another. 

Miller called Mack a “beast” on a conference call with Chicago media this week, a compliment Mack returned.

“Von is a beast in his own right,” Mack said. “Hell of a player. Generational type player. One of the best in the game. You can tell every week, he goes out he’s capable of wrecking havoc and tearing up the backfield.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

Hub Arkush, Sam Panayotovich and Ben Pope join Kelly Crull on the panel.

0:00- Mitch Trubisky practices again and he got all of the first-team reps. So will his return help the Bears upset the Saints on Sunday?

8:30- KC Johnson joins Kelly to discuss Luol Deng retiring a Bull, Wendell Carter, Jr.'s thumb injury and to preview the Bulls' preseason finale.

14:00- Ben has the latest on the Blackhawks including Jeremy Colliton's goaltender plans for the week. He also tells us if we should be worried about Jonathan Toews' slow start to the season.

21:00- Will Perdue joins the panel to talk about the importance of a good start this season for the Bulls. Plus, he has his

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per SharpFootballStats.com, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better.