Bears

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. 

2020 NFL Draft: Bears land CB, OT in 7-round mock draft

2020 NFL Draft: Bears land CB, OT in 7-round mock draft

The 2019 NFL season is in its final quarter, and with the Bears essentially needing to win out while also getting some help around the league to make the playoffs, it's important to keep track of the trending NFL Draft narrative building around this team.

The funny thing, however, is that that narrative continues to change.

Just a few weeks ago, the Bears were considered a team that would potentially dip into the pool of quarterback prospects in the early second round, but with the emergence of Mitch Trubisky (he's thrown for 582 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games alone), it appears less likely that GM Ryan Pace will use one of his few draft assets on one.

Tight end was also considered a target for the Bears in the second round, and that could remain the case as the season marches on. But Jesper Horsted is beginning to look like a legitimate sleeper to emerge as part of the answer at such a critical position in coach Matt Nagy's offense.

So where does that leave this team's hierarchy of draft needs as the offseason inches closer? 

According to CBS Sports' new seven-round mock draft, the first two positions the Bears will address with their two second-round picks are cornerback and offensive tackle. In this mock, Chicago grabs TCU corner Jeff Gladney (No. 49 overall) and Iowa offensive tackle Alaris Jackson (No. 50 overall).

Gladney will participate in this year's Senior Bowl at the end of January after a standout career with the Horned Frogs. He was rated the No. 1 cornerback in the Big 12 by Pro Football Focus in 2018 and has been solid once again this season, although he's managed just one interception on the year. 

At 6-foot, 183 pounds, Gladney has an NFL frame and the kind of high-end coverage skills the Bears should be looking to add to the roster. Prince Amukamara's contract expires at the end of next season, and drafting a player like Gladney, combined with 2019 sixth-round pick Dukey Shelley, would strengthen the team's pipeline of young cornerbacks who will eventually be called upon to play.

Jackson, who the Bears take with their second second-rounder in this scenario, suffered an early-season knee injury but returned to earn Third Team All-Big 10 honors this year.

Jackson combined with Tristan Wirfs to give Iowa one of the best offensive tackle duos in college football, but Jackson offers a little less upside on the edge moving forward. Still, the Bears have suffered from underwhelming offensive line play all season and won't hesitate to add a player with Jackson's pedigree early in this year's draft.

As for the rest of the Bears' draft haul, here are some highlights:

Round 4 (projected compensatory pick): Colby Parkinson, TE, Stanford

Parkinson began the 2019 season with some chatter that suggested he'd end the year as the top tight end in the class. And while he ended the season with 48 catches for 589 yards and a touchdown, it wasn't quite the production expected from a player who was supposed to be the next in the long line of promising Stanford tight ends. 

Parkinson's underwhelming season could be the Bears' gain, however. The best part of his game is his ability as a receiver, which is what Chicago is missing most from its offense right now. If he slides into Day 3 and the Bears end up with a compensatory pick in this range, he'd certainly be a viable target.

Round 5 (from Eagles): K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford

Why not tap into the Stanford program twice on Day 3? This time, the Bears go with the guy who was throwing passes to Parkinson. Costello is a solid Day-3 quarterback prospect who has some physical limitations and an awkward throwing motion, but it's critical that Pace adds a developmental passer to the roster even if it's just to become a long-term backup for Trubisky (assuming Trubisky keeps the job).

Costello's been injured all season and was limited to just five games in what was supposed to be a senior year that put him in the first-round conversation. Instead, he'll slide into the third day (at least, he should). He'd make a lot of sense for the Bears, especially from a public relations standpoint. He isn't quite good enough to legitimately challenge Trubisky in 2020, but he has enough talent to potentially develop into a respectable starter down the road.

Round 7: Tucker McCann (K, Missouri)

Kicker alert! Would the Bears dare using a draft pick on a kicker? It seems highly unlikely, especially since Eddy Pineiro is beginning to play better. He's made all of his field-goal attempts during Chicago's three-game winning streak.

That said, Pineiro is connecting on just 76% of his kicks this season, which ranks 25th in the NFL. Not good.

Pace is a pretty loyal guy, and with Pineiro kicking under some of the most intense pressure of any kicking situation in the NFL, one could argue he's weathered the storm pretty well.

The next three games will determine whether Pineiro's roster spot is safe in 2020. If he remains hot, he'll be back. It's as simple as that.

Here is the total Bears' mock draft:

Round 2: Jeff Gladney, CB, TCU
Round 2: Alaric Jackson, OL, Iowa
Round 4: Colby Parkinson, TE, Stanford
Round 5: K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford
Round 5: Larrell Murchison, DL, NC State
Round 5: Kalija Lipscomb, WR, Vanderbilt
Round 6: Tyler Higby, G, Michigan State
Round 7: Tucker McCann, K, Missouri

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Bears head coach Matt Nagy is beginning to find his identiy

Bears head coach Matt Nagy is beginning to find his identiy

What the Bears did to the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday’s 31-24 defeat of the NFC East leaders was significant because of the complete offensive performance.

Based on quality of opponent, gravity of game and player performance, it was quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s career-best game. The 31 points scored by the offense was the most since the mauling of a JV Tampa Bay team last year (when Trubisky threw a career-high six touchdown passes).

And against the Cowboys the offense came back from difficult in-game situations twice.

It wasn’t the Bears that appeared to be settling into an identity that has eluded them through too much of the Matt Nagy era.

Reasons behind the performance against Dallas – collective and Trubisky’s individually – were far from exclusive to this game. Tight-end play, receivers and line doing their jobs are repeatable positives that tell fans an offensive performance like this can and should happen again, more than once.

The difference against the Cowboys? Nagy appeared to be settling into his own identity.

With varying levels of proficiency, his players were running what he laid out and told them to. That changed dramatically against Dallas.

Over the third quarter of the season and into the fourth with Dallas, Nagy has operated less like a coach forcing players into his system and more like a coach molding the offense around his players.

Maybe it was seeing first-hand how miserably coach Matt Patricia forcing the Detroit Lions into his iteration of the New England defense has worked. The Bears’ 2019 turnaround coincidentally started against the Lions.

Whatever the reason, Nagy appeared less lock-stepped with a significantly flawed pass-intensive plan (Green Bay, Oakland, New Orleans losses) that his own personal quarterback nature may prefer. Maybe this is his more adult inner-coach is taking charge.

Players, Trubisky foremost among them, could be excused for feeling some uncertainty about their offense when their coach didn’t have a clear sense of what that offense is or wants to be.

Not a “blame game” situation, however. Nagy, an inexperienced head coach, had a green quarterback on his hands. Trubisky’s true capabilities, comfort levels, and weaknesses are still evolving. Nagy is also dealing with the same route-running, drops, O-line issues and such that plagued Trubisky.

Critically, Nagy’s play-calling has leveled out without lapsing into predictability. He has been less riveted to a game concept with no regard for results and been more adaptable.

When the Bears won three straight to finish the season’s first quarter, Nagy had the offense run the football 29, 24 and 33 times. When he and the offense languished through four straight losses, the Bears ran the football 17, 7, 38 and 18 times.

Since then Nagy has called 24-24-26-23-34 runs and the Bears have won four of those last five.

That doesn’t make Nagy a runnin’ guy. It does, however, make the team better and improves his quarterback’s understanding of the offense.

“Probably three to four, five weeks ago, somewhere in that range where you really started to feel, ‘OK, we're moving the ball,’” Nagy said. “We felt it against the Chargers [when the Bears ran 38 times]. We just weren't good in the red zone, right? But we felt like, ‘OK we're moving the ball,’ that we were limiting three-and-outs.

“And ever since then there's just a great confidence amongst the teammates. They're feeling it, we're feeling it and I think it's reflecting in the game.”

Nowhere more apparent than with Trubisky against Dallas and hopefully going forward.

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