Bears

Six reasons for optimism and pessimism as the Bears enter the playoffs

Six reasons for optimism and pessimism as the Bears enter the playoffs

The Bears enter their first NFL playoffs in eight years harboring legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, the kind that come with a wildly successful 12-4 season.
 
But with Sunday’s playoff opener against the Philadelphia Eagles (3:40 p.m. CT, NBC) looming, let’s take a look at three reasons to be optimistic about the Bears and three reasons to be concerned about how far this team can go:
 
Optimistic: This is a championship-caliber defense.
 
Vic Fangio’s defense ranks in the top 10 of every major statistical category, and is No. 1 in the NFL in yards per play, rushing yards per game, passing yards per play, interception rate, first downs allowed per game and points allowed per game. The gap between the Bears — No. 1 in defensive DVOA, and the Buffalo Bills — No. 2 — is about the same as the gap between the Bills and the No. 10 defense by DVOA (the Indianapolis Colts).
 
This is a defense capable of making game-changing plays at any point, with a league-leading 27 interceptions and 50 sacks, which ranks third. The Bears are 12-0 when they allow fewer than 24 points in a game. They haven’t allowed a touchdown in the first half of a game at Soldier Field since Nov. 11. Not only is this defense good enough to set the tone for an entire game, they’ve shown an improved ability to finish out games over the second half of the season — usually with a disruptive pass rush, a big play by Eddie Jackson/Kyle Fuller, or both.
 
Jackson is questionable and will be a game-time decision, coach Matt Nagy said Friday, though the best bet here is that he does play. The Bears don’t appear to have a weakness in this group, especially with how well slot corner Sherrick McManis has played since Bryce Callahan went on injured reserve. And as for the pass rush, led by Khalil Mack, it poses a question that’s often impossible for opposing offenses to solve.
 
“Who do you block? Who do you block? That’s the question,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said earlier this season. “Do you block Leonard Floyd? Do you block Eddie Goldman? Do you block Akiem? Do you block Khalil? Who are you gonna block? That’s the question that we want every offense to have to figure out.”
 
Pessimistic: What Mitch Trubisky will show up?
 
The version of the 2017 No. 2 overall pick that shows up on Sunday, and throughout the playoffs, will be critical in determining how deep into the postseason this team will play.
 
Will it be the Trubisky that showed up on Dec. 9 against the Los Angeles Rams, completing a dismal 16 of 30 passes for 110 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and a career-worst passer rating of 33.3?
 
Or will it be the guy who showed up in the following three weeks, taking care of the football while completing 76 percent of his passes for 644 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 109.7?
 
Trubisky self-corrected his mindset after that Rams game, going from admittedly trying to do too much to trying to stay within the offense. The result was an efficient stretch in which the Bears methodically put together extended drives, like a 16-play, 75-yard masterpiece against the Minnesota Vikings last week that effectively sealed a win.
 
That stretch laid out a blueprint for Trubisky to follow on Sunday against the Eagles, and then deeper into the playoffs.
 
“Just do what he does — control himself, do exactly what we’ve asked him to do, nothing more, nothing less,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “If his eyes and feet are in the right place, his head’s in the right place, then he can be great.”
 
Optimistic: The Bears’ run game just might be rounding into form.
 
Nagy was open about the Bears searching for — and not quite finding — a run game identity earlier in the year, when Jordan Howard was both sparingly used and ineffective. Nagy wasn’t willing to pound Howard for a bunch of negative or zero-yard runs for the sake of jump-starting a lagging run game, though, and the Bears’ offense was fine in spite of it.
 
But in the month of December, Howard’s been his old self: 88 rushing attempts, 399 yards (4.5 yards/rush) with four touchdowns. He went over 100 yards in two of his five games in December — against the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings — and is running with the kind of vision and power that made him the only back in franchise history to gain over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons in the league.
 
“You’re starting to see that now,” Nagy said of the run game identity. “We’re starting to feel confident in certain schemes and when you have that now you can get rid of all the stuff that you don’t feel good about you were using before to try to make work, it wasn’t working. So, and then you put together a good player like Jordan, who goes ahead and, he had 50 yards in the first two runs of the game last week. That immediately is going to bring confidence.”
 
Three running backs have eclipsed 100 yards against the Eagles’ defense this year — New Orleans’ Mark Ingram, Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott (twice) and New York’s Saquon Barkley (twice). Washington’s Adrian Peterson picked up 98 yards on nine carries earlier this year, too. At the very least, the Bears’ offense has over the last few weeks forced opposing defenses to respect the run more than they had earlier in the year. At best, Howard and Tarik Cohen can be catalysts for this offense, taking pressure off Trubisky and grinding out critical yards, especially late in games.
 
Pessimistic: Can Cody Parkey come through?
 
There’s no way to positively spin Parkey’s 2018 season as he enters his first trip to the playoffs in his career. He missed 23 of 30 field goal attempts, good for the third-worst success rate among kickers with at least 15 tries this year. He’s doinked three PATs off the uprights, including one last week against the Minnesota Vikings.
 
If the Bears get into a close game against the Eagles or later into the playoffs, and need Parkey to make a kick, it’ll be hard for fans and observers to be confident he’ll make it. The Bears, though, are saying all the right things — Nagy vehemently defended Parkey after the season finale and special teams coach Chris Tabor said Thursday he has no concerns about the 26-year-old kicker.
 
Parkey, though, has a chance to re-write the story of his season, one that’s been defined more by misses and news choppers than it has made field goals. If he connects on a clutch kick in the playoffs, all will be forgiven. But if he doesn’t, his legacy in Chicago will not be a positive one.
 
“I will say this about him: His misses — and yes, there’s been some inconsistencies, and we can’t argue with that because the tape tells you that — but, to be positive about it, the misses, I’ve never seen a guy hit five uprights,” Tabor said. “What I tell him is, if you’re missing, you’re missing awfully small. It’s not sprayed everywhere. So we just hone in on a couple things. I’m looking forward to him in this postseason run right here.”
 
Optimistic: The Bears are “hot” right now
 
Yes, the Eagles are on a three-game winning streak since Nick Foles re-surfaced as their starting quarterback. More on that later.
 
But the Bears haven’t lost at home since Oct. 21. That, too, was the last time they lost with Trubisky quarterbacking their offense. The most this team has lost by this year is seven points (to the Patriots) and, in total, their four losses have come by 14 points. They have a defense that’s dominating and an offense that’s taken care of the ball and been efficient in the last few weeks. What’s not to like?
 
Football Outsiders has a measurement — weighted DVOA — that attempts to determine how a team is playing right now, as opposed to over an entire season. The Eagles, even with Foles, rank 16th in weighted DVOA, while the Bears rank 5th behind only the Chiefs, Saints, Chargers and Colts. This is reason enough for optimism: The Bears enter the playoffs playing better than the Eagles and about as well as the Rams. This is a team that very well could win those two games and take its best crack at the Saints in the NFC Championship. Why not?
 
This isn’t some sort of banal take on the Bears “peaking” at the right time, or anything like that. But this is a good team playing good football entering the playoffs. That counts for something.
 
Pessimistic: Foles magic?
 
That being said…the Eagles have done this before, improbably riding Foles (and a deep, talented roster) to a Super Bowl a year ago. Foles is back with some magic, completing 77 percent of his passes for 962 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions during the Eagles’ three-game winning streak that got them into the playoffs.
 
Perhaps more important, though, is the Eagles’ offensive line is rounding into form at the right time. Guys like tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce are playing well as of late, while right guard Brandon Brooks is going to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
 
“I think their offensive line is one of the better ones in the league,” Hicks said.
 
The Eagles’ offensive line, indeed, will be one of the better collective units the Bears will face this year (they’re certainly better than the Minnesota Vikings’ leaky group). And on the other side of the ball, the Eagles’ disruptive defensive line — led by game-wrecking defensive tackle Fletcher Cox — will post a stout challenge for the Bears’ offensive line. How the interior of the Bears’ line holds up against Cox and Michael Bennett, and how Charles Leno and Bobby Massie fare against the Eagles’ ends — who line up as “wide nine” techniques — will be far more critical to determining the outcome of Sunday’s game than whatever pixie dust is sprinkled on Foles’ right arm.
 
So for the Bears to advance in the playoffs, they’ll have to beat a defending Super Bowl champion coming to Soldier Field with plenty of momentum and belief. And that will not be easy.

Top 30 free agents of the 2020 NFL offseason

Top 30 free agents of the 2020 NFL offseason

The first phase of the 2020 NFL offseason will kick off on March 18 when the signing period for free agency officially begins. Teams can negotiate with free agents beginning on March 16, and the Bears are expected to be among the cluster of clubs searching for upgrades at several key positions.

GM Ryan Pace is likely to focus his free-agent budget on a veteran quarterback, help along the offensive line, and the secondary where players like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Prince Amukamara face uncertain futures. There's also the tight end problem, which Pace can use free agency to land a quick fix.

This year's free-agent class his headlined by high-upside yet risky players. Many of the top names are coming off of breakout seasons but have resumes of underwhelming production.

Here's a look at the top 30 free agents scheduled to hit the open market.

Top 30 free agents of the 2020 NFL offseason

Kyle Long looking forward to 'seeing what another set of eyes from a coaching perspective can give Mitch'

Kyle Long looking forward to 'seeing what another set of eyes from a coaching perspective can give Mitch'

Former Bears offensive linemen Kyle Long appeared on The Rap Sheet and Friends podcast hosted by NFL insider Ian Rapoport and he didn't shy away from questions about Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Long, while stating that he understood the questioning and criticism that Trubisky faces, still believes in him.

"The Bears have won with Mitchell Trubisky."

Indeed Mitch was the starter for 14 games of the Bears 12-4 season before this year's 8-8 disappointment. The issue was Trubisky's play was of course, as he didn't show any noticeable improvement in 2019 after tossing 24 touchdowns in 2018. "We all regressed this year, but unfortunately heavy lies the head that wears the crown, and Mitch is the captain," Long said. 

"Mitch is the quarterback. He’s also suited to take the stuff that he’s gotta deal with, and that’s what I love about Mitch. He can deal with the noise, and he’s young. He’s so young."

Long seems excited by the idea of Chicago's hires, saying that new faces could have quite the positive effect on Trubisky’s game "I’m looking forward to seeing what another set of eyes from a coaching perspective can give Mitch. It’ll be cool to see.”

This offseason the Bears have brought in a new offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor), quarterbacks coach (John DeFilippo), and promoted former quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone to passing game coordinator. Bears head coach Matt Nagy, similar to Long, has faith in Trubisky developing, especially in regard to Ragone. In December Nagy said, “I think I know Mitch better than anybody in this building, except maybe Dave Ragone.”

Long certainly seems to miss his teammates though he clearly has no regrets about his decision. He and Trubisky definitely share a bond that will last long beyond their playing days. “I love the kid, he’s a great friend obviously, a teammate, but I’m looking forward to seeing him develop.”

Similar to the message delivered by the Bears’ front office, Long was in full support of Trubisky throughout the entire interview.

"Mitch is the quarterback. He’s also suited to take the stuff that he’s gotta deal with, and that’s what I love about Mitch. He can deal with the noise...”

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