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.

Former teammates, now rivals, Tarik Cohen, Adrian Amos exchange Bears-Packers trash talk on Twitter


Former teammates, now rivals, Tarik Cohen, Adrian Amos exchange Bears-Packers trash talk on Twitter

For the last two years Tarik Cohen and Adrian Amos were teammates on the Bears. Now the two are exchanging trash talk on Twitter about the Bears-Packers rivalry.

On Monday it was made official that the 2019 NFL season opener will be Packers at Bears on a Thursday night on Sept. 5. Cohen opened the sparring in the direction of Amos, who signed a $37 million deal with the Packers earlier this month.

Amos had fun in his response.

All kidding aside, Amos' return to Soldier Field as a member of the rival Packers will be one of the main storylines of the game. Cohen and other members of the Bears offense will surely be looking to make a play on their former teammate.


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OK, Bears GM Ryan Pace is NFL EOTY for ’18 – but what is he really up to now?

USA Today

OK, Bears GM Ryan Pace is NFL EOTY for ’18 – but what is he really up to now?

What did Bears GM Ryan Pace know, and when did he know it?

And what is he really, really up to now?

Because a gnawing suspicion is that Pace has positioned the Bears to make NFL news again when the inevitable surprise cut is made closer to the end of training camps and the start of the season. Pace had the Bears in position to move on a Pro Bowl guard (Josh Sitton) when Green Bay released him at that point of the 2016 offseason. Pace had the Bears positioned to move on Khalil Mack late last preseason. And he presumably did not restructure the contracts of Mack and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, pushing cap hits totaling $3 million annually into years 2020-2022 just to give capologist Joey Laine some math practice.

The Bears general manager was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year over the weekend after a season that produced the second-biggest jump in win total (seven games, from five to 12) in the history of the NFL’s charter franchise, topped only by the eight-game bump from five in 2000 to 13 in 2001 under the late Mark Hatley.

But that was a long time ago, in NFL years, the past being for cowards and losers and all that. And so is 2018, for that matter. It’s what’s percolating now that becomes the interesting part of this time leading up to the 2019 season.

The reasons for the EOTY award were pretty simple. Pace hired rookie head coach Matt Nagy to replace John Fox. Then he put the Bears squarely on a win-right-now footing when he mortgaged a significant piece of the franchise’s future by trading away two No. 1 draft choices eight days before the season for rush-linebacker Mack.

What was intriguing about the Mack deal, which in one epic strike effectively replaced the entire sack/forced fumble production (14-1/2; three) lost in free agency to that point, was that Pace had known for weeks that Mack and the Oakland Raiders were having serious contract problems. Best suspicion is that Pace had gotten a whiff of the Oakland mess even before that, which is hugely to his credit.

So what is he up to now? Who does he suspect is going to (yet?) come available? And has he been stashing and keeping his powder dry for a move for, say, a Ndamukong Suh or Muhammad Wilkerson in the unfortunate case of an injury to Goldman or Akiem Hicks, for instance? The Bears dodged injury nightmares last season but Pace knows too well not having quality fills for a Pernell McPhee or Willie Young can do.

What a difference a year makes

In the meantime, the EOTY award does come with some of those ironic chuckles looking back at what problems conspired to make Pace a decided non-exec of the year for his 14-34 previous three years. What a difference a year indeed makes.

Pace in the 2017 offseason outbid himself for Mike Glennon, paying $18.5 million for four games of quarterback. Pace of course is hardly the only one misguessing on Glennon. The Arizona Cardinals signed him for $8 million over 2018-19, then cut him two weeks ago and are carrying $3 million in dead cap after a 3-13 season in which they skipped over him and went straight from Sam Bradford to rookie Josh Rosen, then fired their head coach after one year.

Pace’s 2017 included defensive backs Quintin Demps and Marcus Cooper on top of receiver Markus Wheaton, tight end Dion Sims and a revolving door at kicker (Connor Barth, Mike Nugent, Cairo Santos) and then on to Cody Parkey.

But two bigger points fold into any evaluation of Pace, more significant than the so-so record in free agency and beyond the Mack deal.

First, Pace has produced one of the NFL’s best hit rates in the draft, even folding in a shaky start in 2015 that produced Goldman, Adrian Amos and little else (Kevin White, Hroniss Grasu, Jeremy Langford, Tayo Fabuluge). Pace’s last three drafts have yielded more than a dozen starters on offense, defense and special teams. Four of his top five picks last year (Roquan Smith, James Daniels, Anthony Miller, Bilal Nichols) were regular or rotational starters, and the fifth (Joel Iyiegbuuniwe) tied for team high in special-teams tackles.

And second, Pace has established himself as having an aptitude for recognizing talent in a head coach. This second point takes in more than Nagy. Fox wasn’t necessarily forced on Pace, but the GM’s first choice was then-Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who was hired by Atlanta and had the Falcons in the Super Bowl two seasons later and in the divisional round his third season. Pace went along with the hiring of Fox in 2015 when the organization, using consultant Ernie Accorsi’s referral services, agreeing to a bridge coach with a record for turnarounds and who ostensibly brought a veteran perspective under which Pace could learn. Neither Fox nor Pace worked out for three years but the organization gambled on continuity at the higher position.

Pace also made do with Jay Cutler as his quarterback for two seasons. While George McCaskey said at the outset of Pace’s tenure that the Bears Chairman would not impose personnel directives on Pace based on money, the organization was not unhappy that Pace did not choose to eat the massive guaranteed money remaining on Cutler’s deal from Phil Emery and go all-in trading up for Marcus Mariota in ’15.

All that was then; this is now. But what is next is the bigger question.

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