Bears

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 31 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.

Pro Football Focus: Bears have NFL’s best run defense entering 2019

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USA Today

Pro Football Focus: Bears have NFL’s best run defense entering 2019

Pro Football Focus doesn’t seem to expect much regression for the Bears defense, at least when it comes to run defense.

PFF analyst Mike Renner ranked every team’s ability to stop the ground game, heading into 2019, and Chicago remains on top.

The team retained its entire front seven, top-to-bottom, with the exception of Sam Acho, who spent most of last season on injured reserve anyway.

One of the biggest keys, in Renner’s analysis, is Akiem Hicks, who was among Pro Football Focus’ top performers in the running game.

“The former Saint is proving himself one of the best free agent additions in recent memory,” Renner wrote. “His 13.3 run-stop percentage was the second-highest figure of any interior defender in the NFL last season.”

The Bears allowed the fewest rushing yards and rushing touchdowns of any defense last season, and the 3.8 yards per attempt they gave up was fourth best.

With the whole gang back together for 2019, the team is in a great spot to run it back under Chuck Pagano.    

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

The Bears will begin training camp next week without many significant position battles — outside of kicker, of course — which stands as an indicator of how strong a roster Ryan Pace has built. But that doesn’t mean there won't be some intriguing decisions to be made in a month and a half, especially involving depth at some critical positions. 

So here’s a pre-training camp stab at projecting what the Bear’s 53-man roster will look like on the night of Sept. 5:

QUARTERBACKS (2): Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel
Missing the cut: Tyler Bray

These two guys are locked in, leaving Tyler Bray to likely return to the practice squad for another season. 

RUNNING BACKS (4): Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis, David Montgomery, Kerrith Whyte Jr. 
Missing the cut: Ryan Nall

Cohen, Davis and Montgomery are roster locks, leaving Whyte and Nall to compete for, likely, just one spot on the roster. Matt Nagy praised Nall during OTAs, and he could become a versatile option with the ability to play some fullback, but we’ll give the last spot to Whyte given his speed and the Bears’ focus on that trait in the offseason. 

WIDE RECEIVERS (6): Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley Ridley, Marvin Hall
Missing the cut: Javon Wims, Emanuel Hall, Taquan Mizzell, Tanner Gentry, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Thomas Ives

Robinson, Gabriel and Miller are locks, while Patterson’s contract structure ($5 million guaranteed, all in 2019) and Ridley’s draft slot (fourth round) easily get them on the team, too. That leaves Javon Wims, Marvin Hall, Emanuel Hall and a handful of others to compete for what probably is only one more spot on the 53-man roster. There’s not much separating those three heading into training camp, though Emanuel Hall’s sports hernia surgery sidelined him during OTAs, putting him a little behind the curve. Wims is the incumbent here but didn’t get on the field much in 2018, while Marvin Hall played a little with the Atlanta Falcons over the last two years. We’ll give the edge to Marvin Hall for now based on his speed and meager experience, but also with the knowledge that the Bears’ sixth receiver likely won’t be active on game days unless of an injury. 

TIGHT ENDS (5): Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker, Bradley Sowell, Dax Raymond
Missing the cut: Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted, Ellis Richardson

If Burton has to begin training camp on the PUP list, will he be ready for Week 1? Can Shaheen stay healthy for a full season? Those are perhaps the two biggest questions needing answers not only for this unit, but for the Bears’ offense as a whole. Burton’s 11th-hour injury prior to the Bears’ playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles limited how dynamic Nagy’s offense could be, while Shaheen’s preseason injury meant the Bears were ineffective when using 12 personnel during the regular season. The Bears need better depth behind Burton and Shaheen — Braunecker is a reliable special teamer with flexibility to play both the “U” and the “Y” spots, but can more much-needed depth emerge from a converted offensive lineman (Sowell) and a handful of undrafted free agents (Raymond, Bunting, Horsted, Richardson)? We’ll give Sowell (at the “Y” behind Shaheen) and Raymond (at the “U” behind Burton) the spots for now, but both will have to earn their way onto the roster during training camp. 

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Charles Leno, James Daniels, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie, Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen, Alex Bars
Missing the cut: Cornelius Lucas, Joe Lowery, T.J. Clemmings, Blake Blackmar, Marquez Tucker, Jordan McCray, Sam Mustipher

The Bears moved Sowell to tight end thanks, in part, to their confidence in the development of Coward — a converted defensive lineman — to take over as their swing tackle in 2019. He’s still under construction as an NFL offensive lineman and will have to beat out a handful of challengers, including a five-year NFL reserve in Lucas, but Coward has the edge for a roster spot. The interior reserves are less clear, though: Larsen was brought back in free agency but only has $90,000 guaranteed on his one-year deal, while Bars played for O-line coach Harry Hiestand in college but is coming off an ACL/MCL injury that led to him going undrafted in April. Any of the other reserves could make a push, or the Bears could look to add interior depth on cut-down weekend. For now, though, Larsen, Bars and Coward make the most sense to slide behind the same starting five the Bears had to end 2018. 

DEFENSIVE LINE (6): Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Williams
Missing the cut: Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton, Daryle Banfield, Jonathan Harris

This is the Bears’ deepest unit, with the only battle to see who will make the roster and wind up inactive on game days, as Williams was for all but two games in 2018. 

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5): Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, Chuck Harris
Cut: Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, James Vaughters

Irving flashed during 2017’s and 2018’s preseasons, and might need to do so again to secure his spot on the Bears’ 2019 roster. But consider this an open battle for reserve roles behind Mack/Floyd/Lynch: Irving has the inside track to one spot but will have to earn it; while whoever flashes the most from the Harris/Fitts/Betts/Vaughters group should get another. We’ll go with Harris here — maybe Mack can take his fellow Buffalo alum under his wing during training camp. 

INSIDE LINEBACKER (4): Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkoski, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Cut: Josh Woods, Jameer Thurman, Kevin Pierre-Louis

Woods might be as close to the bubble as anyone on defense, and could force his way on to the roster with a strong preseason and a commitment to special teams. But with Kwiatkoski a reliable backup and he and Iyiegbuniwe being core special teamers, it’s hard to see Woods beating out any of those four for a spot right now. 

CORNERBACK (6): Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Buster Skrine, Kevin Toliver II, Duke Shelley, Sherrick McManis
Cut: Stephen Denmark, John Franklin III, Michael Joseph, Josh Simmons, Clifton Duck, Jonathon Mincy

There should be a strong competition among the reserve outside corners on this roster, with Toliver having the best shot but needing to fend off the raw athleticism of Denmark and Franklin as well as the talent of Joseph, who stuck on the practice squad last year after going undrafted out of Division III Dubuque. Shelley flashed during OTAs and minicamp during the spring and looks likely to wind up on the 53-man roster. While McManis worked at safety some during the spring, we’ll include him among the cornerbacks for now. 

SAFETY (4): Eddie Jackson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson
Cut: Doyin Jibowu

Barring injury and a more permanent move to safety for McManis, there’s little that’ll change in this unit between now and Week 1.

SPECIALISTS (3): Greg Joseph (PK), Pat O’Donnell (P), Patrick Scales (LS)
Cut: Elliott Fry, Eddy Pineiro, John Wirtel

Surprise! While the battle between Fry and Pineiro will dominate the headlines in Bourbonnais, the “winner” isn’t guaranteed to be the Bears’ Week 1 kicker. So not only are those two competing against each other, they’re competing against the field, too. In this scenario, the Cleveland Browns keep fifth-round pick Austin Seibert and cut Joseph, who made 17 of 20 field goals (with a long of 51 yards) for them in 2018. The Bears could try to swing a trade for Baltimore’s Kaare Vedvik here, too. The larger point, though, is this: Pace may have to look outside the organization for his Week 1 kicker, and there will be some talent — like Joseph — available if he does.