Three keys and prediction: How the Bears can win a statement game against the Vikings

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Three keys and prediction: How the Bears can win a statement game against the Vikings

1. Finish in the fourth quarter. Here’s a blind test of which team is which: 

Team A: 29.9 points/game (5th), 19.4 points allowed/game (4th), 4th in DVOA
Team B: 24.6 points/game (15th), 22.7 points allowed/game (11th), 14th in DVOA

The Bears are Team A, and the Vikings are Team B. The point here being: The Bears are, on paper, a better team than the Vikings — and, actually, it’s not particularly close. 

But what the Vikings have that the Bears don’t is experience winning together. While Kirk Cousins wasn’t on this team last year, the same core playmakers remain: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph on offense; Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr (who’s questionable for Sunday’s game), Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on defense. Those guys led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game a year ago, which included that miraculous win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round. 

Minnesota, as an offense, isn’t markedly better in the fourth quarter (5.6 yards/play) than the other three periods, but they’re not worse than their full-game average (5.8 yards/play). Their defense, on the other hand, is at its best in the final 15 minutes, allowing 4.7 yards/play, lower than the 5.3 yards/play they’ve allowed this season. 

The Bears, meanwhile, have struggled in the fourth quarter on offense (4.9 yards/play, about one yard fewer than their season average) and defense (7.0 yards/play, two yards more than their season average). Matt Nagy and this team can do plenty over the first 45 minutes to make sure it’s not a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, but even if that’s the case, they’ll need to be better down the stretch to beat Minnesota. 

2. Make big plays on defense. Thielen has 100 or more receiving yards in eight of his nine games this year, while Diggs has gone over 90 yards in half of his eight games. While Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller are playing at Pro Bowl levels and might very well be capable of shutting both receivers down, the expectation here is that Thielen and Diggs will get their yards on Sunday night. What will key the Bears’ defense, then, will be big plays: Interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, tackles for loss, etc. The good news: Cousins has been sacked four times in four games this year, three of which the Vikings lost. Hitting home on Cousins and making him uncomfortable should result in the kind of game-shifting plays the Bears’ defense will need. 

3. Stay on schedule on offense. Opposing offenses are averaging 8.6 yards-to-gain on third down against Minnesota’s defense, which is about a yard and a half better than the league average. What’s interesting about that third down yards-to-gain number is it’s actually higher than what opposing offenses average on second down (8.1) against this defense. Needing to win on third down is sort of a non-starter for the Bears’ offense, given the three teams that beat Minnesota (the Bills, Rams and Saints) converted only 11 of 34 third down tries. But picking up quick first downs, or at least generating some third-and-short downs, can mitigate that strength of Minnesota’s defense. 

Prediction: Bears 27, Vikings 17. Just about every worst-to-first team has a “statement game” in which they prove they’ve arrived against a good team, or at least a team generally thought to be good. The Bears are a better team than the Vikings entering Sunday, but still have to prove — perhaps to themselves — that they’re a better team than the defending NFC North champions. Consider this a gut feeling: This is the game the Bears do just that, taking the step from being a potential playoff contender to a legit favorite to win their division.

Is Adam Shaheen's career with the Bears over?

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Is Adam Shaheen's career with the Bears over?

The Bears pulled the plug on the Kevin White project a year ago, effectively putting an end to the 2015 seventh overall pick’s time in Chicago halfway through the 2018 season. White was active for only two of the Bears’ final nine games, playing five special teams snaps on Thanksgiving and then getting one final shot in a largely meaningless Week 17 trip to Minnesota. 

A key difference between White and Adam Shaheen — who was a healthy scratch on Sunday for the first time in his career — is White was not expected to be a critical part of the Bears’ offense in 2018. He was the team’s fifth receiver, behind the starting core of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and versatile special teamer Josh Bellamy. His success or failure was never going to dictate much within the Bears’ offense. 

Shaheen, though, entered 2019 as the Bears’ top “Y” (in-line) tight end in an offense geared toward his position (the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, the two most similar offenses to the Bears, each have two tight ends on the field on about a third of their snaps). The Bears needed him to contribute as a run blocker and, at the least, be a receiving threat in the red zone. 

None of those things happened over the first eight games of 2019, with Shaheen trending from invisibility to liability. So the question for the 45th overall pick in 2017’s NFL Draft is: Where does he go from here in Chicago?

“We want all of our players to be able to be completely detailed and play hard and do everything they can to be the best player they can be,” coach Matt Nagy said, rather pointedly, when asked what Shaheen needed to do to be active on gamedays again. 

Compare what Nagy said about Shaheen to what he said about White the Monday after de-activating him last year: 

“Kevin’s worrying about doing what he can do as best as he can, and however that fits into what we do, he’ll do that. He’s been great. He really has.”

If White couldn’t get back on the field with his coach publicly praising him, what hope is there for Shaheen to get back on the field when his coach talks about the details and playing hard?

More specifically, tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride pointed to Shaheen’s issues as a run blocker in terms of footwork, pad level and finishing. Realistically, it’ll be difficult for Shaheen to show the kind of growth during practice over the next few weeks that would overcome what he put on tape in the Bears’ first eight games. 

When the Bears picked Shaheen from Division-II Ashland in the second round of 2017’s draft, general manager Ryan Pace lauded his athletic upside as a pass catcher. His run blocking skills were always going to have to developed. But the receiving aspect of his game hasn’t come around, either — of the 136 tight ends taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft from 1999-2019, Shaheen’s 26 career receptions rank 111th. 

So that Shaheen was a second rounder doesn’t matter to the 2019 Bears and an offensive coaching staff that was not in place when he was picked. This team needs to get its best players on the field to fix one of the worst offenses in the NFL, and collectively coaches determined Shaheen is not one of those players. 

“I don’t ever really have that in my mind that he was a second round pick,” Gilbride said. “You’re just trying to get that guy to execute, whether he’s a second round pick, free agent, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is he going to help your football team win games. That’s why you have him on the team. So each week we go into the gameplanning meetings try to see who best helps us fit that role to help our football team.”

The Bears only owe Shaheen a little over $600,000 in 2020, per Spotrac, so money is would not be a deterrent to cutting him three years into his four-year rookie contract (he’ll have been paid $4,639,556 by the end of the year). At this point, Shaheen’s future in Chicago doesn’t look promising, though he could get back on the field if, say, Trey Burton’s calf injury rules him out of Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. 

If Shaheen does play again, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity. Because time is running out for him and the Bears to make good on the upside they saw in him two and a half years ago. 

“As a competitor, you better want to do everything you can (to play again),” Gilbride said. “If it’s up to me to motivate him that’s exactly what I’ll tell him, as far as well, you’ve gotta compete, make sure that your skillset and what you bring to the table is enough to get you a suit on Sundays.” 

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Eddie Jackson's in the longest turnover drought of his life, and "it's getting stressful."

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Eddie Jackson's in the longest turnover drought of his life, and "it's getting stressful."

At this point last season, Eddie Jackson had forced turnovers in three of the first four games, and was coming off a first half highlighted by a 65-yard scoop and score against the Bills. Jackson ended the season as the defense's most consistent playmaker, which makes the underwhelming first half of 2019 even more confusing. Big plays aren't coming like they used to, and the Bears' defense – Jackson especially – are still trying to figure out why.

"You know I really can’t even answer that," he said on Tuesday. "We’ve just got to continue flying around and try to make plays on the ball."

"That’s like a trick question - I really don’t know how to answer that. You’ve got to fly around. Guys got to make plays on the ball, strip the ball, or get in position to make plays and try to intercept it and things like that. Really don’t know." 

The last time Jackson scored was in the Bears' Thanksgiving game last season. He jumped a slant from Matt Stafford and ran it back 40-something yards, winning the game for the Bears; it was his 5th touchdown through 27 career games. Now he's played 39 games and still stuck at 5. 

"This is the longest it’s ever been in my life , playing football, without an interception, without a touchdown – ever," he said. "So it’s getting stressful. I’m just happy we won the last game, but just being that type of competitor, you want the ball. It’s going to come, that’s all I can tell myself." 

His numbers, outside of turnovers, are also down, but Jackson still feels like he's playing well. Through his first two seasons he earned a reputation for always being around the ball, and for whatever reason, that just hasn't been the case so far in 2019. 

"I’m one of my biggest critics, so I just feel like I need to get in more positions to make plays, if that makes any sense," he said. "Like I said, it’s a different system, there are different things, so you’ve just got to buy in and control what you can control. And that’s dominating my square and my man. Wherever I’m in, just got to dominate that." 

The Bears spent Tuesday morning watching game tape from last year's Rams game, which in theory bodes well for Jackson's confidence. Not only did he play well (1 INT), but the Bears shut down a Rams offense that had scored 30 points or more in four straight games. Holding LA to a couple field goals was one of the biggest moments of the Bears' season. 

"Our preparation in practice was dead on," Jackson said. "Details, everyone was locked in. We knew it was going to be a tough game, and for us to come out and stand up how we stood up last year, it was some sight to see." 

The Bears will try and replicate that type of performance on Sunday night, and with the game-plan focused on forcing Goff to throw from the pocket, Jackson's going to get his chances. He admitted that there have been other chances throughout this season that he's been tempted to 'cheat' on, but has tried to stay disciplined within his first NFL system change. 

"You don’t want to press too much," he said. "It’s hard doing that, especially having the type of secondary that we have back there and even the type of confidence I have in myself and the type of player I am, you want to jump things.

"I’m just happy we won the last game, but just being that type of competitor, you want the ball. It’s going to come, that’s all I can tell myself." 

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