Among the Bears’ many questions needing to be answered, when they return to practice at Halas Hall after their off week: Why has this team been penalized so much in 2019, and how can they play cleaner?
The Bears are averaging about three more penalties per game in 2019 than they were assessed in 2018, and are one of nine teams in the NFL to have 50 or more flags thrown against them through Week 5.
More concerning is this isn’t the product of some flag-happy officiating crews in a small sample size: The Bears’ five opponents have been penalized 10 fewer times so far in 2019.
Diving deeper, the Bears were called for offensive holding 13 times in 2018, easily the lowest in the league. This year, they’ve already been called for offensive holding 12 times, eighth highest. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. has been on the wrong end of four of those calls, and is the most-penalized player in the NFL through five weeks with eight.
“I’ve had a lot of holding calls — some bulls--t, in my opinion," Leno said after Sunday's game in London. "But at the end of the day, if I’m not doing my job I’m hurting the offense and we can’t get going."
When asked to clarify, Leno said he could understand why one of the two holding calls against him in Week 5 was whistled, but explained of the other:
“One (the official said) I’m wrapping and I’m not wrapping, I’m getting my head across,” Leno said. “It’s just — I don’t know. I don’t know what they’re looking at. Whatever. It is what it is. I gotta do better.”
The replay of Sunday’s game made clear which one of those penalties Leno wasn’t happy about. He committed one in in the first quarter where defensive end Maxx Crosby shifted to Leno’s inside shoulder just before the snap, and Leno hooked him after the snap, leading to Crosby baying for a flag. Those sort of hooks are a point of emphasis in the NFL this year and will get called every time, coach Matt Nagy said after Leno was whistled for a similar penalty in Week 2.
“It's a point of emphasis this year with the refs,” Nagy said. “It was the right call. For him to go around and reach him and kind of yank, kind of pull him back, that's a point of emphasis with the refs, so they made the right call.”
It was the second one of Leno’s holds that he felt wasn’t warranted. The Bears called for a run with David Montgomery to the right side of the line, and Leno tried to seal off Crosby on the back end of the play. Perhaps the officials saw Leno’s left arm be out of control a bit, but it appeared to go just how Leno explained it.
Crosby didn’t immediately motion for a flag, for what it’s worth. Leno was seen on the TV broadcast yelling something at the officiating crew.
Still, this has been a bizarre trend — Leno was called for holding once in 2018, five times in 2017 and twice in 2016. Perhaps it’s an instance of a player twice not dealing well with the league’s emphasis on hooking, and then getting victimized by a questionable call another time.
The same goes with the Bears’ bizarre string of hands to the face penalties — a call which has been the product of another point of emphasis in the NFL this year.
These are fixable issues as the Bears regroup during their off week. But a lot of the fixing falls on coaching — specifically, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand — to continue to drill players on things that may have been legal in 2018 that aren’t in 2019.
The Bears’ offense hasn’t proven to be good enough to succeed on drives on which everything isn’t going right. These sort of self-inflicted wounds that put the Bears behind the sticks can kill possessions. While cleaner play won’t solve all the Bears’ offensive issues, it will at least give them a better shot at being better on that side of the ball coming out of their off week.