The Bears did something important against the Detroit Lions beyond, you know, coming back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win.
They began to establish an offensive identity.
What, exactly, that identity is will be figured out over the next few games. Based on Week 1, it looks like it’ll involve a good amount of heavy personnel sets (two/three tight ends), play-action and snaps from under center, which colleague Adam Hoge analyzed earlier this week.
But that identity could not begin to form without success on first down. That’s where offensive identities are built, where offenses can dictate matchups and tempo.
The Bears, on Sunday, averaged 7.9 yards per play on first down – the third-highest average in the NFL. Last year, the Bears had the sixth-worst yards per play average on first down (5.0). No wonder they never really established an identity as an offense – except an identity as being, well, bad.
“The first and second down stuff, being able to create that identity and get good via the pass or the run, that's important early on,” head coach Matt Nagy said. “The sooner you can do that – that's where we really struggled last year, we never got to that point. The sooner we can get to a point to where now people are seeing you have an identity, and now you work off of that.”
Nagy talked in February about needing a greater sense of urgency to find the Bears’ offensive identity early in 2020. The early returns on that challenge, six and a half months later, were promising.
It wasn’t just that the Bears’ offense looked different, it’s that the different look worked. Even in the first half, when the Bears managed just six points and Mitch Trubisky was a disappointing 8/20, the Bears averaged 6.6 yards per play on first down – well above their 2019 average.
In fact, the Bears averaged more rushing yards on first down (5.3) against the Lions than they did on all first down plays in 2019 (5.0). Good offenses are, first and foremost, good on first down.
But what about third down?
The Bears’ third down issues did hold back their offense for most of Week 1. They converted just two of 11 third down tries, including failures with one, four and five yards to gain. Despite all the Bears’ success on first down, they still averaged seven yards to the chains on third down. There were too many third-and-longs for this team to realistically convert.
“When you get in predictable situations, the advantage flips to the defense,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “We kept putting ourselves in those predictable situations, where you’re gonna be 95 percent or more pass. That just makes it easier for the rush and easier for the coverage and easier for the defensive coach to make calls, and we work on it, we practice it, we plan for it. Obviously, we didn’t execute it.”
But the good news is it’s easier to fix third down issues than it is first down issues. Why? It’s easier to fix a problem on offense if you have an identity built. The Bears, last year, were trying to put out a bunch of fires on offense without the extinguisher of an identity.
And identities, again, are built on first down, where the Bears had a lot of success in Week 1.
Maybe it was a product of facing a bad defense depleted by injuries and one hilarious headbutt of a referee. But the Bears did start 2020 on the right foot on offense. That’s much more than can be said for 2019, no matter the opponent.
If the Bears can keep this up against the Giants this weekend and carry some momentum – and a burgeoning identity – into Atlanta in Week 3, hey, maybe there’s more upside to what Nagy, Trubisky and this offense can do in 2020 than we might’ve thought.