Bears

Bears camping out 2016: Bears have quantity at LB, but do they have elite quality?

Bears camping out 2016: Bears have quantity at LB, but do they have elite quality?

No team making the 2015 NFL playoffs recorded fewer than the Bears’ 35 sacks. The Bears haven’t posted more than 41 sacks in a season in nearly 30 years, and with the Bears converting to a 3-4 base defense last season, the foundation of a definitive pass rush rests squarely with their linebackers.

The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl with a linebacker – Von Miller – as MVP. Consider that one template for what coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio seek for their defense. Along that must be the mesh among a group that has upgraded talent but no two projected starters who’ve played together. Adding new starters does not automatically translate into successful cohesion.

“I think we have some better pieces to work with for sure,” Fangio said. “The one thing that will have to get honed up quickly is we are vastly new at the inside linebacker position, so the carryover from Year 1 to Year 2 is not there at that position, and that’s a critical position when you’re talking about that because those guys are kind of the quarterback of the defense.

“They’re in between everybody. As fast as those guys learn how to quarterback the defense, feel comfortable in what we’re doing and we feel comfortable with them, will determine how fast and how well we improve."

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Offseason adjustments

No position group underwent a more significant retooling than the one that is the obvious heart of the basic 3-4 and, for the Bears, also for their 4-3 sub packages. The result is a clear expectation that an area of liability in 2015 become an immediate strength for 2016, one with a stunning amount of competition.

None of the 2015 day one starters will be the same: Jared Allen and Shea McClellin are gone, Christian Jones is fighting for a roster spot, and while Pernell McPhee is projected to start, he has been down-sized after undergoing knee surgery shortly after the season.

After using free agency to re-staff both inside-linebacker spots – Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis, Danny Trevathan from Denver – the Bears made an edge pass rusher their draft priority – Leonard Floyd from Georgia, No. 9 overall.

“He’s got tremendous athleticism; we talked about that even in the draft process,” Fox said. “He’s very smart, has played a lot of different positions, understands the game, and he has the skill set to do all parts of his job, both in coverage and as far as rush.”

That would be your basic definition of “linebacker.”

The additions, along with both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young projected to be fully ready for camp instead of easing back from leg injuries as they were this time last year, give the Bears five proven veterans and Floyd and fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkowski for purposes of rotation, depth and special teams.

Depth-charting

Inside LBs: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan

Outside LBs: Lamarr Houston, Pernell McPhee

The mix: Willie Young, Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, Christian Jones, Nick Kwiatkowski, Lamin Barrow, Jonathan Anderson, John Timu, Jarrett Grace

[RELATED: Changes loom as Bears on final approach to training camp]

Three questions camp will begin to answer…

— Whether the Bears can mount a true pass rush from the position core most tasked with delivering one. They have a number of solid rush-linebackers; they have not shown an elite talent, that one dominant rusher that keys a defense and can blow up an offense. Houston (eight sacks), Young (6.5) and McPhee (six) were respectable, particularly given Houston and Young coming off injuries. But the Bears finished with just 35 sacks and need more threat from their rush-linebackers collectively or individually.

“There’s a lot of good rushers there, a lot of good guys who can do a lot of different things,” said right tackle Bobby Massie after facing the group and its constantly changing looks. “So there’s a good variety pack of pass rushers.”

— Whether Floyd is able to add a power component to his speed-based game. Floyd declared this a priority for himself: “It definitely gives me another move to go to when my speed is not working. It will definitely help me grow as an edge rusher.”

— What combination of talents will mesh optimally. Houston, McPhee and the other vets have established skills but the search for impact, particularly in rush lanes, will necessitate mix-and-match’es.

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per SharpFootballStats.com, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better. 

Bears Injury Report: Trubisky practices in full Thursday

Bears Injury Report: Trubisky practices in full Thursday

It appears like Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky will, in fact, make his return to the starting lineup Sunday against the New Orleans Saints after practicing in full Thursday as he recovers from a left shoulder injury.

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (concussion) and defensive end Bilal Nichols (hand) were also full participants and both should return to action in Week 7.

Guard Ted Larsen was limited on Thursday and all indications suggest Rashaad Coward will start in place of Kyle Long, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve this week.

As for the Saints, running back Alvin Kamara did not participate in practice as he rehabs knee and ankle injuries. His status is likely to be a game-time decision.

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