Bears

Bears expect 49ers to try to 'run the ball down our throats'

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Bears expect 49ers to try to 'run the ball down our throats'

The defense may be an emerging strength of the Bears, but “not in the run game,” scoffed linebacker Pernell McPhee. “We [aren’t] doing good in the run game right now so hopefully we can tighten up the screws. I think our secondary is doing a great job of covering; they did that all year.

“But we just got to get better in the run defense and that's what our focus got to be on. Because San Fran is going to come in here and probably try and run the ball down our throats.”

The Bears have made good on their stated commitment to run the football, ranking seventh in rushing attempts through 11 games and 16th in yards.

But the prime directive in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s philosophy is to interdict opponents’ efforts to run, at which they are succeeding arguably not all, yet stand on the brink of .500 after winning three of their last four games.

[MORE: Bears' WR Kevin White 'pushing' to play in 2015]

The Bears have held only three opponents to less than 100 yards, all victories (Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis). They were dramatically out-rushed by both Kansas City (87-117) and Green Bay II (101-177), yet won both of those. They managed to substantially out-rush the Packers (189-133) in Week 1, yet lost.

“It hasn't been good enough, but we've been able to overcome it,” Fangio said. “It's a little bit of everything. It starts up front. We haven't been consistently good enough up front. We haven't been consistently good enough at the linebacker position. And your secondary is involved in run defense, too, and there's been plays where they haven't been consistent enough. So it's been a little bit of everything and…we've got to get it rectified.”

They need to. And soon.

The Bears stand 29th in rush yards allowed per game, 30th in rushing average. If there is a concern coming into Soldier Field with the San Francisco 49ers, it’s that the one thing the 49ers do with even modest ability is run (20th in yards per game).

The 49ers crushed the Minnesota Vikings 20-3 in Week 1 with 230 rushing yards (168 by Carlos Hyde) while holding the Vikings to 71, with Adrian Peterson tallying 31 of those. Meaning: It can happen.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

The Packers rushed for their 133 and 177 yards in part by utilizing a nickel package as their base offensive personnel group, forcing the Bears into nickel as well and then running against the lighter lineup that uses only two true defensive linemen.

Hybrid linebacker/end Willie Young, who played only seven snaps as recently as the Minnesota game last month and is primarily a nickel pass rusher, played 59 of Green Bay’s 78 snaps last Thursday while the Packers were rushing for those 177 yards.

Lamarr Houston, after playing four snaps vs. Minnesota, played 38 of Green Bay’s snaps (49 percent).

The anomaly of the victory: In something of a rope-a-dope vs. the run, coaches freed the front four to focus less on containing and more on rushing Aaron Rodgers, who escaped for 33 yards. Rodgers was pressured into his poorest passing game in two years. The tactic effectively conceded some running opportunities to the Packers, but other than by Rodgers scrambles, the defense was gashed for only one running play longer than 10 yards.

Two of San Francisco’s three wins (Minnesota, Atlanta) came with the 49ers’ best rushing games (230, 133).

“We’ve got to do a great job staying in our gaps,” McPhee said. “We got a lot of young guys on the inside and a lot of guys new to the system. I just think everybody’s got to communicate a little better and stay fitted in their gap.”

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

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USA TODAY

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

The Bears reaching .500 is in itself news, since the last time it happened (2014) was two Bears head coaches and three Brandon Marshall uniforms ago, and only three current position players (Kyles Fuller and Long, Sherrick McManis) were on the roster back then.

But beyond getting coach Matt Nagy his first win as an NFL head coach, the win over Seattle occasioned a handful of takeaways beyond all of the ones headed up by Khalil Mack and Mitch Trubisky:

Defense in a rush, even at less than full strength

The Bears lead the NFL with 10 sacks (which is on pace to fall just short of the NFL team record of 72 for a season, set in 1984 by the Bears, for those who delight in frivolous early-season stat’ing). The production is especially noteworthy because the sacks are spread among eight different players.

Even more significantly, the sacks haven’t just come from eight different players; they’ve come from eight different POSITIONS, including every position in the front seven in the Bears base 3-4: both outside-linebacker spots (Mack, Aaron Lynch) and both insides (Trevathan and Roquan Smith); both defensive-end slots (Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris); and nose tackle (Eddie Goldman).

The rush has contributed to one of the NFL’s worst pass-picking secondaries effectively sealing the Seattle game with one interception (Prince Amukamara) and having the Green Bay game within its grasp on another (Kyle Fuller).

What makes the sack production even more impressive is that none of the stops have come from Leonard Floyd, still playing with one hand encased on a padded cast and whose playing time was cut back from 77 percent of the snaps in Green Bay to 59 percent against Seattle. Floyd has zero quarterback hits in his 85 total snaps but delivered 3 tackles, a pass defense’d and a fumble recovery against the Seahawks despite his limited hand, which is a factor.

“Oh, for sure,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. “I mean there’s no way around it. Like trying to type on your computers there with one hand. You’ve got your head in the sand if you don’t think that affects a guy’s play.”

Kevin White’s absence is surprising.

White did not generate the wow factor of rookie Javon Wims in preseason but he revealed an eye-opening ability in the open field with the football in his hands, the kind of yards-after-catch that West Coast offenses treasure. Not insignificantly, with the added reps with the No. 1 offense while Allen Robinson was held out for knee rehab, then working with Robinson in a variety of packages, White had developed a positive relationship with Mitch Trubisky; the two worked out together in California, and quarterbacks have a warm spot for 6-3 receivers with downfield speed.

But White played just two snaps against Seattle, down from 12 at Green Bay, and he has yet to be thrown a pass after consistently earning plaudits from coaches through the off- and preseason.

“I think that’s just how the game goes,” Nagy said. “Sometimes depending on whether it’s a slight injury to a wide receiver, a guy’s out of breath or tired, but there’s nothing either good or bad from that. It’s just the way it kind of played out.”

How White’s NFL future plays out is becoming increasingly problematic, and less and less likely to be in Chicago. Allen Robinson is signed for three years, Taylor Gabriel for four, and Anthony Miller’s rookie contract is for four. White went into this off- and preseason with a clean slate in the form of a new coaching staff. That slate still has 14 games remaining, but White doesn’t play special teams, and the only other players with fewer than 21 game snaps Monday were major special-teams contributors: Josh Bellamy, 2 snaps on offense, 18 on ‘teams; Ben Braunecker, 1 on offense, 19 on ‘teams; and Daniel Brown, 1 and 14.

Fourth-quarter’ing

The Bears can talk about finishing but their two opponents have combined for five fourth-quarter touchdowns, leading to the loss of a 20-point bulge and the game in Green Bay, and turning a 14-point lead over Seattle into a one-TD game. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have posted a combined passer rating of 98.4, up from an 89.9 for 2017. The Bears held the Seahawks to just 2-for-10 on third downs for three quarters, then had Seattle convert all three in the fourth quarter.

Neither the Packers nor Seahawks scored in their first quarters, but of the 41 teams scored against the Bears, 35 of them have been tallied in the fourth quarter.

Probably a jinx here, but special teams have been special

Pat O’Donnell’s job wasn’t all that secure after last season, the fourth in his four NFL seasons with a punting net less than 40 yards. The Bears re-signed him but just to a one-year contract and brought in rookie Ryan Winslow for preseason competition. O’Donnell rose to the challenge with a net of 41.7 yards on 12 punts, five yards longer than Winslow on his seven.

O’Donnell has kept his game on: nine punts with a 41.8-yard average net, and four of the kicks inside the 20. His work has combined to allow the Packers and Seahawks to return just two of eight punts, the inverse of the Bears, who’ve had Tarik Cohen return six of the eight caught.

The NFL has been awash in missed placekicks this year – 15 last weekend – and the Bears have had constant and serious kicker issues in the past few seasons, ever since cutting Robbie Gould, come to think of it. Conor Barth after Gould, then Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent and Cairo Santos brought in last year after Barth missed five of his 23 field-goal attempts.

Cody Parkey has made all five of his PAT’s and his four field-goal tries, although none longer than 33 yards. The results have made the Bears one of only 10 teams to be 100 percent in both field goals and extra points through two games.

Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

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Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

One of the more important questions the Bears had to answer Monday night was how Matt Nagy would call plays if given another second-half lead. Nagy answered that question well against the Seattle Seahawks, specifically with how he dialed up a well-executed 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive midway through the second half of the Bears' 24-17 win on Monday Night Football. 

The Bears never gained more than nine yards on a single play until the final one of the drive, which went for 10. But the Mitch Trubisky-led offense also never faced a third down, with this group staying on schedule while out-scheming and out-executing the Seahawks. There's an argument to be made it was the Bears' best offensive drive of the young season: The other two touchdown drives of 2018 came on the first drive of each game when plays were scripted.

Nagy had to make an adjustment with the Seahawks frequently dropping eight men into the box and selling out to stop Jordan Howard. He did so on this drive, and it got the Bears into the end zone. Here's the blow-by-blow of how:

First play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 34

Tight ends Dion Sims and Trey Burton are lined up to the near sideline, and Trubisky quickly fires a screen to Taylor Gabriel. It’s the first time the Bears give this look in Monday’s game after Nagy admitted he over-used some screens against the Packers. Gabriel does a nice job after the catch to gain six yards, starting the drive on schedule. 

Second play: Second and four, ball on Bears' 40

In 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back), Howard runs a stretch to the right, away from the middle of the field the Seahawks had so successfully clogged all night. Kyle Long delivers a punishing pancake block, and Gabriel holds his own as a run blocker, too, to net Howard a gain of five and a first down. 

Third play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 45

This is the only ineffective play of the drive, and it underscores how the Seahawks' defense had been playing the Bears' offense. On the far sideline, safety Earl Thomas picks up tight end Trey Burton (red arrow), which would've left Allen Robinson (blue arrow) in one-on-one coverage with no safety help over the top because Bradley McDougald (yellow circle/arrow) is in the box. Trubisky sells the pass fake, but McDougald stays committed to the run. The Bears' offensive line does its job but can't block the extra defender, and McDougald makes a tackle for a one-yard gain. 

Fourth play: Second and nine, ball on Bears' 46

McDougald (green circle) blitzes from the edge on a play fake to Howard. Burton (blue arrow) is open for an easy completion at the line of scrimmage, while linebacker Austin Calitro (yellow arrow) backs up as the ball is being thrown, possibly to carry wide receiver Anthony Miller over the middle. He doesn't make the tackle on the play, which goes for nine yards and a first down. 

Fifth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 45

This is the only time the Bears ran the ball into the interior of the Seahawks' defense on this drive. After attacking the edges and getting in rhythm with some quick passing plays, the Bears' offensive line (as well as Sims and Burton) get their best interior run blocking push of the night, with most of Howard's blockers one or two yards upfield before he crosses the line of scrimmage. Howard gains six on the gorund here. 

Sixth play: Second and four, ball on Seahawks' 39

Gabriel lines up in the backfield to Trubisky's right, and the pair run a zone read. Trubisky makes the correct read on the play, and but Robinson couldn't hold his block as the play stretched toward the sideline. Gabriel does well to get four yards on it. 

Seventh play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 35

Credit Sims with a good job in pass protection, as he routes Frank Clark upfield just enough for Trubisky to escape the Seahawks' edge rusher and get into open field. Trubisky is keeping his eyes downfield (blue arrow) while moving to his right, and he doesn't see a throw he likes so he takes off and runs for four yards. That Trubisky kept his eyes downfield was generally a good thing, though had he put his head down and took off sooner he probably could've got more than the four yards he did. That's a lot easier to say from the comfort of a couch, though. 

Eighth play: Second and six, ball on Seahawks' 31

Another play fake to Howard draws linebacker Barkevious Mingo (green arrow) toward the backfield, and Trubisky has no problem throwing a quick swing pass to Josh Bellamy (blue circle) for a gain of six and a first down. 

Ninth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 25

A well-designed and well-executed jet sweep with some misdirection to Gabriel (red arrow) draws linebacker Mychal Kendricks (green arrow) the wrong way. Left tackle Charles Leno gets to block Calitro in space (blue circle), to highlight a good matchup for the Bears. This play is well-blocked, but it's again safety Earl Thomas who's the only reason why it didn't go for more, as he diagnoses the play and makes a tackle on Gabriel for a gain of eight to end the third quarter. 

Tenth play: Second and two, ball on Seahawks' 17

The Bears go back to Howard, who goes off the left end for a gain of seven. While only three of Howard's 14 runs came on this drive, over half his yards (18/35) were gained on it. 

11th play: First and goal, ball on Seahawks' 10

Miller runs an excellent route, beating cornerback Akeem King with a perfectly-set-up move. Trubisky, rolling to his left, fires a perfect pass to Miller. Touchdown. 

Final takeaways

A number of players deserve credit for making this drive work, from the obvious (Trubisky, for taking what was there) and Gabriel (for slipping through or past tackles for a few extra yards) to the less obvious (Sims, in particular, had a strong series as both a pass and run blocker). But Nagy stood out, too, for calling the right plays to kick-start an offense that punted on its previous two second-half possessions.