Bears

Bears In-Foe: From Megatron to MegaMarv?

Bears In-Foe: From Megatron to MegaMarv?

Jim Bob Cooter. An interesting name. Some interesting stuff in his past, too. But since he took over the Lions offense about midway through last season, Matthew Stafford's been as good as ever, and it's carried over so far into this season. Even after his Megatarget - Calvin Johnson - decided to retire after last season.  But one aspect remains a concern after a recent injury.

Detroit is top-five in points, total yards and passing yards per game. They've jumped from last in the NFL last season to 15th in rushing, but after second-year back Ameer Abdullah averaged 5.6 yards per carry into their Week Two matchup, he tore a foot ligament and could be out for the season. With that, they managed just a 2.2-yard average Sunday in Green Bay, falling behind 31-3 before walking out of Lambeau a 34-27 loser to drop to 1-2.

Theo Riddick is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield (16 catches, 130 yards) after 80 receptions for nearly 700 yards a year ago, but he's still averaging just 3.3 per carry after 3.1 in 2015. Enter seventh-round rookie Dwayne Washington, who had a couple of touchdown runs in the preseason (one for 58 yards), along with a 96-yard kickoff return TD. He carried 10 times for 38 yards against the Packers.

[MORE BEARS IN-FOE: Can this offense expose two key Lions injuries?]

Stafford finished last season with 17 touchdowns against just two interceptions. That ratio is 7-to-2 this year. Through three weeks, he's second in passing yards, fourth in yards-per-attempt, and sixth in completion percentage. And wouldn't you know? His main target is the guy they brought in to replace Calvin Johnson: Marvin Jones. Many thought he wouldn't come close to comparing.

So far, the former Bengal has been targeted 29 times, with 18 catches for a league-high 408 yards. Six of those receptions and 205 of those yards came Sunday against Green Bay. Soon-to-be-36-year-old Anquan Boldin was a late signing despite still being physically imposing, and the 12th-leading receiver in league history. He's caught a pair of touchdowns among his 11 receptions for 105 yards. For the past two years (189 catches), Golden Tate was to Johnson what Randall Cobb is to Jordy Nelson in Green Bay when both are healthy. The Golden Domer has 13 grabs for 94 yards. And 2014 first-round tight end Eric Ebron has tested Motown's patience with knee, quad, and hand injuries his first two seasons. He's caught 14 passes thus far after 47 a year ago.

Stafford has a five-year non-injury starting streak after some health issues his first couple of seasons. That's amazing with the way he's been knocked around (44 sacks a year ago). He's hit the turf eight times the first three weeks. They've gone to great lengths in recent drafts to fix that, spending high picks trying to shore up protection and get a ground game going to complement their aerial assault. That continued this spring under new GM Bob Quinn, who came over from New England and kept coach Jim Caldwell in place. Tackle Taylor Decker out of Ohio State was chosen 16th as 2012 top pick Riley Reiff has underachieved heading into his contract year. Last year's number-one pick, guard Laken Tomlinson out of Lane Tech High School, has yet to live up to his selection. 2013 third-rounder Larry Warford compared to Kyle Long in the same draft class, but has struggled with injuries. And for the second time in three years, the Lions drafted a center in the third round (Graham Glasgow from Michigan via Marmion Military Academy in 2016; Travis Swanson in 2014).

Three keys and prediction: Bears - Cardinals

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USA TODAY

Three keys and prediction: Bears - Cardinals

1. Explosive passing plays. The Seahawks didn’t respect Mitch Trubisky’s ability to do this on Monday night, leading to the dollar store version of the Legion of Boom stacking the box and successful selling out to stop Jordan Howard. Perhaps if Trubisky connected with Allen Robinson on an early deep ball that was picked off, or to a wide-open Gabriel over the middle, Seattle would’ve had to back off from frequently dropping safety Bradley McDougald into the box. 

The point being: The best chance the Bears’ offense has of success, even against a defense that’s allowing a touch over six yards per play, is for Trubisky to link up with a receiver for a big-chunk play. It could be on a downfield throw, or maybe a catch-and-run to Gabriel or Tarik Cohen. Either way, Trubisky and this offense needs to quickly establish that they can make big-chunk plays through the air. Consistency, otherwise, may be hard to come by on Sunday. 

“Just (Matt) Nagy, he’s a great mind and just scripting those things,” Gabriel said. “When the deep ball is there, I’m pretty sure this week we’re going to take it. But at the same time the deep ball, it opens up a lot of things.” 

2. Leonard Floyd winning his one-on-one matchup with left tackle D.J. Humphries. A couple of factors in favor of Floyd: First, he’s no longer wearing a club on his right hand, and his smaller brace allows him use of his fingers. Second, Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries has allowed 10 pressures in 70 pass blocking snaps this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said it’d be unfair to make any conclusions about Floyd’s season based on two relatively quiet, club-inhibited games. Sunday will be a good opportunity for Floyd to get after Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford, just as he did last year for two sacks (one of which was a safety) when a banged-up Bradford came to Chicago with the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5. 

3. Finish in the fourth quarter. The Bears’ defense has dominated for six of the eight quarters it's played this year, but of the 41 points it’s allowed, 35 have come in the final 15 minutes. Granted, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are two of the more clutch late-game quarterbacks in the NFL, while Bradford has been horrendous this year (maybe the fourth quarter quarterback will be rookie Josh Rosen, for all we know). Either way, this could mean a few things: Kyle Fuller making a play on a would-be touchdown — this after getting beat by perfect throws for scores against the Packers and Seahawks — or, like last week, a couple of players coming up with game-sealing interceptions or forced fumbles. 

Prediction: Bears 20, Cardinals 9. The Cardinals’ defense might be better than its early-season numbers suggest, but Arizona’s offense will struggle to move the ball with any consistency against the Bears’ defense. We’ll say the Bears keep everything in front of them and allow only three field goals (hey, Arizona has to kick one at *some* point this year, right?) while Mitch Trubisky leads a pair of touchdown and field goal drives each to pace a comfortable victory. 

Final thoughts: Taylor Gabriel doing the little things to become a complete receiver 

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USA Today Sports Images

Final thoughts: Taylor Gabriel doing the little things to become a complete receiver 

PHOENIX — Taylor Gabriel, through two games with the Bears, is playing a lot more than he did in two years with the Atlanta Falcons. His snap percentage increase — from 41 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2017 to 90 percent so far in 2018 — is commiserate with the four-year, $26 million pay bump the Bears gave Gabriel back in March. 

While Gabriel hasn’t had an explosive play yet — though he could’ve against the Seattle Seahawks had Mitch Trubisky not overthrown him when he was open over the middle in the first quarter — he has made contributions in two important areas: Run blocking, and scrapping for yards on quick throws. 

“He can take it to the house any given play, he's just so fast,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But he's learning right now how to be a full-time wide receiver, meaning he's getting a lot more reps. So when you have him in different motions and moving him around a lot, that can be tiring. But he has handled that really well.”

Gabriel made a few plays as a run blocker to help set up some of the Bears’ more successful runs in a largely unsuccessful game on the ground against Seattle. While he’s only 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds, he said “cut blocking is my forte” and said the attention paid to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has helped, too. 

“When (Hiestand’s) putting in the plays for running, we’re not just not paying attention or watching film of something else, we’re focusing on those little things in run blocking,” Gabriel said. “We are a big part of that.”

Gabriel, then, probably the smallest player Hiestand — a career offensive line coach who, in his previous stop, developed four first-round picks at Notre Dame — has ever coached, even indirectly. But his stature, in addition to not prohibiting him from sticking his nose in run blocking, hasn’t prevented him from gaining a critical extra yard or two when necessary. 

That skill showed up on the Bears’ 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive against the Seahawks (link) on both passing and running plays. It’s all part of Gabriel’s efforts to be more than an occasionally-used deep threat. 

“Playing more plays than I usually do, so just going out there and trying to be a complete wide receiver,” Gabriel said. “And that’s not just running the whole route tree, catching the ball, that blocking — run blocking. So just trying to make guys miss a little bit, get on the second level and that’s where we can help out.”

Tapping into Miller

Rookie wideout Anthony Miller said he’ll give the ball he caught for his first career touchdown to his mom, and believes it’s the first of many he’ll catch in his currently-nascent career. 

“Scoring that touchdown, it just raised expectations for myself,” Miller said. “I just feel like I could contribute to this team in a big way and I think that’s what you’re going to see as this season continues to go on.”

Miller’s had that self-confident attitude ever since his rise from walk-on to star at Memphis, and it was among the reasons the Bears traded back into the second round to draft him back in April. Ever since that moment, Miller has had the mindset of an immediate contributor, not someone who would need time to develop and see the field. 

“That’s why they picked me to come here,” Miller said. “They didn’t pick me to come here to be scout team, not contributing at all. They expected me to come here and play right away and make plays and do what I did in college. And that’s what I aim to do.”

Playing favorites

The Bears head to the desert as 4 1/2-point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals, marking only the second time since Ryan Pace took over as general manager this team is favored in a road game. It’s also only the 10th time since 2015 they’ve been favored, with the previous results being:

2015 Week 13, vs. San Francisco: L, 26-20 (OT)
2015 Week 14, vs. Washington: L, 24-21
2016 Week 2, vs. Philadelphia: L, 29-14
2016 Week 6 vs. Jacksonville: L, 17-16
2016 Week 10 at Tampa Bay: L, 36-10
2017 Week 10 vs. Green Bay: L, 23-16
2017 Week 16 vs. Cleveland: W, 20-3
2018 Week 2 vs. Seattle: W, 24-17

In the John Fox era, the Bears were only favored eight times, winning just one (on Christmas Eve last year against the Cleveland Browns). The Bears being favored in back-to-back games this early into the Nagy era has plenty to do with the competition — Seattle and Arizona might wind up being two of the worst teams in the NFC in 2018 — but it also does speak to the distinct improvement in talent across the board on this team assembled in the last half-year by Pace.