Bears

Bears In-Foe: Rams' Gurley & burly

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Bears In-Foe: Rams' Gurley & burly

The Bears will face their second potential relocator to Los Angeles in six days. This test will be tougher than Monday night in San Diego.

Out from the shadow of waiting and hoping for their injury-prone, top overall draft pick and franchise quarterback to get on the field, the Rams didn't have Sam Bradford to kick around any more. But the big trade that stole headlines on the opening day of free agency last March has raised questions whether they're much better off with Nick Foles. Jeff Fisher's first three seasons as head coach in  St. Louis started 3-5 and never finished above .500. They're a game better than that at this season's halfway point, but as inconsistent as ever.

An emotional season-opening overtime win over the Seahawks (whom we've since learned aren't as mighty as they've been the past three years) was followed by a loss in Washington. Handing Arizona its first loss of the season in the desert has been followed by sub-par performances at Green Bay and Minnesota sandwiched around easy home wins over lowly Cleveland and San Francisco. The legitimate defense they built via the 2011 through 2014 drafts was supposed to be assisted by the bold gamble they took in selecting Todd Gurley tenth overall last April.  Gurley's paid off, but the Rams are still just 3-3 since his Week Three debut.

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OFFENSE

Sunday marks the exact one-year anniversary of Gurley tearing his left ACL, and his remarkably effective Adrian Peterson-like return included a four-game stretch in which he ran 88 times for 566 yards before Peterson's teammates stacked the box and held him to 89 yards on 24 carries Sunday in Minnesota.

The problem has been Foles and his receiving corps keeping defenses honest enough. The Vikings showed how frightened they were by deciding to take the wind after winning the overtime coin toss. Foles threw for 297 yards in that opening win against the Seahawks, but has yet to surpass 200 yards in a game since. Lightning-quick Tavon Austin is finally being used as, and being, a multi-faceted threat (25 rushes for 207 yards, three touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 300 yards and four scores, plus a punt return TD). Kenny Britt is second in the NFL in  yards per catch (20.7) but has only  15 of them (one touchdown).  Foles is 12-of-31 (448 yards) on throws of 20 or more yards.

This offense is 30th in points, 31st in yards, and 32nd in passing yards and third down percentage (23.8). They've converted just four of their last 37 third-down chances.  Enter Wes Welker, signed Monday after the multi-concussed slot specialist begged and pleaded for some NFL team to keep him from retirement. A roster spot opened for him when Stedman Bailey was caught violating the league's substance abuse policy.

[MORE: Bears see MNF win as 'starting point' for playoff run]

Tight end Jared Cook has never lived up to a better contract than what Martellus Bennett signed with the Bears.  Bennett has 77 more catches since 2013 and is a better blocker.  That's Lance Kendricks' specialty for the Rams, but has been keeping opposing defenses a little more honest the past season and a half.

As general manager Les Snead invested heavily on the defensive line the previous four drafts, he spent his first seven picks this past spring on the offensive side, from Gurley to second- and third-round offensive linemen Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown (both starting) to go along with slow-developing left tackle Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in 2014.

 

DEFENSE

Aaron Donald last year. Alec Ogletree in 2013. Michael Brockers three years ago. And Robert Quinn in 2011. Throw in eight-year vet Chris Long and ex-Lion Nick Fairley. Those five defensive linemen and linebacker are former first-round picks that are starters or current regulars on the Rams defense. Throw in four second- or third-round defensive backs selected between 2012 and 2014, and you have the meat of a St. Louis defense that is second in sacks (27), sixth in points per game (18.3), fourth against the pass, and fifth in yards and third-down defense in 2015. And oh, yes: they lead the NFL in red zone touchdown defense (35.3 percent). Since the 34-31 opener against Seattle, they've allowed just one touchdown and 24 total points in three games at the Edward Jones Dome. 

Quinn (five sacks) missed Sunday's game with a sore knee, while Long, the starting end on the opposite side who should be facing brother Kyle one-on-one, has missed the past three games, also with a knee problem. Donald, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, is exactly halfway to his total from his debut season (nine).

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James Laurinaitis leads the team with 60 tackles after fellow linebacker Ogletree paced the defense in that category the past two years. Akeem Ayers came over in free agency on the other side after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots.

After going through three defensive coordinators in three years, Gregg Williams is in his second season in St. Louis after serving his Bounty-Gate suspension, revisited after nickel back LaMarcus Joyner's controversial hit on Teddy Bridgewater. 6'2 corner Trumaine Johnson has half of the defense's six interceptions and will be asked to slow down Alshon Jeffery, while gambler Janoris Jenkins has a pair of picks on the other side. Thumper T.J. McDonald (also sidelined against the Vikes) was Pro Football Focus' top-rated safety in the second half of last season. Rodney McLeod plays Free, while Williams often uses Mark Barron as a blitzer in the sub-package.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

After outplaying poor Chargers return and coverage units Monday night, the Bears' punt coverage must be wary of Austin, who took one to the house in the opener. Benny Cunningham and the kick return team actually rank lower (23rd) than Marc Mariani and the Bears. Former high school quarterback Johnny Hekker's pulled off fake punts, so beware. Greg Zuerlein is just 13-of-20 on field goals this season, but nailed a career-high 61-yarder with an assist from the wind last week.

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
 
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
 
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
 
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
 
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
 
2. Multiple weapons
 
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
 
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
 
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
 
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
 
3. History repeating itself
 
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
 
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
 
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
 
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.