Bears Grades: Turnovers, quarterback errors unravel offense one final time

Bears Grades: Turnovers, quarterback errors unravel offense one final time

MINNEAPOLIS – In the end, rolling with a third-string castoff quarterback (fourth string, if one presumes that Connor Shaw was more in Bears plans than Matt Barkley before Shaw broke his leg in preseason) truly caught up with the Bears.

John Fox and every other coach cite turnovers as the key to most games and Bears poor ball security effectively undid Fox’s team again. Three giveaways (two by the offense, one by special teams) set up 17 Minnesota points in the first half, and two more in the second half ended one Bears drive and gave the Vikings 7 more points on another. The Bears turned the football over four of the first seven times they had their hands on it, including a muffed punt by recent-addition Bralon Addison.

The offense generated 323 yards after topping 400 in three of the last five games. Coaches let the running game loose, with some success, but the turnovers destroyed opportunities. Those will be on Barkley’s mind heading into whatever future the Bears or anyone else offers him.

“Every turnover or every play that could have been a touchdown,” Barkley said without citing any one mistake over another. “I do not want to say ‘haunt,’ but I do not ever want to make those mistakes again. That is my goal going forward, to not make the mistakes I made this year. My outlook will be positive going into this offseason.”

Quarterback: F

The quarterback evaluation needs look no further than Matt Barkley being pulled in the fourth quarter after losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, followed by David Fales getting into the game and himself sacked once, for symmetry if nothing else. “We just wanted to look at David,” Fox said. “We had not seen him. Neither one of those quarterbacks were even on our team in [training] camp. So again, it’s an opportunity for us to evaluate.”

Barkley, who finished with 10-of-14 passing for 125 yards, opened his day the way his one against Washington generally went, with an interception. This one killed a promising opening drive on which the run game appeared to be in gear. Instead, Barkley off play-action forced a back-foot throw toward Alshon Jeffery, into double coverage and underthrown such that cornerback Xavier Rhodes had a better chance at the football than Jeffery.

“We knew that he was going to throw some balls and we just had to be in position to make [takeaways],” said Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr.

It was one of two Barkley interceptions, plus losing the football a final time in the fourth quarter when he was sacked by Linval Joseph. The ball was recovered and run 20 yards by Everson Griffen for Minnesota’s final touchdown.

Running back: B+

Jordan Howard has been the offensive story for the Bears for 2016 and that held true on Sunday when Howard rushed for 135 yards on 23 carries (5.9 ypc), setting the franchise rookie rushing record at 1,313 yards. It marked the seventh 100-yard rushing game for Howard and the 11th time in 13 starts that Howard has topped 100 combined yards from scrimmage.

“[The record] means a lot,” Howard said. “My teammates did a great job opening the holes and the coaches getting us in the right place… . It does mean something to me and the offensive line because they did a great job."

Damaging the overall grade for the position was Jeremy Langford losing a fumble in the Bears end of the field on his second carry, without the Vikings even going for a strip on a second-quarter run. The turnover resulted in 7 Minnesota points and a loss of momentum when the game was still forming. Langford caught 3 passes for 41 yards, with a long of 19.

Receivers: C

Receivers were generally non factors, partly because of the score, partly because of poor play at quarterback killing off three possessions. Cam Meredith led the Bears with four catches, the seventh time this season he topped the Bears or was tied in receptions. His 61 yards also were a team high and he was able to make two acrobatic catches to convert near-throwaways into first downs.

Meredith also contributed the Bears’ only touchdown pass, taking a handoff from Langford on a reverse and flipping to a wide-open Barkley in the right side of the Minnesota end zone.

Alshon Jeffery was again ineffective as the Vikings repeatedly devoted double coverage to the wideout, limiting him to 1 catch on 3 targets, with one pass intercepted as Barkley tried to force the ball to him in the end zone.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Offensive line: A-

Any ‘A’ grade in a defeat with only 10 points scored can be suspect. But the Bears offensive line pounded on a very good Minnesota front to get 183 rushing yards and allow 2 sacks, but both in the fourth quarter when the Vikings had no need to worry about defending the run.

Guard Josh Sitton was dominant at the point of attack, getting consistent movement on the Vikings’ down linemen and getting to the second level as Howard in particular powered late in plays rather than going down on first contact. Center Cody Whitehair was stout in the middle despite crowd noise and interior Minnesota linemen among the NFL’s best.

Coaching: C+

The game turned on giveaways, mostly by the quarterback, and no game plan is going to overcome those on offense. Coaches stayed with pounding the football in the first half, with 22 rushing plays vs. nine passes. The offense generated 211 yards for the half and 10 points, which likely would have been substantially more but for a fumble and interception by the offense and a special-teams punt muff, all combining for 17 Minnesota points. The offense began the second half with another strong drive but were done in again by a Barkley interception deep in the Vikings end.

Defensive execution was poor, particularly in the secondary, and Sam Bradford was not sacked, and hit only once, the entire game. Tackling and angles throughout were not good.

Special teams had breakdowns in several areas but against one of the NFL’s better return games, the Bears were put in position to succeed but appeared to fail to maintain lane integrity, allowing good returners openings they exploited.

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: