Bears last-second loss to Packers another character statement for the future more than the present

Bears last-second loss to Packers another character statement for the future more than the present

Willie Young chose his words deliberately, with purpose, in the aftermath of the Bears’ 30-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers on a final-second field goal Sunday.

“Right now it’s all about building, figuring out what we have, figuring out the kind of guys… ,” Young paused on “the kind of guys.”

“Right now I’ll roll with everybody we’ve got next year,” he said emphatically. “Finishing this year with all the adversity we’ve dealt with, is going to make us a stronger team. We’re going to know how to deal with every possible situation you could think of. At the end of the day, this team can plug away, and the fight that I see in this team is amazing.”

“We could’ve gone in the tank a couple weeks ago once we knew we weren’t going to the playoffs. That’s not what we did.”

A mantra of coach John Fox is that the NFL is a performance-based business, and performance is defined as wins. Most of the time, anyway.

So at this point of a 3-11 season, what exactly do you take away from another try-hard game that the Bears again fell just short of winning?

Actually, quite a bit.

For the fourth time in as many Matt Barkley starts, the Bears have been either pulling away (vs. San Francisco) or playing their way back into position to win a game with a play in the fourth quarter of a game. (Jay Cutler once got a $126 million contract from a Bears general manager on the strength of one late-2013 comeback against the Cleveland Browns. Wonder what three of these comebacks, the latest against a Packers team now 7-4 and in position to win the NFC North, will be worth? But that’s an offseason talking point between the Bears and Barkley’s agent.)

This time it was the defense that dropped the ball, figuratively this time, rather than a Bears receiver doing it. But the result was the same.

Sunday’s loss, which ties the all-time Bears-Packers series at 94-94-6, the first time it’s been tied since 1933, was the Bears’ sixth in their last seven, as usual with enough blame to give just about every phase two helpings. The offense turned the ball over on the first three possessions of the second half, leading to 17 points and a 27-10 Green Bay lead. The defense, with abysmal tackling and big plays allowed that were their own nightmare negatives, allowed a season-high 451 yards.

But Aaron Rodgers has done that to far loftier defenses, including the final dagger of the 60-yards heave over cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc to Jordy Nelson to set up that field goal.

Coaches are hired or fired based on wins and losses, and another story, later retracted, surfaced last week that Fox was likely gone after this season. Considering what the Bears are doing with a lot of spare parts (nine starters were missing from Sunday’s game) and taking playoff-grade teams (Detroit, Green Bay, Tennessee,  New York Giants, all in the span of the last five weeks) to final-play brinks, Fox clearly has built something that isn’t covered in just the win-loss record.

"We're not about moral victories and stuff, but it was a good finish and a good character fight for our team,” said rookie center Cody Whitehair. “Obviously we wanted to win, but it's good to show that fight and character."

Fodder for second-guessing

The easy second-guesses are of Fox’s decisions, first, to opt for a tying field goal instead of a possible go-ahead touchdown at the Green Bay 4 and 1:23 remaining, and second, to decline the 10-second clock runoff the Bears could have taken because of the Packers needing a fourth timeout due to an injury on their final possession.

Fox went for the tie on the premise that his defense had stopped the Packers on consecutive three-and-outs earlier in the fourth quarter, allowing a combined five yards net. Taking the three points then gave his team the shot at a win with another stop and then a field goal.

As for the option of going for the touchdown and a 31-27 lead, “that’s one of those decisions,” Fox said. “We tied the game, had an opportunity to go to overtime, didn’t quite get there. I’m sure we’d have questions if we had gone for it on fourth down and didn’t get that, either.

“It comes with the territory and we managed not to win the game.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Taking the 10 seconds by rule would’ve given Rodgers 10 fewer seconds to perpetrate whatever mischief he could. As it turned out, the Packers stopped the clock with four seconds left after Rodgers’ 60-yard completion to Nelson to set up Green Bay’s winner.

But Fox wanted those 10 seconds, not for Rodgers, but for his own offense, which was suddenly unstoppable on fourth-quarter drives of 75, 69 and 80 yards. If his defense makes a stop – and it had the Packers exactly where it wanted: third-and-11 at the Green Bay 26 – the Bears have the football back with perhaps time for a move into position for the win.

“We didn’t really forecast a 60-yard play down the middle there, actually letting the clock run,” Fox said. “It would be aggressive… .It’s third-and-[11], we have to make a play. That wasn’t exactly a play we were looking for.”

Ironically, it was a play that the defensive players specifically cautioned against in their final huddle.

But second-guessing and hindsight are always easy. Playing to win when there’s really nothing to win isn’t.

“It’s never all for nothing,” said wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who led the Bears with 9 receptions for 104 yards, 4 of the receptions in the Bears’ 17-point fourth quarter. “It’s all about the little things, the details.”

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: