Bears offense continues to progress behind Matt Barkley's fighter mentality

Bears offense continues to progress behind Matt Barkley's fighter mentality

Matt Barkley is 1-3 as a starting quarterback in the NFL, but he could just as easily be 3-1 or even 4-0.

In all three losses over that span, Barkley has given the Bears an opportunity to win in the game's final minutes.

The NFL is a results-based business (like any professionall sport), so Barkley and the Bears aren't looking at what could have been.

Still, Barkley's resiliency and mental toughness has helped win over teammates and the Bears coaching staff.

The 26-year-old quarterback turned the ball over on four straight possessions from the end of the first half through the third quarter in Sunday's loss to the Packers, but he led his team back from a 27-10 deficit with 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to tie the game with less than 90 seconds left.

"I talked to him right after that first pick," receiver Cameron Meredith said. "We were all like, 'Keep battling, we're all behind you.' I think it speaks a lot about his mental toughness and how he was able to bounce back even after four turnovers.

"We had the opportunity to win, so you can't ask much more than that."

Barkley finished with 362 yards and 2 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes Sunday. In his four starts, he's averaging 270.5 passing yards per game with 6 touchdowns against five picks.

"He kept his poise out there," center Cody Whitehair said. "Really didn't panic or anything, just sat back in the pocket and did what he did. Matt's a great player and it doesn't surprise us.

"We never got the feeling he was down or had less confidence in himself [after the turnovers]. He just kept doing what he was doing and he did a nice job today."

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Over these four starts, Barkley hasn't received much help from his teammates between all the drops, holding penalties, faile routes, etc. 

For the second straight game, the Bears' final offensive drive saw a backbreaking holding penalty, this time on tight end Logan Paulsen.

Of Barkley's four turnovers, but one came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, one when former Bears star Julius Peppers blew by left tackle Charles Leno Jr. for a strip/sack and one when rookie Daniel Braverman ran the wrong route.

Yet he refuses to throw any of his teammates under the bus, consistently taking the blame for the offense's lack of execution.

With Barkley at the helm, the Bears have seen three of their four highest scoring outputs of the season — 27 points Sunday vs. Green Bay; 26 points in the win over San Francisco; 21 points in the loss to Tennessee (they also scored 23 points in a Week 5 loss to the Colts).

Barkley's Bears have averaged 23.5 points per game in his four starts, the first of his young NFL career.

Behind Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer and their combined 19 years of experience, the 2016 Bears averaged 15.7 points per game. And they had Alshon Jeffery to work with in every game, while Barkley played three of four without the star wide receiver.

"I think we've seen progression every week," Barkley said. "It's just really a matter of execution for four quarters. We've been so close in a number of games now for the last couple of weeks.

"We are still shooting ourselves in the foot. I can only imagine what we would look like if we were consistent in executing for four quarters. There's a positive outlook, knowing we are capable of winning games.

"It's really just a matter of executing. It starts with me and it starts with getting everyone on the field on the same page. It's about being consistent."

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: