Bears

Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup

brock-osweiler-bears-playoff-lessons-slide.png

Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup

Lessons are to be taken from playoffs even for teams not in them (or maybe especially for teams not in them).

Two prominent ones are staring the Bears and everyone else in the facemask as the 2015 postseason opens this weekend and moves in the divisional round next.

The first is that defense still can wins championships. No AFC playoff team ranks worse than No. 11 (Pittsburgh) in scoring. Only Green Bay (12th) and Washington (17th) are out of the top seven, and one of those two will be gone after Sunday. The obvious shock of the 2016 draft may be if the Bears do not grab defense at No. 11 (or higher via trade).

The second is that the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, nearly half of the 2015 playoff field, are playing 17 or more games and in some measure with or even because of backup quarterbacks – in fact, backup quarterbacks drafted despite having apparent franchise starters in place at the time they were drafted.

[RELATED - Rotoworld's NFL mock draft: At No. 11, the Bears select...]

Bears GM Ryan Pace is thinking that direction looking ahead to the 2016 draft, irrespective of Jay Cutler being ensconced as the starter.

“It’s always going to be best player available,” Pace said earlier this week about his draft framework. “So if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback. I’ve said before how important that position is and that will continue to be the case.”

Pace is nothing if not a student of history. His is a strategy that has served championship teams well.

Tom Brady. Mark Rypien. Bart Starr. Joe Montana. All drafted to back up incumbent starters. All drafted third round or later or much later. All Super Bowl MVP’s.

Pace’s first Bears draft produced expected starters with the first five picks and the foundations of the future indeed lie in the draft. But free agency comes first, and by the time their turns come on the second and third days of the 2016 draft, the Bears may have given themselves all-important options, including at quarterback.

The Bengals had Andy Dalton in place and with trips to the playoffs, albeit ending in losses, in each of his first four NFL seasons. Yet the Bengals invested a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft on A.J. McCarron and won two of McCarron’s three starts after Dalton went down in Game 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals (12-4) finished two games ahead of the Steelers (10-6).

The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning secure as their starter, used their second-round pick in the 2012 draft on Brock Osweiler. With Manning injured, Osweiler started the final seven games, the Broncos went 5-2 in those starts and finished 12-4 – one game ahead of Kansas City (11-5) for a first-round bye.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

The same offseason (2012) that the Seattle Seahawks lavished $9 million guaranteed as part of a $20.5 million deal on quarterback Matt Flynn, with 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson also returning, the Seahawks also used a third-round pick for Russell Wilson, who promptly beat out the other two. Like Dalton, Wilson has gone to postseasons after every one of his years (three) and to Super Bowls after the last two.

The New England Patriots have made history with a backup, having taken Brady with a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft when they were seemingly fixed with Drew Bledsoe. Bill Belichick and the organization followed that template last year when they, like the Broncos two years earlier, used a second-round pick (Jimmy Garoppolo) to back up a Hall of Fame starter.

Two 2012 rounds after the Broncos were drafting Osweiler, Washington was raising eyebrows with the fourth-round selection of Kirk Cousins, ostensibly as Robert Griffin III’s backup. But Washington squeaked into the 2012 playoffs by one game after Cousins rallied the Redskins for one victory and won the following week while Griffin was laid up. This year has belonged to Cousins.

The Bears know how this can work.

They made the 2005 playoffs with an epic-grade defense but also with a backup quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback drafted in the fourth round. More than one member of the Bears’ defense said after the season that the team should’ve stayed with Kyle Orton instead of going back to Rex Grossman and losing to Carolina in the wild-card round.

First and Final Thoughts: Halfway through the AFC East

usatsi_11492759.jpg
USA Today

First and Final Thoughts: Halfway through the AFC East

Welcome into First and Final Thoughts, one of our weekly columns with a title that's a little too on the nose. Here we'll have Insider J.J Stankevitz and Producers Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan give some insight into what's on their minds between games.

Final Thoughts on Week 7

J.J. Stankevitz: There’s no shame in losing to the New England Patriots, a franchise that’s lost on average about three games per season over the last nine years. The Bears, meanwhile, have nearly as many losses (26) in the last three years as the Patriots do in that span (28). But the more narrow view of Sunday’s game is more frustrating for this team that feels – and was – only a few plays short of not having to rely on a Hail Mary to Kevin White to even tie things up with time expiring. If Ben Braunecker doesn’t lose his footing on a blocked punt…or Mitch Trubisky leads Anthony Miller instead of underthrowing him in the fourth quarter…or if Prince Amukamara and/or Eddie Jackson tackle Josh Gordon for a 25-yard gain instead of 55…or Khalil Mack doesn’t get handled by Dwayne Allen on the last drive, etc. If the Bears miss the playoffs by a game, they’ll kick themselves more for the losses to Green Bay and Miami, but this one won’t be forgotten, either. 

Paul Aspan: Mitchell Trubisky missed too many throws, the Patriots quick passing game neutralized a hobbled Khalil Mack and the Bears pass rush, and the best team in the NFL for the better part of the last two decades beat a potential up and coming team that showed early signs they might be a playoff contender while still figuring out how to win. If any of this surprised you, you were probably also shocked by the sub 30-degree October temperatures in Chicago. The only real surprise Sunday was that the Bears allowed 14 points off Special Teams plays – the first time a team had allowed that to happen since…you guessed it!  The Bears allowed the Ravens to do it last October (the Rams also scored two special teams TD that same day against the Jags).

The Bears haven’t shown that they’re better than moral victories yet, so accept Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Patriots for what it was. They held their own against a Super Bowl contender in a game they were never going to win whether you looked at it when the schedule first came out or tried to talk yourself into a W after a few too many Old Styles & Malort shots anywhere from the 3-1 Bye week to the 3-3 reality that was Sunday at 4pm. 

Cam Ellis: In more optimistic news, how about Bilal Nichols! He's shown a knack for finding the ball and for making big plays in big moments, which is wild considering he shares a defensive front with Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Roquan Smith. He's been an absolute menace in the run game and been one of the few on the Bears' defensive side that have continue to play well as the unit struggles as a whole. He was the best player on the field for long stretches of time against the Patriots, and has seen his snap count go over 30 twice in the last three games, after starting off the year with 11 and six, respectively. Once the Bears' defense gets their act together, the addition of Nichols as a real threat is going to be a game-planning nightmare for other coaches. 

First Thoughts on Week 8

Stankevitz: The Bears *have* to win these next two games against the Jets and Bills – anything less than 5-3 will lead to an awfully uphill climb to legitimate playoff contention. The Jets had won two in a row before the Minnesota Vikings steamrolled them last weekend, but also haven’t played a road game in a month. A purportedly salty defense has allowed 30 or more points in three of its last four games, a stretch that began by allowing over 500 yards of offense to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sam Darnold has had some good moments, but perhaps what this Bears defense needs is to face a mistake-prone rookie quarterback. This week should provide the Bears an ideal opportunity for a bounce-back at home before going on the road to face an atrocious Bills team in Week 9. 

Aspan: Now that I’ve made more than enough excuses for the Bears loss to the Patriots, make no mistake: they have to win the next two games against the Jets and at the Bills if we’re going to take them seriously. The best thing the Jets do is run the ball, but I’ll go out on a limb and say the Bears won’t allow Isaiah Crowell and a banged up Bilal Powell to pull a Frank Gore (101 rush yds in week 5) on them (PS: How bout Bilal Nichols!). That leaves the D to feast on a rookie QB, Sam Darnold, who is coming off a 3 interception game and has thrown a pick in all but one of his games this season. 

Speaking of a young QB throwing the ball to the other team….I’m not gonna do the Mitchell Trubisky - Patrick Mahomes comparison, who by the way, also missed enough throws against the Patriots to cost his own team a game, because what’s the point? How’s this for a fair bar to judge Trubisky: there are 10 games left in the 2018 season for the Bears. How many games in a row can he go without throwing a red zone pass that should be intercepted? I’ll set the over / under at 3.5 consecutive games (we’re currently at zero). If Trubisky is in fact learning from the last two weeks as we’re being told he is, then staying away from an awful decision in the red zone for four straight games is the least he can do.

But how many of you are actually taking the over on that bet? Yea, I’m not so sure either. 

Ellis: And now, a Take:

Since the Bears technically lost by one score and got really close to maybe tying the game (and go ask Justin Tucker how automatic PATs are), there was a lot of talk about moral victories in the immediate aftermath. If you want to say it's a moral victory, fine; it's your life and it's just sports and none of it really matters. But moral victories are just actual losses. There may be a good loss in the preseason, when you care more the process than the actual results -- but when your regular season is 16 games long, there is no good loss. The Patriots are good, but they went into Detroit and got smacked around by a Lions team that the Bears will be expected to beat. Chicago didn't play well enough to beat a Pats team that looked extremely beatable on Sunday -- there's no moral victory there. There's also this: 

The Bears are 3-3 and have lead by at least two scores in FIVE OF THEIR SIX GAMES. It's not a moral victory -- or a "new standard" -- when you're blowing three games in which you were up two scores. You're still just losing games. The Bears have the talent to win a division and have played well enough to at times. But there's no victory to be squeezed out of blowing a two-score lead, and there certainly isn't a silver lining to doing it three times in six games. Learn how to finish games. 

Film review: Why wasn't Khalil Mack an effective pass rusher against the Patriots?

khalilmackfilmreview1.png
.

Film review: Why wasn't Khalil Mack an effective pass rusher against the Patriots?

Khalil Mack was not 100 percent against the New England Patriots, a development that became abundantly clear over the course of the Bears’ 38-31 loss.
 
Mack rushed Tom Brady on only 16 of his 54 snaps, dropping into coverage more frequently (18 times) than he tried to get after the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus. He didn’t record a sack or a quarterback hit, and while PFF credited him with two pressures, his impact was far more limited than it was in the first four weeks of the season.
 
So what went wrong? Was his ineffectiveness due to a bum ankle, or something Brady and the Patriots did?
 
The answer is somewhere in between, after reviewing the 15 clear pass rushing snaps Mack had (the 16th came on a pop pass touchdown to James White, and while it technically counts in PFF’s totals, there was no opportunity for anyone to rush Brady given he got rid of the ball in about a third of a second).
 
The blow-by-blow:
 
No. 1: Mack is lined up, as he was for almost all of these snaps, over the left side of New England’s offensive line. Tight end Dwayne Allen blocks him on play-action, which delays Mack’s rush a bit. While Brady takes about 2.8 seconds to get the ball out on a short pass to running back Sony Michel, the throw goes away from Mack, and he doesn’t have much of a chance on this play. Still, he isn’t able to beat Allen, which becomes a theme here.
 
No. 2: Left tackle Trent Brown has Mack singled, and immediately retreats as soon as the ball is snapped. But that’s by design — running back James White leaks out in the flat, and as soon as Mack engages Brown (instead of being responsible for covering White), Brady dumps the ball off to his running back for a gain of 14 yards. There wasn’t much Mack could’ve done differently here, though New England’s first drive of the game ends with Mack missing a tackle on a Julian Edelman touchdown.
 
No. 3: From the left, White chips Mack, and instead of engaging with Brown, Mack flows back toward the middle of the field as Brady throws a short pass over the middle. Brady needed just a shade under three seconds to get the ball out on this pass.
 
No. 4: This began as one of Mack’s better pass rushes of the game. With his hand in the ground on third-and-seven, Mack has a strong rush toward Brown and executes a good spin move on the left tackle. But Brown was able to re-set and re-gain leverage on Mack after the spin move, taking Mack out of the play. Leonard Floyd, rushing from the right, pressures Brady and forces him to scramble. But from the time Brady got the snap to when he decided to scramble, about 4.3 seconds go by.
 
No. 5: This was the fourth-and-one conversion from Brady to Josh Gordon. While Brady essentially stares down Gordon and leaves his blind side exposed to Mack, he throws the pass about 1.5 seconds after receiving the snap.
 
No. 6. Another quick throw that gets out in a second and a half. By the time Mack engages with Brown, Brady already has got rid of the ball.
 
No. 7: Allen motions from right to left near the goal line, with his responsibility to block Mack — though Mack doesn’t immediately rush at Allen. By the time Mack beats Allen, Brady — who was rolling to his left, toward Mack — is throwing the ball, though the pass falls incomplete.
 
No. 8: Mack is able to pressure Brady by knocking Brown back, and Floyd forces Brady to step up in the pocket. Mack dis-engages and goes back toward the line of scrimmage to chase Brady, forcing him to get the ball out quickly for an incompletion.
 
No. 9: Mack gets doubled on the left and is a non-factor. The sideline mic picks up someone yelling “get him, Leonard” but Floyd slips to the ground while one-on-one with backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Akiem Hicks, though, provides pressure up the middle and forces Brady to throw deep and out of bounds, though he had a little over three seconds to make that decision.
 
No. 10: Near the goal line, the Patriots go hurry-up from under center, and Mack is barely set when the ball is snapped. Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols, though, quickly generate pressure up the middle, leading to the Bears’ only sack of the game.
 
No. 11: On another quick throw — Brady gets it out in about a second and a half — Brown throws his right shoulder into Mack, making sure he has no chance of affecting the play.
 
No. 12: Mack goes to the inside shoulder of Brown and picks up left guard Joe Thuney on a stunt with Eddie Goldman, which generates some pressure, but Brady makes a short throw a little under three seconds after receiving the snap that’s dropped by White.
 
No. 13: This was one of Mack’s most disappointing pass rushing snaps. Facing a third and two after Mitch Trubisky’s second interception, Mack is one-on-one with Brown and isn’t able to mount any pressure, allowing Brady to easily pick out White in about 2.2 seconds for a first down.
 
No. 14: Mack is lined up to the right this time but gets successfully chipped by Allen. By the time Brady throws the ball, Mack is about five yards from the quarterback, and this pass went for 55 yards to Josh Gordon, setting up a touchdown.
 
No. 15: Mack is one-on-one with Brown and doesn’t mount pressure, though Roy Robertson-Harris does, forcing Brady to make an ill-advised throw that’s picked off by Kyle Fuller.
 
Some visual evidence:
 

The verdict: New England did occasionally commit multiple players to Mack, but frequently it was only the left tackle (Brown) or the tight end (Allen) who were on him. And while Brady is a master of getting the ball out quick and protecting his body, he didn’t seem bothered by Mack at all.
 
The quick throws would’ve been part of New England’s gameplan if Mack were healthy, but chances are the Patriots wouldn’t have singled Mack as much as they did — and almost certainly not with a tight end. That Brown and Allen had the success they did blocking Mack (Allen, in particular, was excellent in blocking Mack while the Patriots were running the ball late in the fourth quarter) speaks to Mack not being 100 percent.
 
The Bears may not get Mack back to 100 percent in the near future, though Nagy said the highest paid defensive player in the NFL is “kind of a freak in regards to his health and how he goes and pain tolerance.” Chances are, Mack will continue to play — he’s never missed a game in his career — but if he does, the Bears need to get more production out of him, especially when there’s only one player keeping him from the opposing quarterback.