Bears

Rams battling 'dirty' image that may have roots in Jeff Fisher's past

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Rams battling 'dirty' image that may have roots in Jeff Fisher's past

Jeff Fisher has a perception problem. Whether it carries over into Sunday’s game against the Bears, his old team and where some of this may have started.

The St. Louis Rams coach played under Buddy Ryan with the Bears (under the cuddly moniker of “Guppy”) and coached with him in Chicago (the ’85 Super Bowl year) and Phladelphia. Ryan’s reputation included targeting opposing players for hits of debatable intent.

When Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans, his cornerback Cortland Finnegan proudly wore the label as one of the league’s dirtiest, to the point of stating that he was “aspiring” to be the No.1-ranked NFL’s dirtiest in 2010 after he finished a disappointing (for him) sixth in the dirty player rankings.

When Fisher took over coaching the Rams in 2012, he brought Finnegan with him under a $50-million contract. Fisher also hired Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, then waited for Williams to serve his one-year banishment in connection with the bounty scandal from his time as New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator.

Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told Sports Illustrated’s on Wednesday that Williams “deserves” the reputation as dirty.

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Then along came last Sunday’s Rams-Minnesota Vikings game, in which Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner hit Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the head as the latter was going into his give-up slide. Bridgewater suffered a concussion.

In the aftermath, fury was directed at Joyner, but even more at Williams, and ultimately at Fisher by former NFL safety Rodney Harrison. Fisher retorted by citing Harrison’s long history of incidents, but the cloud still hangs over Fisher because of his history.

“I think things got blown out of proportion so I responded,” Fisher said. “And then to go on the record, why I commented about Rodney, I didn't think that was appropriate. His assertion for what he implied and what he stated was absolutely incorrect.

“I'm not defending our players; I'm defending the organization. Our defense is going to play hard and fast and we're, like any other defense, we're gonna tackle, play hard, that's part of the game. By no means do we have any intent of injuring the quarterback and immediately after the game I was hoping Teddy was gong to OK and I'm happy he is.”

A fellow head coach from the defense’s side of the football has some understanding of such things.

“It’s definitely a fine line,” Bears head coach John Fox said. “You want guys playing to the whistle. Sometimes there’s mishaps. That’s part of hustle. That’s part of how you win games, too, is finishing plays, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. You just have to coach it the best you can, and sometimes emotions become part of the game.”

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Sometimes perception can become reality. Former NFL offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player,” once remarked that he liked the honor because it meant opponents were thinking about that instead of more important things.

“Some people get vasectomies,” Dobler once said. “I used to give ‘em.”

Being on an opponent’s mind for reasons of foul play can backfire, however.

“I don’t know if it’s an advantage because it might make the opposing team play that much harder,” Bears linebacker Sam Acho said. “I don’t think St. Louis is a dirty team; I’ve played against them for years and they play hard.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!

Against the Vikings, seven different Rams defensive players were hit with penalties, nine total on the St. Louis defense, with the Rams having 12 total penalties walked off against them.

"We're just an aggressive team,” said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, last year’s NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. “We've got to fix the little mistakes, sometimes try to cool it down a little bit. We fixed it and it won't happen again. That's something to learn from and that's what we did and we're going to move on.

"Everybody's always got their own opinion. The game of football is a physical game; we're a physical team, play fast, but our mindset is never go out there and injury nobody. We're just doing our job of playing fast. Like I said, everybody's got their own opinion. Can't focus on what other people think and just play your game."

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 21 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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