While the Bears were wobbling through their 1-6 “stage” before their win over the Vikings, one demoralizing question amid the non-performance nightmares was: What do the Bears do well? And the conclusion was nothing really.
Not so, as the Bears swing into effectively represents a true restart of their season, even to the point of having virtually all their key players in place. It does not make the Bears “good,” to use a vague term, but it makes them better than many of the so-called “power rankings," the NFL’s equivalent of political polling in a presidential election.
But while the collapse against Jacksonville and trampling by Green Bay contain few if any positives, and players and coaches felt the Minnesota game represented the first time the Bears have played a full 60-minute game, three “strengths” have quietly begun coalescing within a team that believes it has a stronger core than outsiders see:
The Bears CAN rush the passer
Stopping the run may be axiomatic as the foundation of good defense and the Bears are allowing barely 100 yards per game, all the more remarkable because that has happened without nose tackle Eddie Goldman for the past six weeks. “We had a tough night in Dallas,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Since then, I think it’s been pretty competitive and hadn’t been a major problem for us.”
But the NFL has so tilted toward the pass that if an opposing quarterback is not under any consistent duress, he will eventually find someone to throw to. Even the bad ones do.
But while no one was looking, the Bears were putting together a first half with no fewer than two sacks in seven of eight games; in two of the last four, they sacked quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Sam Bradford) five times each. They still rank a modest 13th in sacks per pass attempt, but 14 of their 20 sacks have come in the last four games.
The reasons are obvious. Rookie Leonard Floyd, who missed the Colts and Jaguars games, has appeared to shake free from the nagging injuries that were retarding his growth even back through training camp; he has posted three sacks in the last two games.
Pernell McPhee was down with a knee injury and missed the offseason plus the first six games. He sacked Bradford once and had 3 other quarterback hits and a forced Bradford fumble in the span of 25 snaps.
Willie Young has been quiet the past two games but has 6 sacks as part of a resume that saw him deliver 10 in 2014 and 6.5 in basically a half-season last year as he recovered from season-ending knee surgery.
And the Bears have found a pocket-push from Akiem Hicks, with 4 sacks, 5 quarterback pressures and 5 tackles for loss. “I would definitely say that power is one of my best moves and something I go to at the end of the day,” Hicks said. “It’s something I start and end with. That’s my most effective rush.”
The Bears CAN (and WILL) run the football
Coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains talked “run” through the offseason, preseason and early into the year. The results belied the rhetoric. The Bears ran the ball both infrequently (32 percent of the time) and ineffectively (sub-80 yards per game) while they were losing their first three games.
Since then the Jordan Howard Experience has rolled in, with the rookie averaging 5 yards per carry and a touchdown in three of the last four games. More important, after running the football no more than 20 times in any of the first three games, the Bears have averaged 24.4 rushes per game, 29 in the wins over Detroit and Minnesota.
Notably perhaps, the offense has gotten a run game despite being without Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton at full strength. “I think the offensive line has gotten better every week and we continue to expect them to do that,” Loggains said. “They’re jelling together nicely. Pass protection has been a lot better… .It’s a group effort that way but I think they’ve gotten better. I think we’ve run the ball more efficiently.”
The Bears CAN control a football game
The only meaningful measure of a football team is wins and losses. And the Bears were mauled pretty thoroughly through their 0-3 start. But since then the Bears have managed an edge in time of possession in four of the five gamers, the only miss coming at Green Bay when they lost quarterback Brian Hoyer to a broken arm, and the Bears’ three possessions in the fourth quarter lasted 47, 68 and 54 seconds.
But the Bears are up to No. 8 in third-down defense, and against an elite Vikings defense the Bears converted 50 percent of their third downs. I watched [Minnesota film] with Dowell and ‘Rags,’ [QB coach Dave Ragone] and guys were doing what we asked them to do,” Jay Cutler said. “Al [Jeffery] made some big catches, we had some good run-after-the-catch opportunities and guys converted some third downs for us. It’s hard to throw the ball past the sticks every time; you have to get some plays from guys and they did that.”
Meaning: They are suddenly respectable at getting off the field defensively and staying on it offensively.