View from the Moon: Bears not slipping into disarray like handful of others around NFL

View from the Moon: Bears not slipping into disarray like handful of others around NFL

Still sorting through impressions, perspectives, whatevers of the 2016 Bears and John Fox.

The fact that the Bears have for the most part remained competitive, focused and playing with professional intensity through a dismal season doesn’t ultimately mean much in a business which has only one true measure of success – winning. But events elsewhere in the NFL suggest that maintaining an even strain amid losing is an exception rather than the rule.

The Minnesota Vikings will take on the Bears Sunday in Minneapolis having fragmented in a loss last Saturday to the Green Bay Packers, with indications that players ignored coaches’ (including head coach Mike Zimmer’s) instructions in what could only politely be called insubordination. Zimmer and players have since claimed “miscommunication” as a lock-step explanation, but Zimmer’s comments after the game – “somebody decided they wouldn’t do that,” referring to not following the game plan for defending Packers wideout Jordy Nelson – suggested more than just “miscommunication.” Zimmer later went so far as to fault himself for being “too honest” after the game.

Subsequent reports suggested that the mutiny lasted only a series or two, and Zimmer will talk Wednesday via conference call with the Chicago media. Whatever that situation, the Vikings started the season 5-0, still stood 7-6 and in NFC North contention, then delivered double-digit losses the past two weeks to miss a postseason that appeared to be theirs, even sans Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Kalil and others.

Rex Ryan was fired on Tuesday, maybe doing the popular but underachieving coach a favor given the quagmire the Buffalo Bills have become. Ryan got to AFC Championship games his first two years coaching the New York Jets, then hasn’t had a winning season in the six since. He left with players complaining in his wake that his systems were too complicated, and noting that the unit supposedly his specialty had gone from No. 4 the year before he was hired to the bottom half of the league.

New York Jets players said that some of them were looking past this season as this year, their second under coach Todd Bowles, was winding down and unraveling. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said after last week’s 41-3 loss to New England that wide receiver Brandon Marshall “should be embarrassed.” And the New York Post mused afterwards that owner Woody Johnson uncharacteristically may have stayed away from the Patriots game because he was tired of watching his team be uncompetitive.

[MORE BEARS: Evaluating John Fox's bears based on the Redskins game]

No one is happy at Halas Hall. But “uncompetitive” wouldn’t be an overall Bears descriptor even with backups at times in as many as half the starting spots on both sides of the football.

For as well as the sometimes-makeshift Bears offensive line has played this season, tackle projects as one of the top three need areas along with quarterback and cornerback. This is not a simple swipe at Charles Leno Jr. or Bobby Massie, just a look around at what is working around the league.

Right now 10 teams have clinched playoff spots. Of those, seven have left tackles selected in the first rounds of drafts. And one of the others – Pittsburgh – used No. 1’s at center and guard in recent drafts.

The Bears have a No. 1 in Kyle Long at left guard, an elite veteran in Josh Sitton at left guard, and a budding star in Cody Whitehair, a No. 2 this year, at center. What they don’t have, following the NFL template, is “elite” at either edge position, and it is a spot that hasn’t been addressed by the Bears before the fifth round in a draft since 2011, and it didn’t work then (Gabe Carimi, No. 1) or the time before that (Chris Williams, No. 1, 2008).

Missing Cutler? Who’d’a thunk it?

If the Bears appeared to regress in 2016 from where they were at the end of their 6-10 first year under Fox, one obvious reality is that the Bears had Jay Cutler in the best full season of his career, relatively turnover-free, for 15 starts. This year’s edition had Cutler Interrupted (starting two games, miss five, play a few, then done for the year), then Brian Hoyer briefly, followed by Matt Barkley, with about the norm for results when a team loses its No. 1 quarterback for extended periods.

The 2013 injury riddled Green Bay Packers were slumped to 0-4-1 in games after Aaron Rodgers was injured on the Shea McClellin sack. They did recover to reach the playoffs with Rodgers returning to hit Randall Cobb over Chris Conte in Game 16 that season.

Cutler appeared to regress this season, returning to his high interception percentage and middling completion percentage. But amid all the IR’s, none stands as big as Cutler’s in what is likely his last season in Chicago.

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”