Bilal Nichols

Final thoughts: Bears’ defense searching for small answers to big plays

Final thoughts: Bears’ defense searching for small answers to big plays

The 2017 Bears defense was one of the NFL’s best at not allowing explosive plays. That hasn’t carried over to 2018. What happened?
 
The answer to the question is simple: The Bears haven’t tackled as well in 2018 as they did in 2017. But the root of the problem is more difficult to discern, especially for a defense that’s been buoyed by continuity and the splash additions of Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack. 
 
“We just gotta get back to it,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “Mental errors, little things, attention to details, things like that effort-wise. But that’s some things that we can control. We just gotta get those negative things out and go back to playing the football we were at the beginning of the year.”
 
The 2017 Bears allowed 27 plays of 25 or more yards, an average of fewer than two explosive gains per game. Only five of those plays resulted in touchdowns, and drilling even further, only two of those touchdown plays were passes (an 88-yarder to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper and a 28-yarder to Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones). 
 
In 2018, the Bears have allowed 17 plays of 25 or more yards through six games, an average of nearly three per week. Five of those 17 have gone for touchdowns, and all five have been passing plays. Worryingly, four of the five big-play touchdowns have come in the fourth quarters of losses to Green Bay and Miami. 
 
“Just misplacement, communication — it could be anything,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m not really looking why it happened, I’m looking to get it fixed and to keep it from going on and on. That’s the thing about the season. I’m glad that we got it early, some different looks, great teams, Tom Brady and those guys came and gave us some stuff that challenged us, and it’s only going to help us through the season and it’s going to make us better. We’re on the right page. There’s no downfall, no let-off in us. We’re just going to keep putting our head down, going to work and getting better.”
 
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have missed 42 tackles in six games — an average of seven per game. Nineteen of those game against the Miami Dolphins, and the Bears did improve in that regard against the Patriots, with six missed tackles credited to the defense. 
 
The Bears are less concerned with finding the reason for why their previously-sure tackling escaped them in the fourth quarters of losses to the Packers, Dolphins and Patriots and are more concerned with finding a fix for the problem. But an in-season fix to tackling issues may be difficult to come by — working on it in practice isn’t practical, given the contact limitations in those practices. Tackling drills in the controlled setting of practice is another way, as is an emphasis on tackling while watching video, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. 
 
Every defense misses tackles (the Bears did miss 95 last year, a rate of about six per game) but not every missed tackle has to lead to an explosive play. Another concerning thing for the Bears is how many of those explosive plays have featured multiple missed tackles — Josh Gordon’s 55-yard gain Sunday, for example, featured missed tackles by both Jackson and cornerback Prince Amukamara. The Bears had multiple opportunities to bring down Albert Wilson on his 75-yard touchdown in Miami earlier this month, too. 
 
“The one with Josh Gordon was there,” Amukamara said. “It probably could’ve been a 20-yard play, but missed a tackle and it turned into a 55-yarder. And missed tackles was the name of the game against the Dolphins, also. But we’ve been doing a great job of trying to get those reps in practice and we’ve improved (our) tackling from last game to this game. We just gotta keep improving.”
 
There may not be a good explanation for why the Bears’ have had these issues tackling, or why all of a sudden a defense with talent and continuity has allowed a rash of explosive plays. But whatever the reason, it has to get fixed, otherwise the big gains will continue no matter who the quarterback is — Aaron Rodgers, Brock Osweiler, Tom Brady, Sam Darnold, etc.. 
 
“We just get back to — we all can make tackles, we just gotta get back to making tackles,” safety Adrian Amos said. “I don’t think it’s really a formula or anything. We just gotta get back to wrapping up.”
 
Message Received
 
While Kevin White has played more snaps (90) than Josh Bellamy (65), Bellamy has been targeted six times compared to White’s two. The explanation for that disparity, coach Matt Nagy said, is Bellamy is able to play all three of the Bears’ receiver positions, while White is only an “X” receiver. 
 
But beyond the White-Bellamy question, there’s this, too: How does seventh-round rookie Javon Wims crack into an established group of five receivers who will be active on gamedays so long as they’re healthy? 
 
It’s a difficult task for Wims, who impressed during training camp but spends team drills in practice running scout team routes, which aren’t always the ones the Bears’ offense uses. That makes it difficult, but not impossible, for Wims to flash during practice in a way that could get him on the field on Sundays.
 
“It's not easy because of the numbers,” Nagy said. “So what he has to do when he's out there on scout team, he has to use that time to really hone in. If he sees a particular route that's similar to what we do while he runs with the (play) cards, you have to run it like you would in practice. When it comes to playing in our offense and our system, when he does get reps he has to make the most of it. 
 
“That's probably the hardest part for a young guy that's at that line right there of reps, that's the hardest is being able to get the route completed and then on top of it, build trust with your quarterback."
 
The Bilal Bowl is Cancelled
 
The only two professional athletes named Bilal in American sports history play for the Bears and Jets, between defensive tackle Nichols and running back Powell. That is, until this week, when Powell was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury. 
 
Nichols felt bad for Powell, saying he knew about him and  was looking forward to tackling Powell in some Bilal vs. Bilal action. 
 
“I was gonna say a little something to him,” Nichols said. “I was gonna say man, you got a fantastic name.”

Bears notes: Unlikely contributors Bilal Nichols, Sherrick McManis come through in the clutch

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears notes: Unlikely contributors Bilal Nichols, Sherrick McManis come through in the clutch

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Bears got massive contributions on defense from the guys you’d expect, like Khalil Mack (two sacks, one forced fumble), Akiem Hicks (one sack, one forced fumble) and Eddie Jackson (one interception). But the collective effort put forth by this defense was exceedingly apparent in the final two drives of Sunday’s 16-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Facing a third-and-two at their own 42-yard line just after the two-minute warning, rookie defensive lineman Bilal Nichols blew up a Chase Edmonds run for a loss of three. On the next play, Bryce Callahan — who’s had a fantastic start to 2018 — picked off Josh Rosen, making sure the Cardinals didn’t get into range for what could’ve been a game-winning field goal. 

“It was a great call by coach Vic (Fangio),” Nichols said. “My teammates did a real good job of executing everything and then I kind of relied on my training and just read my keys and tried to make a play. 

“… I knew it was third and one and I knew it probably was going to be a run play, so I just tried to be as disruptive as possible.”

The Cardinals got the ball back and got near midfield with five seconds left — in range, at least, for Rosen to fire a Hail Mary toward the end zone. But instead of dropping eight or nine into coverage, Fangio sent a blitz, and Sherrick McManis — the ace special teamer who also picked off his first pass in eight years on Sunday — hit home for a game-ending sack. 

“I love it,” McManis said. “It was a great call. Coaches did an awesome job putting us in the right places and we did a good job of executing.”

The Bears' defense isn't having the success it is just because of Mack, or some of the top-end players on it. The across-the-board contributions it's getting from every corner of the depth chart is key in that dominance, too. 

Quiet, Please

The Cardinals aren’t the first Phoenix-area sports team to feel like they don’t have much of a home field/court/rink advantage when a squad from Chicago comes to town, that’s for sure. But Bears fans travelled so well to Glendale on Sunday that the Cardinals almost had to do something that’s usually reserved for road games. 

“It’s tough. There were a few times that we thought we were going to have to go silent cadence but if you’re not winning, the fans aren’t going to come out,” Cardinals offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “If we go out and put a better product on the field, fans will come out and watch us and support us.”

No matter how expected it may be, it was still a striking sight to see Bears players — like Mack and Jackson — raise their arms in the air to encourage a crowd to make more noise at a road game. 

Mack Attack

Mack had an interesting description of his forced fumble, which came when Bradford tried to scramble into the Bears’ red zone early in the fourth quarter. It was a pivotal play in the game, and led to an offensive drive that ended with Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal. 

But in light of the NFL’s raging, self-inflicted controversy about its roughing the passer rule, how Mack explained making that play stands out.

“I knew he was going to have the ball in his right hand, got my head out of the way because that’s a big part of the rules nowadays, and tried to make a play,” Mack said. “It was what we worked on all week, punching the ball out. That’s what coaches were preaching all week.”

So on a Sunday on which Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews was again flagged for roughing the passer after landing on a quarterback, and in a climate where lowering the head constitutes a penalty, Mack pulled off a game-changing play without doing anything the NFL rulebook considers illegal. The Bears have not been flagged for roughing the passer this year, and instead have had multiple strip-sacks in each of their first three games. 

Bears rookie Bilal Nichols putting in serious work in days leading up to training camp

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USA Today

Bears rookie Bilal Nichols putting in serious work in days leading up to training camp

Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace has enjoyed a lot of success in the mid-to-late rounds of his three NFL draft classes since 2015, ranging from Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen to Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson. All four critical players were selected in the fourth or fifth rounds.

Whether one of his 2018 day-three picks has a similar impact this season is a great unknown, but one player who has a shot at a decent amount of reps is fifth-round selection Bilal Nichols, the powerful defensive lineman from the University of Delaware.

Nichols will compete with Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris for defensive end duties opposite Akiem Hicks. He's a long way from earning for a starting job, but if Bullard and Robertson-Harris struggle to make the most of their opportunities, the door to playing time will be wide open.

Nichols is making a big jump from the FCS ranks and one of the issues that most commonly plague smaller-school players is the speed and strength of opposing offensive linemen. Nichols is training hard to prepare for that:

Nichols was a first-team All-CAA selection as a senior for the Blue Hens. He started 11 games and registered 56 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, an interception, four pass break-ups, and blocked a kick on special teams.