John Mullin

Would you believe J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted are keys to resurgent Bears' O?

Would you believe J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted are keys to resurgent Bears' O?

One obvious question hovering in the afterglow of the Bears’ breakout offensive performance against the Dallas Cowboys last Thursday is: Where has THIS been? Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and coach Matt Nagy looked more in sync than at any other time in recent memory.

So here’s a deeper question: How did that happen? The answer may be as simple as finally getting impact play from the tight end position, something the Bears haven’t had all season.

The impact plays by J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted (7 combined targets, 7 combined catches, 92 combined yards) represented the runaway best 2019 day for Bears tight ends. Against the Cowboys, Holtz actually led the team in receiving yards with 56. He and Horsted figured in the run game and screen game, bringing something to the offense that filled an enormous void.

While tight ends Trey Burton (calf) and Adam Shaheen (foot) are now on injured reserve, even when they were on the field they were largely ineffective, contributing only a combined 23 catches for 158 yards.

That left the Bears digging deep to find some production at the position. Holtz, who’s spent time on the Browns’ and Redskins’ practice squads, was claimed off waivers in September. Horsted, an undrafted free agent from Princeton, spent much of the season on the Bears’ practice squad.

“It’s a little bit of rhythm,” Nagy said. “[Holtz and Horsted] are so new to us as coaches and not knowing exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are. The other thing is that you had two other guys in Trey and Adam that were a little bit beat up and hurt physically. They weren’t 100 percent.

“You have two other guys that come in and are 100 percent and they have different types of talent. So we’re trying to figure out the best way to use them. I want to credit them, especially J.P. Holtz. Here’s a kid that’s come in here and done everything we’ve asked. He’s helped us out at that ‘Y’ [blocking tight end] position.”

Consider what’s been missing at the position for most of this season. Last year Burton was the fourth most-targeted Bear by Trubisky and caught 75 percent of the balls thrown to him. Shaheen did little with his playing time (he was inactive until game 10), but he did catch 83 percent of the balls Trubisky threw to him, and the Bears were 5-1 when he played.

Trubisky hasn’t had that security receiver this season. Burton slumped to a 58 percent catch-percentage before going on IR, Shaheen pulled in 9 of his 13 targets (69 percent), and Ben Braunecker 6 of 11 (55 percent).

So far Horsted and Holtz have caught 11 of the 12 passes directed to them. The one incompletion was to Holtz, from backup QB Chase Daniel vs. Oakland. That means that every pass Trubisky has thrown to the new TE duo has been caught.

“Tight ends are big in any offense,” Nagy said. “They help out in the run game. And then they help out in the pass game in certain areas. It’s just a benefit when you don’t always have to throw to wide receivers.”

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Bears head coach Matt Nagy is beginning to find his identity

Bears head coach Matt Nagy is beginning to find his identity

What the Bears did to the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday’s 31-24 defeat of the NFC East leaders was significant because of the complete offensive performance.

Based on quality of opponent, gravity of game and player performance, it was quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s career-best game. The 31 points scored by the offense was the most since the mauling of a JV Tampa Bay team last year (when Trubisky threw a career-high six touchdown passes).

And against the Cowboys the offense came back from difficult in-game situations twice.

The difference against Dallas?

Nagy appeared to be settling into his own identity. An identity that has eluded the Bears through out much of the Matt Nagy era.

With varying levels of proficiency, his players were running what he laid out and told them to. That changed dramatically against Dallas.

Over the third quarter of the season and into the fourth with Dallas, Nagy has operated less like a coach forcing players into his system and more like a coach molding the offense around his players.

Maybe it was seeing first-hand how miserably coach Matt Patricia forcing the Detroit Lions into his iteration of the New England defense has worked. The Bears’ 2019 turnaround coincidentally started against the Lions.

Whatever the reason, Nagy appeared less lock-stepped with a significantly flawed pass-intensive plan (Green Bay, Oakland, New Orleans losses) that his own personal quarterback nature may prefer. Maybe this is his more adult inner-coach is taking charge.

Players, Trubisky foremost among them, could be excused for feeling some uncertainty about their offense when their coach didn’t have a clear sense of what that offense is or wants to be.

Not a “blame game” situation, however. Nagy, an inexperienced head coach, had a green quarterback on his hands. Trubisky’s true capabilities, comfort levels, and weaknesses are still evolving. Nagy is also dealing with the same route-running, drops, O-line issues and such that plagued Trubisky.

Critically, Nagy’s play-calling has leveled out without lapsing into predictability. He has been less riveted to a game concept with no regard for results and been more adaptable.

When the Bears won three straight to finish the season’s first quarter, Nagy had the offense run the football 29, 24 and 33 times. When he and the offense languished through four straight losses, the Bears ran the football 17, 7, 38 and 18 times.

Since then Nagy has called 24-24-26-23-34 runs and the Bears have won four of those last five.

That doesn’t make Nagy a runnin’ guy. It does, however, make the team better and improves his quarterback’s understanding of the offense.

“Probably three to four, five weeks ago, somewhere in that range where you really started to feel, ‘OK, we're moving the ball,’” Nagy said. “We felt it against the Chargers [when the Bears ran 38 times]. We just weren't good in the red zone, right? But we felt like, ‘OK we're moving the ball,’ that we were limiting three-and-outs.

“And ever since then there's just a great confidence amongst the teammates. They're feeling it, we're feeling it and I think it's reflecting in the game.”

Nowhere more apparent than with Trubisky against Dallas and hopefully going forward.

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Cowboys, rest of schedule confront Mitch Trubisky with top defenses, a career shortcoming so far

Cowboys, rest of schedule confront Mitch Trubisky with top defenses, a career shortcoming so far

The quarterback and head coach get more credit or blame than they usually deserve for success or failure on NFL football fields. Such has been the case for the 2018 Bears, when offense-based Matt Nagy was NFL Coach of the Year because of an elite defense, and 2019 Bears, when quarterback Mitch Trubisky has been battered on and off the field for failings not entirely his own (see: ends, tight; receivers, wide; line, offensive).

Trubisky’s play over the past four games has been cited as evidence of improvement. Those included passer ratings of 131.0 and 118.1, both against the Detroit Lions, ranked 26th in opponent passer rating (99.7), 29th in yards per game 398) and (25th in points allowed per game).

But as the season moves into its decisive fourth quarter, a four-game stretch that includes three division leaders (Dallas, Kansas City, Green Bay) plus a first-runner-up with eight wins (Minnesota), while every phase and position group of the roster is tasked with ratcheting up their performances, the heaviest weight falls on Trubisky simply by virtue of his position.

The problem for the Bears is that throughout his 37-game career to date, Trubisky has failed to raise his game against better opponents. If that happens over the next four games, beginning with the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night, the Bears will be faced with a disturbing pattern in what they’ve hoped will develop into a franchise quarterback.

Meaning: Trubisky does not raise his game against the best. And with their season hanging by a thread, the Bears face Dallas, ranked top 10 against scoring, total yards and passing-yards.

Bad vs. Top-10'ers

Over his 37-game career, Trubisky has faced 10 top-10 defenses, using Football Outsiders DVOA ratings over the past three years. The Bears’ defense was pulled out, since Trubisky doesn’t play against the Bears; plus, when he did in training camp, things did not go well anyway.

In those 10 against the other top-10’s, Trubisky has managed just two passer ratings higher than 90.0, a decidedly middling standard; Carson Wentz ranks 18th with a 90.0 rating this season.

Unfortunately, given Trubisky’s present circumstances, there is an asterisk on those two games vs. top 10 Ds – No. 3 Baltimore (94.7) and No. 7 Carolina (101.8). Both came under John Fox and Dowell Loggains in 2017, in games when he was limited to seven and 16 pass attempts, respectively.

Trubisky’s next-highest rating vs. a top-10 defense came this year against New Orleans (86.6), a result meaninglessly inflated by a fourth quarter surge after the Bears had fallen behind 36-10.

Against other top defenses, bad: In 2019, the Rams (65.1); in 2018, the Vikings (61.9 in game I, 85.9 in game II).

Against top-10 pass defenses based on opposing quarterbacks’ ratings allowed, Green Bay ranks 10th with an 87.6 average. Trubisky opened the season with a 62.1 in the opening-night loss to the Packers.

Against the Chargers, who rank top 10 in based on fewest yards and points per game, Trubisky stumbled to a 75.1 that was overshadowed by Eddy Pineiro kicking problems.

Against No. 7 New England last season, Trubisky’s 69.8 rating wasn’t enough to overcome 14 points allowed by abysmal special teams play.

Coach Matt Nagy continues to accentuate the positive, regardless of opponent: “There were several times [in the Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit] where after the interception, he comes back and he’s throwing completions. And then we were behind the chains a little bit, and he never let that rattle him. He made conviction throws.

“So overall, there’s always a couple plays here or there. But overall, [the Detroit game] is probably a great example of all year long of him coming back with that next-play mentality.”

That mentality projects to get some of its most difficult tests in the remaining weeks of 2019.

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