Chuck Pagano

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Cowboys

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Cowboys

1. Handily win the turnover battle. 

No team has fewer interceptions than the Cowboys’ four, and Dallas hasn’t forced a turnover since playing the fumble-happy New York Giants a month ago in Week 9. Takeaways haven’t come in bunches for the Bears’ defense, but will be critically important against a Cowboys offense that’s bizarrely No. 1 in yards per play but No. 8 in scoring. 

Meaning: The Bears need to not only generate a short field or two for Mitch Trubisky and their offense, but will probably need to take the ball away from Dak Prescott and the Cowboys deep in Chicago territory. And, too, don’t throw a silly interception against a team that doesn’t get them very often. 

Do this and the Cowboys’ talent advantage is negated — as it has been for Jason Garrett’s squad in recent weeks. 

2. Don’t let your weakness get exposed on defense. 

The potential (if not likely) absence of Prince Amukamara, who’s doubtful for Thursday’s game with a hamstring injury, comes at a concerning time for the Bears. Chuck Pagano’s scheme, like Vic Fangio’s before, doesn’t have its cornerbacks travel with receivers, trusting one guy (Amukamara) to play press and another (Kyle Fuller) to thrive in off coverage. That could mean on Thursday the Cowboys are able to get star wideout Amari Cooper away from Fuller and matched up against second-year undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver II. 

Cooper already is a matchup nightmare who has 64 catches for 971 yards with seven touchdowns this year. It’s unlikely the Bears can stop Cooper, but containing him — meaning limiting his explosive plays and yards after the catch — will be critical. If Cooper gets loose, the Cowboys will have no problem marching the ball downfield against a good Bears defense. 

And even if the Bears are able to get Fuller on Cooper quite a bit, Michael Gallup is a strong No. 2 receiver, checking in with 49 catches for 796 yards this year. Toliver will need to play well and/or Pagano will need to figure out a way to consistently get him help. 

3. Give Mitch Trubisky time to throw. 

It didn’t feel like a coincidence that Trubisky’s best game of 2019 came in Detroit when his offensive line consistently gave him clean pockets and time to go through his progressions, make good decisions and step into throws. 

The Cowboys’ front is much better than Detroit’s. While edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is having a down year by his standards (five sacks), he’s still a menacing threat who needs to be contained. Opposite him is a resurgent Robert Quinn, whose 9 1/2 sacks lead Dallas. And Michael Bennett and Maliek Collins are an effective interior duo, with seven sacks despite Bennett being a midseason acquisition from the Patriots. 

Thursday night will be a critical test for the Bears’ offensive line. Pass it and this offense will have a good chance of finding success against a solid defense. Fail it and the Bears’ already-slim playoff hopes will disappear. 

Prediction: Bears 16, Cowboys 14. The Cowboys will come to Soldier Field with a more talented roster than the Bears, but that hasn’t stopped Garrett’s side from losing some gutting close games this year. Dallas is 1-5 against teams with a .500 or better record on gameday, a surely infuriating stat for a team that, truly, should be better than 6-6. But this deep into the season, the Cowboys are who they are — and that’ll crack the door open for the Bears to eke out a narrow, tough win to improve to 7-6. 

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Khalil Mack's recent disappearance says more about the Bears' defense than it says about his own play

Khalil Mack's recent disappearance says more about the Bears' defense than it says about his own play

Just in case there are still Bears fans out who are skeptical about Murphy’s Law (Mercury doesn’t even go into retrograde until February!), a significant portion of Chuck Pagano’s press conference on Thursday afternoon was spent talking about how Khalil Mack didn’t show up in the box score against the Rams. 

“You guys watch the game, right? You saw the game plan and how they attacked us,” the Bears’ defensive coordinator said. “We understand how they are attacking him and how they’re taking care of him. How they’re tending to him. They were going to come out and try to run the football and keep it third and manageable.

“A lot of 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-2, 3rd-and-3. Never really any opportunities other than four times to really rush the passer for anybody, not only him but for our defense. So, just because he doesn’t show on [the stat sheet] doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job.”

It’s been a frustrating six weeks for Mack, who has one sack since the Bears’ Week 4 win over Minnesota. Per Pro Football Focus, here are Mack’s Pass Rushing grades – and where they rank – during that stretch: 

Week 5: 48.4 (113)
Week 7: 52.3 (92
Week 8: 71.1 (23
Week 9: 55.6 (80
Week 10: 63.8 (34)
Week 11: 59.4 (51

“You see that with some of the production and you see that with a lot of superstars,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “You can go back to last year with Aaron Donald, when he played us, there wasn’t any. Sometimes that happens, but it opens it up for other guys. He was a part of that first play of the game with the fumble. He was right in there with Eddie Jackson, ripping that ball out. Khalil, he doesn’t have to change anything he’s doing.” 

Pagano admitted that in theory, teams throwing two or three guys on Mack every single play should open up plenty of opportunities for other players but added that, “when that happens, [guys] have to win those matchups.” Not having Akiem Hicks, whose absence matches the timing of Macks' drop in box score production pretty closely, certainly hasn't helped. And now they'll be without Danny Trevathan – cough, Murphy's Law – for the majority of these final six weeks.

"Yeah, you could say because he’s not in there, you know, they don’t have to do this, that or the other to the guys that are in there, but you know, we got good football players in there," Pagano said. "You don’t want to be without anybody. We don’t want to be without Akiem, we don’t want to be without Danny. But that’s where we’re at."

Mack hasn’t had less than 10 sacks since his rookie season in 2014 (4), and he currently ranks 34th in sacks (5.5). Even still, PFF has him ranked as the eighth-best pass-rusher (86.0) and gave him the fourth-best overall defensive grade (89.4). The traditional stats obviously haven’t been there, but neither Nagy or Pagano has seen that frustration creep in and affect his attitude, or that infamous work ethic. 

“Khalil is a unique guy,” Pagano added. “He’s a great person, he’s a great pro, he comes to work every single day, even though this is happening from the first snap to the last snap. He’s a hard-charger. He just continues to go out there and grind and do what he has to do for this football team. I think the biggest thing for him is he wants to win.” 

Age before beauty when it comes to Bears, elite NFL defensive coaching

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USA Today

Age before beauty when it comes to Bears, elite NFL defensive coaching

It doesn’t necessarily qualify as age discrimination, maybe just more of a sorta “age-typing” around the NFL. Because the image of what makes a top offensive mind in the NFL is radically different from what’s become almost a standard for defensive-coaching pedigree.

Looking for a hot offensive coach? The cliche’d expectation has become that it’ll be someone young.

Putting together a ring of honor for the elite defensive minds in the NFL? Think “veteran"... VERY veteran.

Consider:

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer this week remarked during preparations for his Vikings hosting the Denver Broncos that he was pleased that Denver coach and former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio finally got a head-coaching berth at a time when so many top jobs have been going to the presumed hot, young offensive minds that vaulted to the top after “one-year sabbaticals.”

The one-year thing refers to the fast-tracking that has happened with increased frequency in recent years — the ascensions to head coach of Adam Gase (41) with the Jets, Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury (40), Matt LaFleur (40) in Green Bay, the Bears’ Matt Nagy (41), or Zac Taylor (36) in Cincinnati — after a year or two, sometimes less, as offensive coordinators. Sean McVay was 31 when the Rams hired him. Kyle Shanahan took over in San Francisco at 38.

Andy Reid at 61 looks perhaps like an outlier out there in Kansas City. But Reid was 41 when he became Donovan McNabb’s head coach in Philadelphia back in 1999.

Meanwhile, for whatever reason, the image bar on defense, between head coaches or defensive coordinators, lies in the other direction — the savvy, cagy, crusty old lion: Bill Belichick (67) in New England with the NFL’s No. 1 defense; Dallas ranked No. 6 on defense with coordinator Rod Marinelli (70); the Bears fourth in scoring defense under Chuck Pagano (59), who succeeded Fangio. Denver No. 7 with Fangio as head coach and Ed Donatell (62) as his defensive coordinator.

Preparing for the Los Angeles Rams’ 11th-ranked defense on Sunday, Nagy this week brought up Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (72) for recognition: “How do you not appreciate what he’s done over his career? He’s done some amazing things. He’s been in the league forever. When he was in Denver and I was in Kansas City we’ve seen him. When he was in Houston and I was in Kansas City we’ve seen him.”

Defensive legend Dick LeBeau finished his NFL coaching career with Tennessee at age 80.

So how is it that youth has come to be served on offense, while on defense, the prevailing philosophy has been age before beauty?

"I don't know,” Nagy reflected. “Maybe it's just a phase that we're in right now?

“It's probably a little bit of a trend involved there. the other part of it, too, is that you get some of these older coaches that are in it, they've seen it all, right? You go back to Tom Brady when he talked about that he's seen every defense; these [defensive seniors] have seen every offense and so they have ways to adjust and experiences.”

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