Danny Trevathan

No Mack, no problem: Bears’ defense bounces back, keeps Jets grounded

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No Mack, no problem: Bears’ defense bounces back, keeps Jets grounded

Part of the Bears’ calculus in deciding to make Khalil Mack inactive for the first time in his career had to be a trust this defense could deliver without their star — yet hobbled — player. 

That’s exactly what Vic Fangio’s group did, smothering the New York Jets for all but one drive in a tidy 24-10 win Sunday at Soldier Field. This was hardly the flashiest performance by the Bears’ defense, which only had one sack and didn’t record an interception against a quarterback who led the league in picks heading into Week 8. 

But it was an effective effort that, beyond not having Mack on the field, felt like a throwback to what this defense did well in 2017. 

“You always want to rally for your guys, especially when they’re down,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “You just do your best to play the best of your capabilities. And don’t forget, we were a top 10 defense before.”

Hicks is right about that. A year ago, the Bears’ defense didn’t have a player with more than eight sacks and only totaled eight interceptions. But what this group did well was stop the run and force opposing offenses into difficult down-and-distances, the likes of which could be taken advantage even by a not-so-opportunistic defense. 

The Jets’ averaged 8.6 yards-to-gain on third down, which is a good starting point of explaining how New York converted only three of 14 third down tries despite the Bears only recording one sack and two quarterback hits. The Bears’ run defense was dominant, limiting running back/“Dude Wipes” spokesman Isaiah Crowell to 25 yards on 13 ineffective carries. Change of pace back Trenton Cannon only managed 10 yards on six carries, too.  

Beyond the Jets’ best offensive weapon being Crowell, stopping the run was critical in setting the tone for a defense that had been so easily and frequently gashed in its last two games. 

“If a team gets the momentum and feels like they can topple you and run over you all day, they’re going to keep doing it,” Hicks said. “If you shut that down early, that lets them know that you’re here to play and you gotta be consistent, you gotta keep doing it but it’s a real tone setter. When they scheme runs to run against your defense and you’re smacking them in the mouth, it’s a real tone setter and they don’t forget it.”

The Jets’ receiving corps was comically depleted on Sunday, missing top targets Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson as well as reliable pass-catching running back Bilal Powell. But the Bears’ secondary did well to plaster New York’s available receivers and make plays on the ball, even if they didn’t turn any into interceptions. Bryce Callahan broke up three passes, while Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller and Danny Trevathan notched pass break-ups as well. 

And when Sam Darnold did complete passes, for the most part the Bears’ defense swiftly made tackles. The Jets’ longest play of the game was a 29-yard completion to Deontay Burnett that happened when Fuller barely couldn’t make a fingertip interception. 

“We just need to play our ball, man,” Trevathan said. “Get off the field on third down keep them in second and short, stop the run game — there were no turnovers, but I think we played a sound game defensively. Stopped the run game, passing game, kept them limited. It was a good game for us.”

To some extent, the Bears’ defense needed this game. Yes, the Jets offense was horrendous — somehow, it combined for five false start penalties — but the Bears’ defense played well regardless of how many “just a guys” populated their opponent’s depth chart. The Jets were overmatched, and the Bears made sure that played out on the scoreboard. 

“We just came out and played our game,” Jackson said. “We executed, we played aggressive and we played four quarters. That was one of the biggest things that we wanted to do.”

Jackson said he had a feeling Mack wouldn’t play when the outside linebacker wasn’t part of the team’s mock game on Saturday, though no decision was made on him until Sunday, coach Matt Nagy said. Deciding to hold Mack out against the Jets was not due to a setback with his balky angle, Nagy added, and his status for Week 9’s trip to Buffalo will remain day-to-day, though the hope is that he’ll be able to play next Sunday. 

But the Bears’ defense proved against the Jets it can still clamp down on an opponent even without its most dominant force, at least prior to Mack suffering that ankle injury in Week 6’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Bills’ offense is worse than the Jets, and the Bears can take some confidence from Sunday that this defense indeed can succeed without Mack. With a critical three-game stretch against the Lions, Vikings and Lions looming in Weeks 10-12, that’s important, given they’ll need Mack as close to 100 percent for those games as possible to legitimately start thinking about playoff contention. 

“This is a day-by-day, daily, hour by hour,” Nagy said. “It's just one that I really haven't been a part of before just because of where he's at, and so you know, it could be a similar situation. But I just think right now, that was what was best for him and what was best for us. 

“We had guys that stepped up. I think that's the other thing that you can't get lost in this is when a great player like Khalil or another player like Allen (Robinson) doesn't play, we have guys that step up and that’s — I'm proud of our guys for doing that, and understanding that, knowing that, hey, here we go, it's my time and next man up.”

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.”

Film review: Albert Wilson's 75-yard TD shows how Sunday was an aberration for the Bears' defense

Film review: Albert Wilson's 75-yard TD shows how Sunday was an aberration for the Bears' defense

(For a bonus film review, check out the video above of Akiem Hicks' forced fumble on the one-yard line)

When Eddie Jackson didn’t stay on top shoulder of Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter of the Bears’ season opener, there was a clear coaching point from that 75-yard backbreaking touchdown. The Bears’ defensive mantra the week after was to focus on “plastering” receivers, which this defense did a good job of over the next three weeks. 

There surely are coaching points leveled by Vic Fangio and his assistants after the Bears were carved up by Brock Osweiler and the Miami Dolphins in Sunday’s 31-28 loss in Miami. But maybe the over-arching though here is this: The Bears didn’t, during the off week, go from being one of the league’s more sure-handed tackling teams to one of the worst. 

A defense that swarmed to the ball over the first four weeks looked a step slow and frequently out of position on Sunday. The more likely explanation for that development isn’t the plot to Space Jam 3, where a group of cartoon aliens steal the athletic power of an entire defense to use for their own. More likely, it was the heat in south Florida that sapped this team’s energy over the course of a long afternoon.

In this week’s film breakdown, we’re going to look at Albert Wilson’s 75-yard touchdown, which was wildly uncharacteristic of this defense. 

Image 1: the Bears are in nickel man coverage with Wilson (red circle) lined up in the slot across from Bryce Callahan. Danny Amendola goes in motion to the boundary (green arrow), with Danny Trevathan (green arrow) following him, though safety Adrian Amos will be the guy covering the Dolphins receiver. Akiem Hicks and Jonathan Bullard are the two down linemen in the interior, with Leonard Floyd rushing from the left and Khalil Mack from the right. 

Image 2: Mack is chipped by tight end Nick O’Leary (yellow circle), with Roquan Smith (yellow arrow) responsible or covering him. Trevathan (green circle) is in space with Amos (blue circle) picking up Amendola. With Mack chipped, the Bears have three pass rushers to go against five offensive linemen. 

Image 3: There’s about 10 yards of space between Mack and Osweiler (yellow arrow) after Mack comes free of O’Leary’s chip. Trevathan (green circle) is in a good position here, with Amos (blue arrow) closing on Amendola. Wilson works into space ahead of Callahan (red arrow), while both Dolphins outside pass-catchers run go routes to clear cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Kevin Toliver II out of the play. 

Image 4: First, the white circle — Hicks had his helmet ripped off, with right tackle Jesse Davis the apparent culprit. He still manages a good pass rush against a double team that could’ve hit home, or forced Osweiler to Mack (who’s about five yards from Osweiler when the ball is released) or Floyd, had the play extended longer. Meanwhile, when the ball is released, Callahan (red arrow) and Trevathan (green arrow) are in good position to bring down Wilson, while Amos (blue arrow) is there for help if Wilson were to turn upfield to the far sideline. 

Image 5: Wilson catches the ball and goes to the far sideline, away from Callahan (red arrow) and toward Trevathan (green arrow). After O’Leary and Smith engaged, the rookie linebacker is the farthest back from the play of these three when the ball is caught. 

Image 6: Trevathan (green arrow) seems to over-commit, giving Wilson a lane toward the boundary to cut upfield. 

Image 7: Amos (blue arrow) still has a chance to bring down Wilson short of the sticks.

Image 8: Amos misses the tackle, and Trevathan is blocked by O’Leary. That leaves Jackson (yellow arrow) as the last guy who can stop Wilson from breaking this play open. 

Image 9: In missing the tackle, Amos tripped Wilson a bit, which Jackson admitted threw him off (“but that’s not an excuse for it,” he added). Wilson re-gains his balance, cuts inside, and Jackson whiffs on the tackle. 

“Probably just try to shoot my shot on the tackle instead of just guessing, just probably should have shot my shot,” Jackson said of what he felt he should’ve done differently. 

Wilson goes to the house, and the Dolphins tie the game one play after the Bears took the lead. The last image here is Wilson’s route chart from NFL Next Gen Stats, which shows just how much running he did after the catch on that play — yardage-wise, it was 71 yards, but by distance it was much further. 

“We talked about how many tackles we missed,” Jackson said. “Some of that could have really changed the momentum of the game if we would have made some of those tackles. Unfortunately, two of them resulted in big play touchdowns.”

No members of the Bears defense were willing to use the heat as an excuse, instead opting for thumb-pointing instead of blaming teammates, coaches or the sun. But there’s a good chance we look back at Week 6 in Week 10 or 11 and can say with some confidence that the Bears beat themselves more than the Dolphins did, and it’s something that hasn’t happened since. 

“We know we made mistakes, that don’t kill our confidence,” Jackson said. “That don’t kill our swagger. We know what we gotta do, we know what we gotta correct. So we come in here, we’re going to play Chicago Bears football that we’re used to playing.”