Khalil Mack

Five big questions for the Bears to answer in the second half of 2018

USA Today

Five big questions for the Bears to answer in the second half of 2018

For the first time in a long time — maybe 2014, maybe 2012, maybe 2010, depending on your outlook — the Bears have everything in front of them, including a legitimate playoff run, entering the second half of a season. 

Five of this team’s remaining eight games come against the NFC North, including a critical three-game stretch beginning Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. The path for the Bears, then, seems clear: At the very least, win three of those five division games, then take two of three from the New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. That gets the Bears to 10-6, which usually would be good enough for a playoff spot (though it wasn’t in 2012). 

But for the Bears to follow that path, or perhaps do better than it, they’ll need to get the right answers to these five questions:

1. Will Mitch Trubisky be better?

We wrote about this on Wednesday, but there are two viewpoints here:

A) Trubisky has been good enough to get the Bears to 5-3; and nearly 6-2 based on a good game in a loss to the Miami Dolphins.

B) Trubisky is inaccurate, missing too many open receivers and throwing too many bad interceptions.

Neither point is necessarily wrong or right. The Bears have proven they can win without Trubisky playing particularly well (like against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals), and were competitive against the New England Patriots even with Trubisky barely completing over 50 percent of his passes. 

It’s worth noting Trubisky faced better pass defenses in the first half of the year (average passing defense DVOA rank: 14.5) than he will in the second half (average: 19.6), starting with a 30th-ranked Lions defense that looks to be without its best cornerback in Darius Slay on Sunday. That should help Trubisky’s production match the sort of play-to-play growth coaches see in him, as will the natural progression of a second-year quarterback running a first-year offense. 

Can the Bears make the playoffs of Trubisky’s inaccurate throws and poor decisions continue to crop up? Yes. A repeat of the first half would put the Bears at 10-6 and, more likely than not, in the playoffs. 

But no factor will be more important to making sure the Bears reach the postseason for the first time since 2010 than the improvement of their quarterback. 

2. Is Khalil Mack 100 percent?

The Bears made the right call in having Mack sit out against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, games they should’ve won (and did win, comfortably) without the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. 

“We know what we’re got here and just understanding the situation, it was better for the team,” Mack said. “So I bit my tongue and sat back and listened instead of trying to do too much in the situation. It is what it is now. We’re got two wins and trying to make it three.”

Mack’s first four games in a Bears uniform were an awesome spectacle of dominance, with the 27-year-old forcing a fumble in each of those games while recording a pick-six and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Best-case, the Bears get that Mack back when he returns to play Sunday against the Lions. 

Not every opponent will be able to gameplan as well for Mack’s presence as the Dolphins (quick throws in the heat and humidity) and Patriots (quick throws executed by one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time) were. 

“He always plays really, really hard,” outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said. “And just his impact on the game — with Miami, their protection plan was so specific to him and even New England’s to an extent, it wasn’t so much the protection plan but the way that they were going to go about that game, ball out quick, screen, misdirection — just that part gives us an advantage as a team. So moving forward, when he gets back full strength, it’s going to create more opportunities for everybody.” 

3. Can this team finish in the fourth quarter?

A rather nefarious trend that emerged in the first half of 2018 was the Bears’ issues finishing games in the fourth quarter. This group did that against the Seahawks (with Prince Amukamara’s pick-six) and Cardinals (with a barrage of forced turnovers) but failed to close out games against the Packers and Dolphins, or hold the Patriots at bay in what wound up being a seven-point loss. 

The statistics bear that trend out. Here’s the Bears’ offense’s quarter-by-quarter yards per play breakdown:

1st: 6.1
2nd: 5.6
3rd: 5.7
4th: 5.2

It’s a much starker divide for the defense:

1st: 5.5
2nd: 3.2
3rd: 3.7
4th: 7.3

The Bears have only won one close game (Arizona) out of four (Green Bay, Miami and New England being the others — Seattle wasn’t really close, with the Seahawks getting a late, late score to bring it within seven). Winning by wide margins is a better indicator of future success than winning by narrow margins, but eventually, the Bears are going to have to win a close game against a better opponent than the woebegone Cardinals. 

And doing that will require playing better in the fourth quarter on offense, defense and special teams. The Bears believe they’re improving as a team, and if given the opportunity will convert a fourth quarter drive or defensive stop into a victory. But until they do it, it’s a question that needs to be answered. 

4. How deep is this team?

The Bears have been remarkably healthy (feel free to knock on wood here) through the first eight games of the season, placing only two players on injured reserve (Sam Acho and Kyle Long) while having starters Anthony Miller, Prince Amukamara, Allen Robinson and Mack combine to miss six games.

The Bears’ training staff and the plan put together by that crew and Nagy deserves praise here. But this is football, and the Bears’ will be tested beyond the interior offensive line — which struggled at times to make up for Long’s absence against the Bills last weekend. 

But heading into Sunday’s game against the Lions, the Bears only listed one player as out (Dion Sims, concussion) and one as questionable (Bilal Nichols, knee). Compare that to the Lions, who will be without rock-solid guard T.J. Lang and top cornerback Darius Slay, while linebacker Eli Harold is doubtful and four players (including defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and running back Kerryon Johnson) are questionable. 

Eventually, though, the Bears’ depth will be tested. And while it hasn’t really been yet, Nagy is confident when that test comes, his team will respond to it well. 

“It’s pretty good,” Nagy said. “I felt that going into this year. I think one of the things, you always want to have a contingency plan in case. We’ve had a couple guys this year where we’ve had to deal with backups in certain cases, and I think our guys have done well. Having depth, that’s really important for any team in this league to be able to feel good with that going into it. And I’ve felt that way, really, the whole way from training camp.”

How the Bears handle Long’s absence with the trio of James Daniels, Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann will be important, but it’s also worth noting Adam Shaheen returned to practice this week and, while he’s unlikely to play against Detroit, could be in line for his season debut on Sunday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings. 

5. What will the NFC Wild Card picture look like?

The best path to the playoffs for the Bears is though the NFC North, especially with two games remaining against the Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1). But that’s a Vikings team that was favored to win the division before the season, and should be considered the favorites to win the NFC North until further notice. 

Maybe further notice comes on Sunday Night Football. But in the case it doesn’t, it’s important to take stock in the NFC playoff picture halfway through the season. Two things appear clear: 

1) The Los Angeles Rams will win the NFC West
2) The New Orleans Saints will win the NFC South 

There’s still a lot of time for things to change (except in the NFC West, where it would take a comical turn of events for the Rams to not win that division). But if we consider the Rams and Saints the favorites to earn byes in the playoffs, and the Philadelphia Eagles and Vikings to win their respective divisions, what competition will the Bears be going up against for one of the conference’s two wild card spots?

The Carolina Panthers (6-3) — despite getting whomped by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday Night Football — look like the best bet to make the playoffs out of the teams likely not to win their division. Then there’s this group:

Bears (5-3)
Washington (5-3)
Seahawks (4-4)
Falcons (4-4)
Packers (3-4-1)

Any of those five teams could make it. Washington’s arrow is pointing down, while the Falcons’ arrow is pointing up. The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson and the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers. 

So the Bears’ best route to the playoffs, again, is in winning the NFC North — a division against which they’re 6-25 since the end of the 2013 season. Those efforts begin Sunday at Soldier Field.

Bears make Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson inactive for second consecutive week

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Bears make Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson inactive for second consecutive week

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Bears will not play outside linebacker Khalil Mack (ankle) and wide receiver Allen Robinson (groin) for the second consecutive week, giving two of the team’s most important players another game off to nurse their respective injuries with an eye on a critical three-game stretch against the NFC North looming this month. 

Both players were announced as inactive prior to Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, along with injured defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (knee) and tight end Ben Braunecker (concussion). The Bears’ other inactives: Wide receiver Kevin White, cornerback Marcus Cooper and offensive lineman Rashaad Coward. White, for the first time in his career, was a healthy scratch. 

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio admitted last week the Bears could’ve benefitted from letting Mack rest sooner than he did, though a significant factor in making him inactive against the New York Jets and now Bills was seeing him give it a shot against the New England Patriots. 

“To his credit, he tried to play with it,” Fangio said. “Some people would say we were wrong to play him after he got hurt early in Miami in that game, and then wrong to play him the next game. But there’s another lens to look at that. A lot of people think players don’t play through injuries, etc., and this guy is saying he can go. 

“… I prefer to look at it through the lens that this guy is trying to fight through and play, and he’s not letting an injury take him out. In hindsight, should we have taken him out earlier? Probably. But a guy says he can go, he can go, and we’ve got to see it.”

The Bears’ defense suffocated the Jets last week without Mack despite only recording one sack and no interceptions. The Bears were a top-10 defense without Mack in 2017, after all, a point made by a few people around Soldier Field and Halas Hall last week. 

“Our level of overall play, obviously, when you add a player of his caliber into it is going to be better but there’s still no reason for other guys to not play to the best of their abilities,” Fangio said. “I just don’t get the point everybody makes on that, admitting that we’d better off with him, I’m not saying that. But it shouldn’t affect the other 10 guys on how they play.”

The Bears’ offense, while not its best self against the Jets, was able to sustain not having Robinson in scoring 24 points. 

While the Bears likely would’ve decided to play Mack and/or Robinson if both were 100 percent healthy, they still have a talent advantage over the 2-6 Bills without both players. The point being: The Bears should be able to win without Mack and Robinson, and then hope both are at or as close as possible to 100 percent when the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings come to Soldier Field in Weeks 10 and 11.

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack inactive, will not play against Jets

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Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack inactive, will not play against Jets

Khalil Mack inactive against Jets

Khalil Mack will miss a game for the first time in his career, as the Bears designated the outside linebacker as inactive prior to Sunday’s contest against the New York Jets at Soldier Field. 

Mack previously played 70 consecutive games from Week 1 of his rookie year in 2014 up to the Bears’ loss to the New England Patriots last Sunday. He injured his ankle in the first quarter of the Bears’ Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and after recording five sacks in his first four games of 2018 hasn’t had one since. 

Furthermore, Mack didn’t record a quarterback hit after injuring his ankle and was only credited with three pressures against the Dolphins and Patriots, per Pro Football Focus. One of the most dominant pass rushers in the first quarter of the season — and the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history — became a non-factor clearly hobbled by a balky ankle. 

Why Mack is inactive this week and not last week may have had something to do with the Bears needing to see how his ankle responded in a game — the kind of thing that can’t be replicated in a limited practice. 

“It was good to see, because you don’t know the level of where he’s at,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And so it helps. But then, again, I think time is the biggest thing right now. when you talk to Khalil throughout this process, you gotta know: ‘Hey, was it a good day? Was it a bad day? What are you doing? Can we do more? Is there more rehab that’s needed? Is there less rehab that’s needed.’ So (head trainer Andre Tucker) and those guys have done a good job of talking to him.”

In Mack’s absence, expect an uptick in snaps for Aaron Lynch, who played 42 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps this year with two sacks, five quarterback hits and one interception. Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts, too, could play their first defensive snaps of the year (Irving has been active for three games but only played special teams; Fitts has been inactive for the Bears’ first six games). 

There will also be added pressure on Leonard Floyd, who does not have a sack this year, to step up in Mack’s absence. 

Part of the Bears’ calculus with sitting Mack on Sunday, though, could have been determining they can beat the Jets without him. Perhaps the team has an eye on a critical three-game stretch in November, too, when the Bears play the Lions and Vikings at home, and then the Lions on the road in the span of 12 days. Having Mack as close as possible to 100 percent for those three NFC North games would provide a critical boost for the Bears’ chances of competing for a playoff spot.