We got a good one coming up on Sunday Night Football. The 11-1 Los Angeles Rams are on the road against the 8-4 Chicago Bears as both division leaders look to solidify their playoff seed credentials.
To get a better sense of who we’re facing, I linked up with Jeff Berckes from Windy City Gridiron, the SB Nation community for Chicago Bears fans.
Let’s start on offense. Most metrics have you guys in the middle of the pack, but you’re top five in scoring and top 10 in most red zone metrics. Is this just an efficient offense, or is there something to first-year Head Coach Matt Nagy’s system that improves in the red zone?
Six defensive touchdowns help in that scoring mark, but yes, there is something to what you’re saying. I believe Nagy has been creative in the red zone and clearly spends a lot of time working on plays that will be effective. That might be a good off-season project to break down the plays between the 20’s versus the red zone call. The Tarik Cohen TD pass last week against the Giants is a good example of using your best play when you need a score. So often, coaches seem content to bring out a heavy set and run the ball 3 times in typical 1980’s fashion, but Nagy is cut from different cloth. He’s been aggressive in going for 2 when he sees something on film he can exploit and has been willing to keep his offense on the field for 4th downs where other coaches might punt.
The other thing I’ll note about Nagy is that he’s shown a willingness to get a lot of people involved in the offense and has a great understanding of the history of the franchise. He’s not afraid to play his 3rd running back or design a play to get the ball to the 3rd tight end. While that can be a double edged sword, I think it helps the buy-in for everyone on the team. The first offensive play call of Nagy’s tenure was a run out of the T-Formation, an offense that the Bears ran to great success in the 1940’s. He later ran that formation on Thanksgiving against the Lions and joked that he has quite a few plays out of that formation if needed. His hat tip to William Perry, aka the Fridge, with the Akiem Hicks rushing TD was another understanding of the history of the franchise. He’s doing an excellent job of keeping his players engaged, having fun, and showing success on the field.
In terms of the improvement from 2017, how much would you put on Nagy and how much is just down to individual improvement from second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky and how much is the new wideouts?
In rank order, I think the answer is Nagy, Trubisky, and the weapons. Nagy has been able to come in and provide the infrastructure around Trubisky in order for him to be able to make the gains that he has shown. He has put him in a good position to make plays with his legs and has schemed wide receivers open. Trubisky was a prospect with an extremely limited college resume and his first year under John Fox didn’t help in his development. Creating that space to be successful with an overall impressive approach to play calling gives the nod to Nagy here.
That’s not to say that Trubisky’s development hasn’t been impressive, because it’s been fun to watch. Growth of QBs is not always linear, and certainly there are cases where a guy plateaus before you expect him to, but what I’m most excited for is to see what Trubisky looks like in 2019 and 2020. If he’s able to take that next step in his development with a full year under the system – much like what Jared Goff did – the next couple years could be fascinating.
The final piece of all of this has been important too and while I rank it third, I don’t think the first two happen without the influx of talent. Having an Allen Robinson II gives the Bears a legit WR1 and guys like Taylor Gabriel, rookie Anthony Miller in the slot, and tight end Trey Burton have been sure-handed and everyone has pitched in. If you were to look at the target share of the Bears weapons, there is no one dominant receiver like Brandon Marshall of the past. The ball is spread around to everyone and while that may not be good for fantasy football, it’s been very important to the early returns of this offense.
Defensively, you guys have one of the best defenses if not the best unit in the league. Where’s the weak point?
Football Outsiders has the Bears as the #1 run defense and the #1 pass defense in the league. They have been phenomenal against the run and it will be interesting to see how they fare against Todd Gurley II. They’ve also been excellent in rushing the passer. This is due in large part to the versatility of players like Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, and of course Khalil Mack, who are able to play the run and get after the quarterback. A set of fast, instinctive linebackers have been good at cleaning plays up behind that defensive line, so they’ve limited big plays from breaking out on screens and draws.
The back end is anchored by second year safety Eddie Jackson, who is putting together a 1st Team All-Pro campaign, allowing Bears corners Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, and Bryce Callahan to play more aggressive. The Bears lead the league in takeaways as the pass rush combined with the aggressive secondary play has led to 21 interceptions. It’s a very fun defense to watch.
Now, to answer your question – what is the weakness? There have been times where the tackling has been a little sloppy, particularly the Dolphins game and against Saquon Barkley last week. I also wonder if that aggressiveness may lead to susceptibility in trick plays and misdirection. They also tend to take their foot off the gas when protecting a big lead, which has led to a lot of late garbage yards and scores. I think they need to stay aggressive and keep hunting for turnovers. From a purely strategic standpoint, I’m interested to see what Sean McVay does to attack this defense. By definition, this will be the best defense the Rams will face all year, and the Bears are going to want to hold this game in the 20’s to give themselves a chance.
Two bigger picture questions. One is the similarities between the Rams’ come-up last year and y’alls this year and what it leads to. The Rams laid the groundwork for the improvement last season but made a big jump this year propelled by some major personnel changes. Let’s say the 2019 Chicago Bears are going to go 14-2. What needs to happen between the end of this season and Week 1 2019 for that to happen? What personnel upgrades need to take place and who needs to make the biggest jump performance-wise?
I believe most of the personnel changes / improvements for the Bears in 2019 already took place in 2018. General Manager Ryan Pace went all in by getting the coaching staff he wanted to build the infrastructure around Trubisky, surrounding him with a complementary set of offensive playmakers, and of course – pulling the trigger on the franchise altering trade of acquiring Khalil Mack. Because of that trade, the Bears will be operating without first round picks the next two years and will be on the low side of cap room, so don’t expect any huge splashes. Most of the improvement should come by keeping this unit largely intact and gains in familiarity with the offensive system in year 2.
If I were to set expectations for the next offseason, I would expect the following:
o Re-sign slot corner Bryce Callahan to keep that unit together
o Make a decision on SS Adrian Amos – either resign on a reasonable deal or allow Deon Bush to ascend to the starting role
o Add defensive line /edge rusher rotation depth – despite salary limitations I think there will be a veteran who will want to play with this group
o Figure out the right side of the offensive line – cut or restructure Kyle Long’s contract, invest in a new right tackle or re-sign Bobbie Massie to a reasonable deal, draft at least 1 offensive lineman
o Swap Cody Whitehair and James Daniels – both are playing out of their natural positions in my opinion and a year in the system should allow Daniels to take over center and send Whitehair back to guard.
o Draft a running back that fits the style of offense better than Jordan Howard
The New NFL™ is nearly here. The Rams and Chiefs certainly look to be players in it. Is it too early to put the Bears in that category for the next 2-? number of years? Have Chicago Bears fans begun to modify expectations now that the team is on the ascendancy?
I’m all-in on this team. I thought Ryan Pace had a perfect offseason. I know Les Snead did some great things to get the Rams in a position to compete for a championship this year and I’ve been watching closely as the Rams have been my preferred model for the Bears rebuild, but my vote for Executive of the Year would be for Ryan Pace as every decision he made has turned out to be justified. Having the cojones to pull off the Mack trade was the exclamation point on a series of moves that all look great right now – Nagy, Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, Kyle Fuller, Mack – not to mention what appears to be two strong drafts in a row. So, yes, I think the Bears are players in the “new NFL.”
I would say the fan base was overall fairly excited about 2018 and thought the year would be positive (there are curmudgeons in every fan base). Those Fan Pulse stories show Bears fans have held steady in their belief in the direction of this squad. It is amazing though how fast fans have shifted from the nightmare of the last 5 years to the new era in their game-to-game expectations. There’s a great thirst from this fan base to get back to competitive football and we are all drinking deeply from the cup of expectations.
Thanks to Jeff for the time.