LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Thursday, as I often do when I get in the car, I flipped around the radio channels to get a feel for the local temperature of the Bears on my way to Halas Hall. That’s when I came across my former teammate and good friend David Kaplan declaring next week’s game against Tampa Bay as the most important Bears game in years.
That’s right. Not this week’s game. Next week.
Indeed, many Bears fans have dreams of entering the bye week at 3-1, something I said was possible before the season began. There’s no question that the Bears optimism is higher than it’s been since at least 2013 when they had a chance to win the NFC North in Week 17 against the Packers.
And on a more micro-level, the optimism about this week’s game against the Cardinals in Arizona is off the charts. Something tells me the team is a little more focused than the fanbase. With that in mind, let’s jump into this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Unfamiliar Territory
The Bears have played 114 games in the eight seasons I’ve covered the team and I didn’t have to do any research to know they’ve been underdogs in the majority of those games. They are a 46-68 team in that time after all.
But I was curious as to how long it has been since they were at least six-point favorites on the road, which they are this week against the Cardinals.
According to Covers.com, the last time the Bears were at least a six-point favorite in any game was Dec. 6, 2015 at home against the 49ers, the week after they beat the Packers in Green Bay on Thanksgiving, spoiling Brett Favre night. The Bears lost that game to the 49ers 26-20 in overtime.
But that was a home game. What about on the road? Interestingly, I had to go all the way back to the Bears’ last trip to Arizona. They were seven-point road favorites on Dec. 23, 2012 when they beat the Cardinals 28-13 in Lovie Smith’s final season.
I’m always fascinated by point spreads because they reflect the public’s general expectations for a team. Right now, it’s pretty clear that this Bears team is getting a lot more respect that in past years.
It will be interesting to see how they handle these expectations in a road game they absolutely should win. These are the games you have to take care of if you want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
2. Here We Go Again
Back in February at the Super Bowl, when Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay expressed to me the desire to fix the catch rule, he referenced the “50 drunk guys in a bar” analogy that was originally coined by former Packers and Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren. McKay was referencing the idea of “indisputable video evidence” with the very unofficial standard that a play should only be overturned if “50 drunk guys in a bar are looking at the TV and say, no that (call is) not right.”
Not only was the catch rule hard to officiate on the field, but all the language added to the rule (i.e. keeping control all the way to ground) was making it even harder to officiate with replay. Too many disputable calls were being overturned and even some indisputable correct calls (like Zach Miller’s touchdown in New Orleans last year) were getting overturned.
To their credit, McKay and the competition committee fixed the catch rule this offseason.
And then the league created a whole new controversy.
I certainly understand that quarterbacks are the NFL’s most important commodity, but the league can’t legislate every single quarterback hit out of the game — otherwise it’s not football. It seems like every time a superstar quarterback gets hurt, the league tries to ban whatever hit it was that resulted in the injury. Last year, Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr drove him to the ground and landed on the quarterback. To me, the hit wasn’t dirty, but I can understand why the NFL had a desire to prevent defenders from landing on quarterbacks with their full body weight.
The problem is, much like the catch/no catch situation, the language of the rule creates too much of a gray area for officials to correctly rule on a hit in a split-second. In Sunday’s game between the Packers and Vikings, referee Tony Corrente called roughing the passer on Clay Matthews in the final moments of regulation, wiping out an interception that would have sealed the win for the Packers. Essentially, Corrente thought he saw Clay Matthews lift up on Kirk Cousins’ right leg as he tackled him, leading to this explanation after the game:
“It has nothing to do with the rule of full body weight,” Corrente said. “It has nothing to do with helmet to helmet. He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground.”
In reality, Matthews was just wrapping up.
“I feel like (Clay) did everything he could to make the right play. He kept his head out of the way. I feel like that was a perfect form tackle,” Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack said this week.
Amazingly, according to NFL.com, the league used Matthews’ hit on a teaching video it distributed to teams this week to emphasize the “scoop-and-pull” tactic.
Yes, apparently you can’t wrap up anymore — at least not on quarterbacks.
But this follows the same playbook the NFL used for years with the catch rule, defending every call that was made until they finally admitted the entire rule was bad. Remember last year when Al Riveron, the NFL’s SVP of officiating, literally circled a shadow and said it was the ball hitting the ground on Miller’s reversed touchdown? That’s what we’re dealing with here.
It’s no wonder that 50 drunk guys in a bar have more credibility.
As it turns out, I happened to be watching the Packers-Vikings game at a bar Sunday. There were somewhere around 50 (possibly) drunk guys and ladies in the bar. And they all agreed that was a clean hit.
3. Proper Technique
So how do pass rushers continue to be effective if they constantly have to worry about a game swinging on a bad roughing the passer penalty?
Broncos edge rusher Von Miller explained his strategy on The Dan Patrick Show this week, and I loved it:
I brought this up to Khalil Mack and asked him if he has a similar mentality. His response:
“Based on my play, you tell me. The ball is the most important thing on the field. You can get the big hits, but the ball is very, very important, especially to me.”
Given that Mack has two strip-sacks in two weeks, I’m going to say this strategy works for him too.
You know what also works? Being really fast and good. If you can get to the quarterback faster and make a play on the ball, you make it easier on the officials because you’re less likely to hit the quarterback late. It’s no secret that Clay Matthews is a step or two slower than he used to be, which cost him on his late hit on Mitch Trubisky in Week 1.
For what it’s worth, the Bears do not have any roughing the passer penalties through two games. They also have 10 sacks.
4. Challenge Flags
Time to throw out this week’s challenge flags:
To myself for saying Leonard Floyd didn’t do enough Monday night… My immediate reaction on our Hoge & Jahns postgame podcast was to say that Floyd had a quiet night against the Seahawks. Adam Jahns quickly pointed out that he thought Floyd was good against the run — and he was right. After watching the coaches’ film, I agree that Floyd was very good against the run and he did create one pressure. He can still be more active rushing the quarterback, but as Fangio pointed out Thursday: “I think in light of the circumstances that he’s played with, with one hand, he’s done fine. To come to any conclusions about his play over the first two games would be not very prudent.”
Floyd will have a different brace on his hand this week that will allow him to use his fingers. We’ll see if that allows him to be a little bit more disruptive in his rushes.
Another one to myself, for not knowing that Pro Football Focus changed their grading procedures this year… I went on a mini-rant this week on the podcast about PFF’s grading procedures, which in the past included grading off the TV broadcast and hastily mass e-mailing information the following morning. That seemed unfair because their information lacked needed context that is much easier to see on the All-22 and end zone angles that are available 24-48 hours after each game.
As it turns out, I was informed that PFF now gets access to the coaches’ film faster and no longer uses the broadcast angle to grade before finalizing and sending out their conclusions. Good for them. Honestly, I wish they made a bigger deal about their new process because it makes their work way more credible.
Anyway, my gripe this week was in regards to their low grade for Roquan Smith, as PFF determined that Smith “was the defense’s lowest-graded starter” and said Smith was “targeted seven times in coverage and allowed five catches for 52 yards.”
I still maintain that the coaches’ tape shows differently. Yes, Smith missed two tackles, but one of those came on a play he sniffed out with his outstanding instincts before shooting the open gap. Many linebackers would never have been in position to make the tackle. He also quieted concerns about his size by stacking and shedding a block from Seahawks center Justin Britt, which I’ll have more on in Thing No. 5.
But there’s also the issue of “full context,” which is really only available to players and coaches who have a playbook and know every single player’s assignment on every play. Fortunately, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio provided some much needed context this week:
“We started playing a coverage there at the end of the game and when we put it in and worked on it the most, (Smith) wasn’t there at training camp and he didn’t execute it like we’d want him to there at the end of the game, which allowed some of those completions. That’s more on me than him because I should have realized he wasn’t there when we worked on it.”
Personally, I liked what I saw from Smith in his first start, and he’ll only get better with each passing game.
To the referees… The Bears sent in Prince Amukamara’s third quarter “illegal block above the waist penalty” that wiped out a 12-yard punt return for Tarik Cohen. Amukamara was trailing Seahawks cornerback Justin Coleman, but the replay showed that Coleman just fell down and was not pushed in his back. Instead of starting their drive at the Seahawks’ 48-yard line, the ball was brought back to the Bears’ 34-yard-line. As it turned out, the Bears scored their second touchdown of the game on that drive anyway.
5. Watch The Tape
OK, back to that nice play in the second quarter when Roquan Smith shed Justin Britt, who happens to weigh 315 pounds:
So much for those concerns about Smith being small.
6. The Opponent: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals aren’t as bad as most are assuming. Their offense might be, but the defense will still create a challenge for Trubisky and the Bears’ offense.
Arizona’s 34-0 loss to the Rams was slightly misleading. Most people saw Todd Gurley’s massive fantasy football day (three touchdowns), but if you didn’t watch the film then you might not realize that the Cardinals contained Gurley on the ground pretty much the whole game. He only gained 42 rushing yards on 19 carries, which isn’t good. Expect Arizona to concentrate on stopping Jordan Howard, much like the Seahawks were able to do Monday night.
That will once again put the game in the hands of Trubisky, who operated Nagy’s creative second-half plays well enough to secure the win against the Seattle. But Trubisky can (and should) do more than that. For the Rams, Jared Goff was able to make throws against the Cardinals that Trubisky has so far missed. There will be some shots open downfield. Can Trubisky hit those this week?
The good news is that both Washington and the Rams exposed vulnerabilities that Nagy can take advantage of. Chris Thompson, Washington’s version of Tarik Cohen, piled up 128 yards on just 11 touches in Week 1, while the Rams had a ton of success with misdirection and getting their speed guys the ball in space.
Offensively, the Cardinals are a mess. Sam Bradford just isn’t good enough anymore. Remember that Monday Night Game at Soldier Field last year when Bradford was with the Vikings? Minnesota switched to Case Keenum and it completely changed the game. One has to wonder how tempted new Cardinals coach Steve Wilks is to throwing Josh Rosen out there, but doing so against Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks might not be wise.
“I know Vic and his staff and us as a team, we’re just focused really on their offense,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “If you start honing in on one particular quarterback, whether it’s a rookie in Rosen or whether it’s Bradford, I don’t think it matters. I think our guys are going to continue to play and whoever’s back there, the goal is to try to get after him as much as possible.”
One new Cardinal to keep an eye on: Christian Kirk. I was very high on the Texas A&M speedster before the draft and he’s showed some burst on tape through these first two weeks. He can be dangerous both on offense and in the return game.
7. The Pick
Bears 17, Cardinals 12
It feels odd that the Bears are not only coming off a win, but are a touchdown favorite on the road. Times are certainly changing.
Trubisky will eventually have his breakout game, but I don’t see it happening this week. He’ll be better, but this is the wrong defense to put up 350 yards and four touchdowns. It will be somewhat of a struggle offensively because the Cardinals can slow down the Bears’ running game again.
Still, I just don’t see how the Cardinals can score enough to win. They’ll need a defensive or special teams score if that is going to happen. Can they cover the 6-point spread though? Given that the Bears’ defense has allowed 35 of 41 points in the fourth quarter, a backdoor cover by Arizona feels right.
8. Quote of the Week
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who is the gift that keeps on giving:
“It’s hard to find a great pass rusher.”
9. Tweet Of The Week
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley congratulating his former quarterback, Baker Mayfield, who once planted an OU flag in the middle of the field at Ohio Stadium:
Mayfield was great Thursday night in the Browns’ win over the Jets. There’s no way Hue Jackson can go back to Tyrod Taylor, right? Right?
10. Final Thoughts
- Last week I detailed the ongoing snap issues for Bears center Cody Whitehair, so it’s only fair to point out that he had a clean game against the Seahawks. The Bears need that to continue.
- Including the preseason, we’ve now seen Nagy coach seven football games and I’ve been very impressed with his game operation, including challenges and clock management. One of the only questionable moves was going hurry-up late in the second quarter against the Seahawks, leaving some extra time on the clock for Seattle, which ended up adding a field goal. But even that move could be defended by the desire to catch the Seahawks off-guard. The Bears appeared to call two plays in the huddle and ran them quickly. It didn’t work, but the decision was defendable.
- 2-0 team that won’t keep it up: The Broncos. I’m not buying Case Keenum at quarterback and neither of their wins have been impressive. I like the Ravens to beat Denver this week in Baltimore.
- 0-2 team that still has a chance: The Texans. Houston has obvious flaws, but their next four games are against the Giants, Colts, Cowboys and Bills, with three of them at home.
One final note: I hope you’ll join us Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Cortland’s Garage in Chicago for our next live edition of The Hoge & Jahns Podcast. We’ll go for about an hour and then hang out for a little bit after the show. These have been a big success so far and we look forward to seeing you there.