LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Every year there are two or three teams that surprise the rest of the league as early contenders. The Bears and Buccaneers are both in that category in September and one of those teams will be 3-1 after Sunday’s game at Soldier Field.
For the Bears, three wins going into their bye week would be huge, especially considering that the season started by blowing a 20-0 lead to the Packers. A loss on the other hand wouldn’t be disastrous, but if the Bears want to be taken seriously, these are the tough games they have to start winning at home.
“(This is) a big one for us,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Friday. “We’ve been sending messages to our team about how important it is to play at home and how much of a benefit it is to play in front of our fans. We’re currently sitting 1-0 (at home) and we stress the importance to our players how important it is to come out and use our fans, especially against a good opponent like this with Tampa Bay.”
With that in mind, let’s jump into this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Explaining The Mack Effect
In a hallway that connects the Bears’ locker room to their meeting rooms, there’s a sign posted that lists the “thought of the week.”
“Good is the enemy of great,” it says, quoting author Jim Collins.
In Chicago, the Bears’ defense has been good for a few years now. After ranking 30th in total defense under Mel Tucker in 2014, Vic Fangio quickly led an improvement to 14th in 2015, 15th in 2016 and then up to 10th in 2017.
But let’s be clear about something: the defense hasn’t been great.
At least, until now.
Khalil Mack’s unexpected arrival accelerated a jump that was discussed as a possibility all offseason, but perhaps was a little naive without a talent like Mack. His impact can be felt both physically on tape, but also emotionally throughout the defense. He’s changed the mindset.
“You see it every Sunday,” Akiem Hicks said. “He’s putting something out there that guys can look back and say, ‘Man, if I try just a little bit harder, maybe I can get one of those.’”
Consider that while the Bears’ defense took a significant step forward under Fangio in 2015, it set a franchise record-low with just 17 takeaways that season. And in 2016, it shattered that record with just 11 takeaways. And even though that number doubled to 22 in 2017 (ranking 15th), it marked the third straight year the unit intercepted just eight passes.
Through three games this season, the Bears already have five interceptions and eight takeaways overall, which ranks second in the league. They also have two defensive touchdowns and were a Mack offsides penalty away from having their third last week against the Cardinals.
So far, that penalty is about all Mack has done wrong. According to STATS, he already has four sacks, 3.5 additional quarterback knockdowns and 9.5 hurries. It’s no wonder he’s constantly seeing double-teams and sometimes triple-teams.
“There was one play with three (blockers) on him. I’m like, alright, who’s gonna block me? Let me go eat then,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “You’ve gotta keep an eye on him when he’s out there. If you block him, somebody else is gonna make the play. If you don’t block him, he’s gonna make you pay for it.”
That’s the physical impact Mack is having, which is pretty obvious to see on tape. But the emotional impact is spreading like wildfire too.
“He’s a dog out there. He’s a fighter. I’ve seen him get through three, four, five people,” Trevathan said. “Young guys see that and the team’s buying into that and we’re all happy to have him on this side.”
Mack’s attitude is also contagious. He’s soft spoken, but speaks much louder by example.
“What I’ve enjoyed most about him is this guy does not have an ounce of prima donna in his body,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s a joy to be around. The other players like being around him. The coaches like being around him. So, I mean, besides his talent and production, which everybody sees, he’s really a breath of fresh air to be around, too, on a daily basis.”
I go back to the takeaways as proof that Mack has helped changed the mentality on this team. Since Lovie Smith — who not only preached takeaways, but expected his defense to score on every single one — left in 2012, the Bears have talked a lot about creating turnovers. But they haven’t really done it.
Mack arrived on Sept. 1 and has hunted the football ever since, saying last week: “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.”.
It seems the ball has become just as important to the rest of the defense too. Against the Cardinals, the Bears forced four turnovers on five second-half Arizona possessions. The one possession that didn’t end in a takeaway? That was when Mack helped create pressure and Sherrick McManis sacked Josh Rosen to end the game.
2. Cornerback Depth Getting Tested
The Bears were one of the healthiest teams in football through the first three weeks, but they will be tested in the secondary Sunday against a very talented group of Buccaneers wide receivers.
Starting cornerback Prince Amukamara and backup Marcus Cooper Sr. were both ruled out for the game with hamstring injuries, which likely means rookie undrafted free agent Kevin Toliver II will get the start. Toliver came in relief against the Cardinals when Amukamara got hurt and played well, other than when he was beat on a double-move by fellow rookie Christian Kirk.
“He had 20-some (snaps), I think. I thought he did fine,” Fangio said. “They obviously went after him a little bit there towards the end. We helped them some. Sometimes we didn’t. And I thought he responded well.”
Fangio called it “baptism under fire,” but added that he “didn’t see a guy out there who looked out of place.”
Friday, Toliver reflected back on his freshman year at LSU when he was thrown out there and asked to start eight of 12 games with limited experience.
“I had to learn fast that you have to have confidence,” he said.
Confidence doesn’t seem to be an issue for the former five-star recruit who got off to fast start in training camp over the summer, but an injury slowed him down during the preseason. Once he got back, Fangio said the rookie from LSU was “on a steady incline upwards,” which allowed him to make the team.
Slot-corner Bryce Callahan also has the ability to play outside if needed. And Sherrick McManis could play in the slot in an emergency.
3. Flex Game
With the Bears appearing to be much improved, it seems inevitable that at least one or two of their games will be flexed to later windows this season, especially because Khalil Mack gives them legitimate star power now. The Bears rate well anyway, but I can tell you with certainty that the NFL and its television partners are excited about the organization being relevant again.
Keep in mind that starting in Week 5, any Sunday games can be flexed to different windows, although only two games can be flexed to Sunday night between Weeks 5 and 10. Essentially, that means that any of the Bears’ remaining 10 Noon start times could be moved with 12 days notice.
So which ones are the most likely? Let’s start with Bears-Rams Dec. 9 at Soldier Field — two major markets in a game that will almost certainly have playoff implications. It would not be surprising to see this game moved to Sunday night on NBC, bumping out Steelers at Raiders. Amazingly, NBC hasn’t had a Sunday night game at Soldier Field since the 8-1 Texans beat the 7-2 Bears 13-6 in 2012.
If not that game, the Bears-Giants game in New York on Dec. 2 is also a candidate. Again, two major markets going head-to-head and one has to imagine NBC would be looking to get out of the 49ers-Seahawks game currently scheduled that Sunday night now that Jimmy Garoppolo is hurt.
Patriots at Bears on Oct. 21 would also seem like a candidate, except the Patriots already have five primetime games on their schedule and this would actually make it four in a row, so that’s not likely to happen. Could it get moved to 3:25? Probably not because CBS already has Cowboys-Redskins in that spot and it’s unlikely they would give up a rare Cowboys game. That’s a pretty good doubleheader for CBS as it is.
Otherwise, either of the games against the Vikings or the remaining game against the Packers are always going to be possibilities to get flexed. The Nov. 18 game against the Vikings at Soldier Field could move to the late-afternoon window as FOX currently does not have a game scheduled there. That would seem more likely than the Dec. 16 game against the Packers, because CBS has Patriots-Steelers in the late-afternoon window and NBC has Eagles-Rams at night. As for the Week 17 game in Minnesota? All bets are off there. The NFL holds the most flexibility in Week 17 and can put any game with playoff implications wherever it wants. Last year, they even canceled the Sunday night game altogether when there weren’t any good options.
My advice, Bears fans? Keep your Sundays fully open. Especially if you have tickets.
4. Challenge Flags
Time to throw out this week’s challenge flags:
To Kevin White… With rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller ruled out against the Buccaneers, it would not be surprising to see White’s role increased in the passing game. Nagy pointed to Josh Bellamy as an option to take over some of the work in the slot, but one has to imagine White will eventually get a target or two. Through the first three games, the former first round pick has really only been asked to block. He does not have any targets and has only been on the field for 26 plays. For someone who is making nearly $2.7 million this season and doesn’t contribute on special teams, he’s here because he still provides depth at wide receiver. Whenever he gets his opportunity — and it could be this week — it’s do or die time. He needs to show the Bears — or other prospective employers — that he can play wide receiver in the NFL. His 29-yard touchdown reception against the Chiefs provided a little bit of hope, especially because he ran a great route, but it’s time to show it in the regular season.
To the NFL Competition Committee… Stop releasing non-sensical videos “clarifying techniques that constitute a foul.” You can’t credibly clarify anything if you aren’t going to analyze the plays that coaches, players and fans are confused about. Two weeks in a row now, Al Riveron has put out a video that does not include Clay Matthews’ controversial roughing the passer penalties. The problem is the rule, not the “techniques” that players are using.
Here’s the video:
And my official response:
5. Watch The Tape
Earlier this week, Bears head coach Matt Nagy took exception to the idea that Trubisky hasn’t delivered a “special” throw yet.
“I know this, I know he made a special throw to Trey Burton on the deep cross the other day that not many quarterbacks in this league can make. And so I’ll take that as special,” Nagy said.
He’s right. That was a special throw.
This throw was a great reminder that not only can Trubisky make all the throws when he’s in rhythm and his mechanics are sound, but he can also do it when not in rhythm. On this play, Trubisky almost falls down as he trips over the running back on the apparent run-pass option. Still, he recovers and throws a dime to Burton.
Now, you don’t have to watch too many other games to see other quarterbacks make numerous throws like these in a game (see: Jared Goff Thursday night against the Vikings), but it would be inaccurate to say Trubisky hasn’t had his moments through the first three weeks.
“With where we’re at, and how long we’ve been together, or how short we’ve been together, to me, all he needs to worry about is what my special is,” Nagy said. “And so I’m happy with where he’s at. I know he’s going to just continue to keep growing.”
6. The Opponent: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers come to Solider Field with the league’s No. 1 ranked offense and Ryan Fitzpatrick coming off three straight 400-yard passing games. This is the best offense the Bears have seen this season. On the other hand, this is the best defense the Buccaneers have seen.
The battle between those two units will be fascinating to watch. How will the Bears’ depleted secondary fare against a very talented receiving group that includes Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin? Kyle Fuller is going to have to have to his best game of the year against Evans and it will take a team effort to limit Jackson as a deep threat and Godwin as a reliable receiver all over the field. The Bears can’t ignore tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate either. Brate has caused the Bears trouble in the past and Howard can surprise you with a big play at any time, which he proved with a 75-yard touchdown against the Eagles in Week 2.
Statistically, the Bucs’ defense ranks 29th in the league, but they still have Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Opponents have been picking on rookie cornerback Carlton Davis, and Trubisky will once again have opportunities for big plays, but he’s had those moments in each of the first three games and has struggled to convert. It’s also worth pointing out that the Buccaneers defense played its best game against the Eagles, which run a very similar offense as the Bears. Of course, Nagy admitted Friday that it is helpful to have that tape to evaluate.
7. The Pick
Buccaneers 23, Bears 20 (OT)
This is the hardest game of the season to pick so far. I believe these teams are very evenly matched and it will go down to the wire. I can’t see Fitzpatrick throwing for 400 yards again and the swarming Bears defense should limit the Buccaneers to two touchdowns, but there will be chunk plays allowed with Amukamara out of the lineup. It’s just a tough matchup for the secondary this week.
On the other hand, if the Bears offense breaks out this week, then they are capable of winning this game comfortably. Unfortunately, it’s hard to count on that happening until Trubisky starts playing with more consistency.
I’m not sure I’ve ever predicted a game to go to overtime, but I’m doing it this week. If the Bears come up with a defensive or special teams touchdown, I’ll be wrong and they will win, but my gut is giving the edge to the Bucs.
8. Quote of the Week
“If we keep playing like this, I have no doubt in my mind we’ll be the top defense ever.” — Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan
9. Tweet of the Week
Not everyone will understand this, but @sportsbybrooks used to be one of the major sports voices on Twitter. And then he just randomly disappeared for five years. This return tweet on Wednesday was a bombshell. (And the responses were hilarious.)
10. Final Thoughts
— The most underrated play last week? How about rookie fifth round pick Bilal Nichols shooting through the Cardinals offensive line and tackling Chase Edmonds for a three-yard loss with two minutes left in the game? It was 3rd-and-2 at the Bears’ 42-yard-line and the tackle for loss put the Cardinals in an obvious passing situation while Rosen was scrambling to get the play call in his first ever NFL series. It’s mind-boggling that Steve Wilks didn’t use one of his three timeouts on fourth down. Instead, the clock ran all the way down to 1:16 and Rosen threw an interception to Bryce Callahan.
“You saw how juiced up I was,” Hicks said about Nichols’ play. “Any time my rookie makes a play, I’m the first one over. Yeah, super excited to see a young guy be able to get out there and make a play that figured into the outcome.”
— What has happened to the Minnesota Vikings’ defense? Going back to their divisional playoff game against the Saints last year, the Vikings are allowing 28.6 points per game over their last six games and are 2-3-1.
— Perhaps Jared Goff can give Bears fans a little hope. Remember how bad he looked as a rookie? He took to Sean McVay’s system pretty quickly, but there were still a few sub-par performances sprinkled in there before it all started clicking in the second half of last season. Now, Goff and the Rams are flying on whole different level. Sure, those would be lofty expectations for Trubisky at this point, but it still seems more than plausible that Nagy’s system will click for Trubisky eventually.
Patience, my friends.