LAKE FOREST, Ill. — While the Bears’ offense hasn’t exactly looked dangerous this season, there’s one man on that side of the ball who has had a very impressive two-week run.
After a rough opener against the Packers — arguably Nagy’s worst performance in 20 games as Bears’ head coach/offensive play caller — the man in charge has shown a willingness to adapt and bend his offensive approach to put his team in the best position to win.
That’s where we’ll start this week’s 10 Bears Things, as we look at Nagy’s offensive game plans, Mitchell Trubisky’s progress, a growing list of injury concerns and go in-depth with an improved Minnesota Vikings team that will be a handful Sunday at Soldier Field.
1. Nagy Can Coach
Most NFL coaches talk about the importance of adapting week-to-week. Very few actually do it.
They may come up with new wrinkles and introduce specific concepts for that week’s opponent, but as soon as something goes wrong on Sunday, too many coaches either abandon their plan, struggle to adapt, or both. Knowing what to do in those situations separates the good coaches from the rest.
Matt Nagy’s Week 1 game-plan against the Packers wasn’t surprising. After an offseason full of talk about Trubisky’s improvement and understanding of the offense, it made sense to use a lot of the things that worked in 2018 and then sprinkle in the new stuff around it. The problem? It wasn’t surprising to Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine either. He was ready for all of it. And without any kind of rhythm, Nagy didn’t get in a rhythm as a play caller and completely ignored the run.
This left a key question after the Bears’ started 0-1 for the second straight season: Was Nagy’s offense becoming predictable or would he be willing to adapt by introducing opponent-specific game plans week-by-week? The Week 2 game against the Denver Broncos screamed for a ball-control, run-heavy attack that protected Trubisky from turnovers. Could Nagy resist the urge to take some shots, knowing that a grind-it-out type of game wouldn’t exactly result in a confidence boost for his young quarterback?
Nagy answered this question loud-and-clear. Not only did he run the ball, he stuck with the run even when it wasn’t really working early. The Bears wore down a good Broncos defense with body blows. When they did throw the ball, the game plan called for quick passes that were often predetermined. It certainly wasn’t the high-octane offense promised when Nagy took the Bears job in 2018, but it was exactly what was needed to avoid an 0-2 start, which almost happened anyway. Fortunately, when needed, Trubisky made the big throw in the clutch and kicker Eddy Pineiro hit a game-winning 53-yard field as time expired.
In Week 3, Washington’s defense provided more opportunity to throw the ball and Nagy once against adapted. This time, he took advantage of the chance to build Trubisky’s confidence, but did so in calculated matter, simplifying personnel groupings and frequently going no-huddle, allowing him to communicate with Trubisky before the coach-to-quarterback system shut off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock. Trubisky had to overcome early accuracy issues, but eventually got into a rhythm, even if it took a “(something) the f*** up, right now!” pep talk from Nagy that was caught on camera.
Eventually, the Bears are going to have to discover an offensive identity they can rely on. But by Nagy’s own admission, it’s not uncommon for that to take weeks to develop. In the meantime, Bears fans should be encouraged by his ability to adapt and put his developing quarterback in position to succeed.
As for the fiery challenge on the sideline, that’s called coaching. And Nagy seems to have a knack for knowing when to push his players’ buttons.
“It’s because we care. If we didn’t care, I never would have had that conversation with him,” Nagy said. “We both know that. That’s not the first time and I promise you it’s not going to be the last time.”
After the exchange, Trubisky hit Anthony Miller on a crosser that required the “catch-and-run” accuracy the quarterback had not shown earlier in the game. From that point on, Trubisky was money, including his 36-yard touchdown throw on the move to Taylor Gabriel.
“I love it,” Trubisky said. “I got fired up. That’s what you want from your head coach.”
After a concerning start to the season, Nagy has been outstanding the last two weeks. Like any head coach, he’s not going to be perfect, but it appears what happened in Week 1 will be the exception, not the rule.
2. Trubisky: ‘Win With’ Or ‘Win Because’?
When I talk about quarterbacks, you’ll often hear me discussing whether or not teams “win with” their quarterbacks or “win because” of their quarterbacks. To me, this is the easiest way to separate the best from the rest.
At the top — elite — level are the guys teams regularly win “because of.” This is the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, etc. group of NFL quarterbacks. There aren’t many.
At the bottom — bust — level are the guys who regularly lose games for their teams. They struggle so much that their teams can’t even “win with” them. Nathan Peterman on an OK Bills team last year comes to mind. Buffalo simply had no chance. Mike Glennon on the 2017 Chicago Bears also qualifies.
The truth is, those guys don’t last long as starters. They get benched quickly, as Glennon did. That’s why the overwhelming majority of NFL starting quarterbacks are somewhere in the middle. They’re almost all “win with” guys, and yet, there’s a sliding scale in the middle. Are you Kirk Cousins, who is capable, but needs to be in the right offense tailored to limit risky throws and mistakes? Or, are you Eli Manning, who sometimes slid into “win because of” territory, not only for one or two games at a time, but even one or two seasons at a time? Manning is a borderline Hall-of-Famer.
To me, it doesn’t take long to separate the “win because of” guys from the “win with” guys. You can usually identify this within a season or two. But for those who end up in the middle, it can take years to determine where quarterbacks fall on the “win with” scale. And this is usually where mistakes are made in handing out big contracts to average quarterbacks. Cousins, for example, is now in his eighth NFL season and it took two franchise tags, one enormous, fully-guaranteed contract and another completely misleading statistical season for most to realize that he’s just a mediocre NFL quarterback and nothing more. He’ll very rarely win you the big game. He has one career playoff start — a loss.
This all brings us to Mitchell Trubisky, who, after 30 career NFL games (and one playoff start — a loss) is squarely in the middle. Unlike Cousins, however, Trubisky is only in his third NFL season and where he ends up on the scale of “win with” guys is far from determined.
In terms of pure talent, Trubisky is near the top of the scale. And, at 25 years old, that leaves plenty of optimism that the Bears’ quarterback can become someone the Bears’ occasionally win “because of.” He has shown flashes of this, both when it comes to full games (dominant performances against the Bucs and Lions last year come to mind) and key end-of-game situations (2017 in Baltimore and earlier this month in Denver are examples). But perhaps the most encouraging example came in Trubisky’s lone playoff start, a brilliant fourth quarter that included one go-ahead touchdown drive and a (should’ve been) game-winning field goal drive.
Of course, the consistency and reliability have not been there for Trubisky. That’s common in the middle. How much that improves over time will determine if his career ends up more like Eli Manning — a beloved figure in a big market who occasionally put the Giants on his back and won two Super Bowls — or Kirk Cousins, a polarizing quarterback that regularly leaves his fan base starving for someone else.
3. Concerning Injuries
Here’s a quick look at the Bears’ growing list of injuries and my level of concern for Sunday’s game against the Vikings:
WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion) — Concern level: HIGH. Hasn’t practiced this week. If he can’t go, will Anthony Miller slide outside with Tarik Cohen playing more in the slot? Or will Javon Wims get used more with Riley Ridley seeing his first NFL game action?
DT Akiem Hicks (knee) — Concern level: HIGH. Nagy said Thursday that Hicks will likely be a game-time decision. They could certainly use him against the Vikings’ impressive rushing attack, but chances are he’ll be limited even if he plays.
DT Bilal Nichols (hand) — Concern level: HIGH. Nichols hasn’t practiced since hurting his hand against the Broncos and it seems doubtful that he’ll play this week. The Bears’ defensive line depth is being tested.
K Eddy Pineiro (knee) — Concern level: MODERATE. At this point, the Bears would have another kicker on the roster if they were worried about Pineiro not playing Sunday. He’s still resting the pinched nerve in his knee and it will once again be a pain tolerance issue against the Vikings. Will his distance or accuracy at Soldier Field be impacted?
RG Kyle Long (hip) — Concern level: MODERATE. Long went from a full-participant in practice on Wednesday to not practicing on Thursday. We’ll need more clarity from Nagy when we speaks will reporters on Friday. If Long can’t go, Ted Larsen would be the next man up.
RT Bobby Massie (vertigo) — Concern level: LOW. After being a late-scratch Monday night, Massie has practiced in full the last two days and appears to be OK.
S Eddie Jackson (shoulder) — Concern level: LOW. Jackson has been dealing with this since he dinged his shoulder against the Broncos, but hasn’t shown any limitations in the games.
TE Trey Burton (groin) — Concern level: LOW. It seems like Burton has turned a positive corner with his on-going groin injuries as he’s been a full-participant in practice this week. Raiders tight end Darren Waller had a big game against the Vikings last week so Burton could play a big role on Sunday (consider that a fantasy football tip if you’re desperate at the tight end position).
4. Watch The Tape
On numerous occasions this week, Nagy has referenced how pleased he was with the Bears’ four-minute offense in the fourth quarter on Monday night. After Washington had regained some momentum and cut the lead to 28-15, the Bears desperately needed a long drive to eat the clock and secure the win. They did that with a 10-play drive that ended with a 38-yard field goal and just 1:50 left in the fourth quarter. The game was over.
Receiving most of the praise on that drive was rookie running back David Montgomery, who broke a ton of tackles and accounted for 48 of the 58 yards. He looked outstanding.
And yet, the biggest play of that drive did not involve Montgomery. It involved the quarterback making a key decision and big throw to move the chains on 3rd-and-5 at Washington’s 36-yard-line. With Pineiro dealing with a knee injury, a 54-yard field goal would have been ambitious. The Bears needed another first down.
“They gave (Trubisky) a look that we haven’t practiced very much and he made a hell of a decision, and a great throw, to keep that four-minute thing alive there at the very end,” Nagy said. “Those little plays sometimes to outsiders can go unnoticed, but that was a big time play that he made again in an end of the game situation — decision-making-wise.”
The play called for a shot to Robinson downfield. The coverage made it look like the shot was going to be there. And then it wasn’t.
“He easily could have zeroed in on (Robinson) and just forced it,” Nagy said.
Washington was in man-coverage with a single-high safety. Trubisky took the snap and looked left first, likely to look off the high safety. He then looks to Robinson, who runs a deep fade from the slot. Cornerback Josh Norman, lined up against Javon Wims on the outside, reads Trubisky and drifts to help. Trubisky notices this and throws to Wims instead, making a quick-decision right before taking a shot from 300-pound defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.
“That was more of a check-down or second or third read in the progression,” Trubisky said. “We were looking downfield to try and end the game and take a shot with A-Rob and the corner drifts off (Wims). It looked like they were giving us a man-look but it was just a veteran corner trying to read the quarterback’s eyes seeing where he was going and he drifted off and I just took a completion for a first down. It was just not predetermining what the defense gives you but trusting your eyes and making a play on third down.”
That type of moment matters. And, once again, it occurred in the fourth quarter and on third down.
5. The Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
Vikings ownership put its team on notice by matching the contracts of GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer, which now both expire after the 2020 season. That’s the same time Cousins’ fully guaranteed, $84 million contract expires.
The message? Figure it out. Now. The response? A great offseason.
The Vikings smartly brought in Gary Kubiak to oversee an offense that is being coordinated and called by Kevin Stefanski, a 14-year Vikings staffer who is finally getting his shot. But make no mistake, this is Kubiak’s system — an outside zone, run-first, play-action, ball-control offense that relies on Dalvin Cook and protects Cousins. So far, the results have been outstanding. Most importantly, the Vikings’ offensive line is improved. Kubiak brought in long-time assistant Rick Dennison to coach the line, while Spielman used his first round draft pick to select plug-and-play center Garrett Bradbury out of North Carolina State. New right guard Josh Kline is steady, but has not practiced this week because of a concussion. That could be significant. Meanwhile, second-year right tackle Brian O’Neill is playing well as a full time starter.
Offensively, the Vikings have very few holes. Cook is playing like one of the top running backs in the league. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are already well-established wide receivers, while rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. gives the Vikings a dynamic complement to Kyle Rudolph. Really, the only question mark is Kirk Cousins. Can the Bears successfully stop the run and force the game into Cousins’ hands? That’s the goal.
Defensively, this is the same cast of characters, minus Sheldon Richardson. New three-technique Shamar Stephen isn’t quite as good, but this defense is still excellent when healthy, and the Vikings are healthy right now. Free safety Anthony Harris is playing as well as any safety in the league. Danielle Hunter is developing into one of the most dangerous defensive ends in the league. And Everson Griffen is still a problem for opposing offenses. This unit has playmakers at every level of the defense, just like the Bears.
6. The Pick
Bears 14, Vikings 13
At this point, the Vikings look like a slightly better team than the Bears. Their defense isn’t quite as good as the Bears’ defense, but it still ranks eighth in yards/play (5.06). And on the other side of the ball, the Vikings clearly have an offensive identity, even if the quarterback can’t be trusted in key moments. If this game was being playing in Minnesota, I would be picking the Vikings. It’s being played at Soldier Field though and the Bears can’t afford to fall to 0-2 at home against divisional opponents. That would create a hole hard to dig out of in the NFC North. Hicks’ injury is concerning when it comes to stopping Dalvin Cook, but the defense will contain him just enough to force Cousins into a crucial fourth quarter mistake. Six of the Vikings’ 10 touchdowns this season have come off of turnovers, so the Bears must protect the football and win the turnover margin. Watch for Nagy and Trubisky to get Trey Burton more involved and do just enough on offense to win this game.
7. Quote Of The Week
“It’s good to know how far the league has come, (going from) a time when African Americans weren’t able to be on NFL teams to now, there’s a lot of us on the team. It’s kind of like going back and doing it over, as we get to wear these jerseys.” — Bears running back Tarik Cohen on the Bears’ 1936 “classic” jerseys, which were originally worn during a 12-year period when African American players were banned from the NFL. The Bears will wear those jerseys on Sunday.
8. Tweet Of The Week
Caption this… pic.twitter.com/CqIv6HMHvW
— Prince Amukamara (@PrinceAmukamara) September 24, 2019
9. Emptying The Notebook
Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano knows Kubiak’s offensive system well. He was in the same division as Kubiak when the two overlapped as AFC South head coaches in 2012 and 2013. Pagano’s Colts then faced Kubiak in 2014 when he was the Ravens’ offensive coordinator and they squared off again in 2015 and 2016 when Kubiak was the head coach in Denver. For what it’s worth, Pagano’s teams were 5-2 in those games. “There’s a lot of common threads that run through their run game now that we’ve seen,” Pagano said … Reserve offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas won the team’s “Sweep The Sheds” award this week. He primarily practices at left tackle, but had to start for Bobby Massie at right tackle on short notice and did not allow a sack … After briefly getting waived on Monday, Bradley Sowell was back on the roster by Thursday. Right now his role as a seldom-used “jumbo” tight end seems a little redundant considering the Bears have been using reserve offensive lineman Ted Larsen as an extra blocker in jumbo sets. What does that tell me? Nagy has some tricks up his sleeve with Sowell … With punter Pat O’Donnell handling kickoff duties last week, the Bears’ coverage units were actually forced to cover a few kicks and allowed returns of 45 yards, 26 yards and 31 yards. “We have to ratchet up our game and we have to play better and coach better,” special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said.
10. Final Thoughts
— Where was the “Thursday Night Football sucks” crowd this week? They were awfully quiet as the Eagles beat the Packers 34-27 at Lambeau Field. A few observations on the Packers: Aaron Rodgers looks like Aaron Rodgers again, but I still have some concerns about this pairing with Matt LeFleur. LeFleur (and/or Rodgers) all but abandoned the run last night, especially at the goal line when all five of their final five plays inside the 5-yard-line were passes — and that was without Davante Adams on the field. The Packers’ depth at wide receiver was already questionable and now it looks like Adams could miss some time with turf toe. On the other side of the ball, the Packers are now a quarter into their season and I still believe their defense is good, but not outstanding. Some of their issues on Thursday night could be attributed to playing on a short week, but let’s not forget they faced Trubisky, Cousins and Joe Flacco in the first three weeks. Carson Wentz provided a tougher challenge and the Eagles had more success.
— Thoughts on the NFC North, updated: I’ve watched and kept notes on every NFC North game played this season except the Lions’ Week 2 win over the Chargers (still need to circle back on that one) and I tend to think the true representation of talent in the division is different than the results. This might be a tough argument to make because the Packers already have victories over the Vikings and Bears, but I think the Vikings and Bears are better equipped to contend over the course of the season. There’s no doubt Green Bay has the best quarterback, but the rest of the rosters favor Minnesota and Chicago. Based on what I’ve seen so far and how these teams are playing right now, I would rank the NFC North like this:
The Vikings get the edge right now because they’re clicking the most on offense, but can they keep this up all season? Remember, you want to peak in January, not September. I worry about the Packers’ depth on offense and their inability to run the football in an offense that supposedly requires running the football. This might give fans in Chicago added hope, because the Bears seem to have the biggest room for improvement if Trubisky and the offense can get clicking. Of course, that’s a big if. As for the Lions? Check back in if they beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Sunday. Until then, I’m not sold.
— Don’t get too caught up in Jordan Howard scoring three touchdowns against the Packers Thursday night. If you watch the tape, he’s still doing what he did in Chicago. He’s a good back that runs straight ahead and over you. If the hole is big enough, he’ll take advantage with a big gain. But his contact balance is still lacking and his routes are limited to short wheels, checkdowns and screens. His touchdown reception was on an easy wheel that the Packers didn’t cover. Howard is a good piece in that Eagles offense, but Miles Sanders looks like the more dynamic running back.
Enjoy Week 4. Then we’re off to London.