LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Perspective can be hard to keep throughout a 17-week football season and Sunday’s loss to the 4-8 New York Giants was not a catastrophic event.
That is, unless the Bears let it become one.
Even a loss this coming Sunday night to the 11-1 Los Angeles Rams would be understandable. In fact, it wouldn’t be the first time this season an unexpected loss was followed by another loss to a good team, as the Bears lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins and Patriots in October. That was followed by a five-game winning streak.
Also worth keeping in the “perspective” folder: the Bears went 1-1 without their starting quarterback, which is fine.
Furthermore, the Bears are capable of beating the Rams, especially with Mitchell Trubisky returning to the field.
And that is where we’ll start this week’s “10 Bears Things.”
Hoge & Jahns Podcast: Week 14 Bears-Rams, NFL Preview
1. Mitch Is Back
Trubisky wasn’t just out on the practice field Wednesday. He was ripping the ball like he had something to prove.
And that’s because he did. Bears head coach Matt Nagy made it clear before practice that he felt good about Trubisky’s chances of playing Sunday, but he still needed to see his quarterback do it in practice.
The results were great.
“He looked good, he was throwing the ball strong,” Nagy said. “That’s what I was hoping for when I talked to y’all in the morning.”
And Nagy didn’t waste any time testing the arm.
“They do their warmup and everything, they do their stuff there, footwork-wise and get the shoulders and hips and everything going there and we jump right into it,” Nagy said. ” We go deep first play.”
More importantly, Trubisky came back Thursday without any soreness and was a full participant in practice for the second straight day. He’ll play Sunday night against the Rams in what is the most intriguing matchup of the season here in Chicago, but also a showcase of two innovative head coaches paired with two talented, young quarterbacks for the rest of the world to see.
2. Quite A (Friendly) QB Battle
Trubisky’s return sets up the quarterback battle NBC was looking for when they flexed this matchup to primetime three weeks ago. Not only are Trubisky and Jared Goff two intriguing quarterbacks running entertaining offenses, but they also happen to be good friends. Trubisky spent a portion of his offseason living in California working out with Goff.
“Just picking each other’s minds all the time and pushing each other when we were training,” Trubisky said about his time in California. “Just talking philosophies and what routes we like to throw. Watching film together, situational stuff and how you can grow. And just learning from your past mistakes but not dwelling on it and continuing to get better and grow. And then obviously you get more and more experienced, you get more and more comfortable, you get different pieces around you, it just becomes — you start to own the offense, really. At first you’re learning it and then you own it and hopefully you get to the point where you master it and then you’re just talking like it’s the back of your hand. You’re spitting out plays and just playing ball. That’s when it gets really, really fun.”
Goff is a year ahead of Trubisky, both in his time in the NFL and on the “fun” mastery of their respective offenses. The comparisons between the situations are fair, as Bears general manager Ryan Pace followed the same playbook as Rams general manager Les Snead, rescuing a rookie quarterback from a dull, outdated offense and pairing him instead with a younger, innovative offensive mind. Goff, now two years removed from a underwhelming rookie season with former head coach Jeff Fisher, is flourishing with 32-year-old Sean McVay. Trubisky, meanwhile, is no doubt making strides in his first year with the 40-year-old Nagy, with hopes that the offense will be clicking on a similar level as the Rams as year from now.
“Just because everybody writes you off one year doesn’t mean you can’t come out and have a really good year the next year,” Trubisky said, reflecting on his time with Goff. “Especially with a great coach coming in here and helping this organization and just being a lot different on offense as far as scheme and philosophy. I think that gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback. You can never dwell on the past too much, especially if you have a bad year the year before. You just have to work hard in the offseason, come back, believe in the plan, believe in yourself and just go out there and play ball like you know how.”
There’s no better example for Trubisky than Jared Goff.
3. For Wide Receivers — Details Matter
Before we dive deeper into Sunday’s matchup against the Rams, I want to look at one issue from the loss to the Giants that is really hard to identify unless you know how each play is supposed to work and what responsibility each player has on every play — which only the coaches and players know.
That’s why I found a conversation with wide receivers coach Mike Furrey on Monday afternoon particularly interesting, as I was struck by how much he thought his wide receivers played a role in the loss to the Giants.
“The thing that I’m most disappointed about was I don’t think we did a good enough job in our room with the details and the importance of our routes (Sunday) to help Chase (Daniel). That’s on us,” Furrey said. “Every Tuesday morning when we go in there and talk together, we put the game on us. That’s our job. What the (running) backs do and what the O-line does, that’s their job. But we want to selfishly put the game on our back and be the reason why we move the ball and be the reason why we help out the quarterback. We want that on us and I don’t think we did that well enough collectively as a group.”
Furrey went on to say that his group tried to “get away with some playground stuff” and emphasized the importance of “being where you’re supposed to be.” He singled out Allen Robinson — who had one his best games of the season — as the guy the rest of his young receiver group should look at and think, ”This is how you’re supposed to do stuff.”
But what exactly does Furrey mean when he refers to “details” and “be where you’re supposed to be?” I followed up and got an extremely interesting and lengthy answer. Speaking of details, I’m not sure I’ve received an answer this detailed all season:
“We’ve been talking about details since day one. The biggest fault of any wideout is go start running a route and all the sudden there is nobody there and you feel that urge to just turn around like “I’m open,” when you’re at eight yards, but you’re supposed to be at 12 because the quarterback is taking a five-step (drop), not a three-step. So he’s not ready to throw you the ball yet. So when you do turn around, that corner is already driving — when if you would have just gotten your depth, the ball would have been in the air before the corner drove. So (Sunday) we had some routes where, you know, like Taylor (Gabriel), he’s so fast and he knows he’s fast and so he feels like once he starts running and that DB really starts taking off that to get six yards is not as bad as getting eight yards. Well, the quarterback is not ready to throw you the ball. We had an early play in the first or second quarter where we were trying to get Allen (Robinson) on a slant route and Anthony (Miller) knew he had man-to-man and he just has to get out the way. You know where that ball is going so it’s not your job to beat your guy so bad at the line of scrimmage. You just got to be unselfish and you got to get out of the way so we can get A-Rob the ball. You know that’s where it is going. Those details, you can see how that would hurt you. Because all the sudden, now Anthony is back and his defender is in the throwing lane and you got Chase back there trying to throw the ball and now all the sudden that ball might have to be a little bit behind because Anthony was in the way. And so those details will hurt us. We got to become way better than that. That’s the hardest thing to learn because people are so self-dominant, because of their abilities in college that they can get away with so much. You talk to Anthony and he’ll tell you that he lived in playground (football) in college. You get open or you scramble around and catch the ball, you catch 140 yards, all the sudden you ran six great routes for 140 yards. Well, that doesn’t work here. There’s timing. There’s concepts. And Taylor is learning the same thing. He’s a speed guy. Everybody expected him to just take the top off of everything so now when he runs and those guys back up and they’re 20 yards off, well, yeah, but you still need to get 14 yards, otherwise it’s not going to work. And so we’re in that mode right now. But what’s disappointing is if we’d just have done a couple of things yesterday, it would have been a smoother beginning, it would have been a smoother ending for us. We got to learn from that and quickly get that fixed.”
On Wednesday, I found Gabriel and asked him about the temptation to show the quarterback that you’re open too soon.
“It comes with the territory of a guy playing you 20 yards off. If you’re open, you’re open, but at the same time, it’s about timing and being on the same time as the quarterbacks,” Gabriel said. “So being a receiver, you feel like you want to help the quarterback out by opening up a little quicker, but you just have to be on the same page and speaking the same language.”
Gabriel admitted that the timing with Daniel “was a bit off” because they hadn’t practiced/played with him as much as Trubisky, but he also gave the Giants defense credit for the pressures that they brought against Daniel, which disrupted the timing too.
4. Khalil Mack — The Tactician
Because Khalil Mack is constantly double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed, it’s easy to fall into the trap of forgetting about his presence during the course of a game.
That’s what he wants you to do.
“I think that’s he’s got the great trait of patience as a rusher, especially with someone that receives as much attention as he does,” Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said. “He’s got the ability to stay patient, stay with his game plan and then at the right opportunity, when he gets his moment, he’s ready to take advantage of it.”
Mack has a habit of striking when it matters most. On Sunday, with his team down seven points with 3:25 left in the fourth quarter, Mack reached back and sacked Eli Manning, pushing the Giants out of field goal range.
I asked Staley if “tactician” is the right word to use to describe Mack. His answer was emphatic:
“Absolutely. In every sense. He’s out there and he knows it’s a long game and he’s going to set the guy up. And depending on what side he’s on too. Just very tactical that way.”
Perhaps the most well-known example is Mack’s habit of swatting offensive tackles away with one hand, the latest instance coming against Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff.
“That move doesn’t happen right away, if you notice. He does that after he’s set a guy up,” Staley said. “So it’s just using his leverage. It’s not that he possesses some superhuman trait, it’s just good setup as a rusher. Plays with great leverage, great pad level and he’s just got really good instincts, knowing the feel of the set and knowing when to translate that move.”
The Bears are still hoping that Leonard Floyd blossoms into a dangerous rusher on the opposite side of Mack and the third-year outside linebacker has improved as the season has gone along, while also establishing himself as a good run-stopper, a perceived weakness when he came out of Georgia.
While Floyd has a different build and different traits than Mack, I asked Staley what Floyd can learn from the veteran as he continues to develop.
“I think the thing about Khalil is he’s just very decisive as a rusher, you don’t see him waste very many rushes and he’s not really trying to feel you out, he’s trying to make you feel him and I think that’s something that Leonard has learned a lot from — is just making the tackle feel him a lot more,” Staley said. “I think the other thing that he learns from Khalil — and Leonard possesses this trait, it’s one of his best traits — is just a motor. He’s just really relentless in the run game and pass game and that’s where you see both of those guys (have) production. And I think that’s what makes both of them special players is that they give you a complete player.”
5. Nichols Having A Gold(man) Rookie Season
While Rams head coach Sean McVay was being lauded on social media for being able to name a bunch players on the Bears’ defense, he actually left out two important players: Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols.
Forgetting Nichols, a fifth-round rookie out of Delaware is somewhat understandable, but leaving out Goldman?
Anyway, there is a connection here, as both players are interior defensive linemen whose true value goes unrecognized because they don’t pile up big numbers. Their job is to eat up blockers, not stats. And trust me, even if McVay didn’t mention them, he’s well of aware of both players.
“I think Bilal’s production is very similar to where Eddie was at as a rookie,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said this week. “I don’t remember what his production was at that time, but I know it was very close. I’m not comparing the two players, but I’m saying that the production is close, and you’d have to check that.”
It is close. Through Goldman’s first 10 games as a rookie, he racked up 16 total tackles and two sacks. Nichols is currently at 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks through his first 10 games.
Goldman and Nichols are different linemen, as Goldman carries 30 extra pounds of weight as a true 3-4 nose guard. Nichols can move around the line a little bit more, but both players quickly showed up on Vic Fangio’s defense as rookies and showed that they also have a knack for defeating blocks and getting into the backfield. Nichols appears to be Ryan Pace’s latest late-round steal, but Rodgers deserves a lot of the credit too.
“I think what you saw on tape (at Delaware) is what you get on the field,” Rodgers said. “When we evaluated him, Ryan knew that I really liked him. He’s got really good traits. He’s long and you see that he plays with good pad level. Plays with a chip on his shoulder. His pass production wasn’t as good as I thought it could be. It’s starting to pick up.”
In other words, Rodgers saw that Nichols had the traits to become a better pass rusher at the next level. “That’s why you go work these guys out,” he said.
Nichols was among a number of college defensive linemen that Pace wanted Rodgers to watch last offseason. The defensive line coach said he really didn’t know a whole lot about Nichols, but he watched the tape and liked what he saw.
“We evaluated him, we liked some of the things that he did and that’s why we picked him,” Rodgers said.
And they’re sure glad they did.
6. The Opponent: Los Angeles Rams
A couple of years ago, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was asked for his opinion on head coaching candidates by an NFL general manager.
“He was asking me about offensive coaches to consider because he thought he might be looking for a head coach and I mentioned (Sean McVay) to him,” Fangio said. “That’s how highly I thought of (McVay) back then even before the success he’s had.”
Fangio didn’t name the general manager. Maybe it was Les Snead. Heck, maybe it was Ryan Pace. Maybe it was neither. But it’s safe to say both the Rams and Bears have found creative head coaches capable of bringing the best out of their young quarterbacks.
Unfortunately for Vic, he has to prepare to face McVay and the Rams this week. Fortunately for Vic, he’s been seeing Nagy and the Bears all season. While the schemes have differences, both rely heavily on deception and misdirection. Both teams like to run multiple plays out of the same formation, building “plays on plays,” as Nagy likes to say.
“That’s always the best way to be offensively is to do a lot of different things out of the same looks,” Fangio said. “And when it’s running play-action and they look the same, those are the toughest to defend.”
Especially when the weapons involved are so dangerous. Unlike the Bears, who have been starving for a consistent running game, the Rams have Todd Gurley and rank fourth in the NFL in rushing. And even though they lost Cooper Kupp to injury, they have dangerous pass catchers like Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. Even tight end Gerald Everett, who Snead drafted one pick ahead of Adam Shaheen in 2017, can pose a problem.
McVay likes to run a lot of pre-snap motion, jet-sweeps and play-action, stressing discipline across the defense. Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, who is improving in coverage, could be a target in potential matchups against Gurley, Everett and tight end Tyler Higbee.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ defense can be vulnerable, even with the league’s best defensive player in Aaron Donald. Rookie left guard James Daniels will be tested and the Bears’ offensive line as a whole has to play much better than it did against the Giants. Lost in that 105-point shootout between the Rams and Chiefs on Nov. 19 is that the Rams’ front actually got a good amount of pressure on Patrick Mahomes, and linebacker Samson Ebukam scored two defensive touchdowns. Still, Nagy will have a plan and Mitch Trubisky should have plenty of opportunities for big plays Sunday night.
And let’s not forget about special teams. The Bears proved they could play with the Patriots back in October, but lost the game by giving up two special teams touchdowns. The unit has been better as of late, but still seems inconsistent and unpredictable this season.
7. The Pick
Bears 28, Rams 24
The Broncos provided a blueprint for slowing down the Rams in cold weather back in October, but it was still a game that Los Angeles won 23-20. I don’t expect the Bears’ defense to be perfect in this game, but I do think they’ll come ready to play in a loud atmosphere at Soldier Field. A defensive touchdown is always on the table with this unit.
I also expect Nagy’s offense to get back in sync with Trubisky on the field. There could be some rust, especially since I expect the Rams to get pressure, but I think the Bears will find the end zone four times Sunday night. As long as #BearsSpecialTeams isn’t a huge problem, the Bears win a big one in primetime.
8. Quote Of The Week
“They don’t listen. I’m weird about eye contact making sure that we’re connecting, and I got none of that. I normally don’t get frizzled. But I was frizzled that day when I left. I was beat. They beat me up. I’m serious too. I’ll never forget that day.”
— Matt Nagy on his one day teaching Kindergarten as a substitute teacher
9. Tweet Of The Week
“We all know this game is at noon because of us. Not them.”
— Jim Love (@jim_m_love) December 4, 2018
Outstanding reference to Kirk Cousins’ trying to get his teammates excited before kickoff on Nov. 18 claiming that the game was flexed to Sunday night because of them and not the upstart Chicago Bears.
10. Final Thoughts
— After missing 4-of-6 kicks against the Lions on Nov. 11, Bears kicker Cody Parkey has been perfect — 6-for-6 on field goals and 5-for-5 on extra points. One thing I’ve noticed is that not only has Parkey made everything, but they’ve all been line drives right down the middle. I brought that observation up to Parkey and he agreed, but also pointed out that wind hasn’t been as big of a factor in the last three games.
“I mean, I had one bad game,” Parkey said. “Unfortunately, I had a bad game, that’s the bad part. And the good part is I’m trying to go out there every day and get better. But yeah, I didn’t fix anything. I’m just going out there with confidence and hitting a good ball.”
As they said they would do, Parkey and Co. practiced at Soldier Field Wednesday night in preparation for Sunday’s home game.
— My thoughts go out to Washington quarterback Alex Smith who is now reportedly dealing with a severe infection in his leg after the gruesome injury he suffered a few weeks ago. Much like with Zach Miller’s leg injury last year that required nine surgeries, Smith’s career appears to be doubt. But Miller never dealt with this type of infection problem. More importantly than his career, I just hope Smith can regain full use of his leg and live a healthy and active life with his family and two sons. Football can be brutal sometimes.
— It will be fascinating to see what happens with the Packers job. My guess is that they will eventually hire an offensive-minded head coach to pair with Aaron Rodgers, who still has a few good years in him. It’s not a bad situation to walk into with an established Hall-of-Fame quarterback and the opportunity to hand-select his successor via the draft at some point.
To me, Josh McDaniels makes a lot of sense, unless he knows he’s in line to take over for Belichick very soon. McDaniels knows what it is like to work with an established veteran quarterback who is going to want to have his fingerprints all over the offense too. That might make more sense than finding a younger option like Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley who doesn’t have NFL experience and won’t be getting paired with a young quarterback like Goff or Trubisky.
Many have asked me about Fangio, who the Packers wanted as their defensive coordinator in the offseason. Should they interview him? Absolutely. At a minimum they might get some valuable intel on how their rivals turned things around. Should Fangio take the job if it is offered? Absolutely. Will they offer it to him? Probably not.
Finally, there’s the obvious connection between Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and Packers president Mark Murphy, who tabbed Fitzgerald to take over for Randy Walker in 2006 when Murphy was the athletic director in Evanston. It’s certainly not crazy to think there will be some interest there and I also think Fitzgerald could be successful at the NFL level. We’ll see where that goes, but I’ll say this: Northwestern is in the middle of a pretty incredible transformation with unbelievable facilities popping up all over campus and Fitzgerald has a vision for the program I believe he wants to see through. An appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game last weekend was just the start.
And speaking of that game, I’ll leave you with this quote from Fitzgerald on our WGN Radio postgame show in response to being asked about the support from his former teammates who showed up in Indianapolis for the game:
“Yeah I’m going to ride this wave for a little longer in this role and then at some point I’m going to be up there having a good time with them.”