Will Fox’s Input on Defense Be Missed

Dan Durkin at The Athletic gives fans reasons to be optimistic in 2018:

Vic’s vision and voice — [New head coach Matt] Nagy’s singular focus is installing his offense, so he’s handed over control to [defensive coordinator Vic] Fangio. Considering how well the defense played last season, despite minimal help from the offense in terms of points and time of possession, keeping things the same on defense was a wise decision. [Former head coach John] Fox was a defensive-minded coach who reportedly didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Fangio. With Fox fleeing, that allows Fangio to scheme and gameplan how he wants and be the single voice in defensive meetings and film sessions. That’s a win for the side of the ball most ready to compete.”

I’m not so sure dismissing Fox’s contribution on defense is entirely right here. I can recall former head coach Lovie Smith allowing defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to depart after the Bears last Super Bowl appearance. The defense that year was outstanding but Smith didn’t like compromising on his game plans and resented Rivera’s input. Instead of viewing the situation as the positive which it undoubtedly was – a situation where creative tension resulted in outstanding performance on all sides – Smith chose to view Rivera as challenging his authority. Smith brought in his own yes men at defensive coordinator after that and his defenses were arguably never quite as good for the loss.

I’m not saying the situation is quite the same here. Fangio, himself, said that he virtually always got his way last year when he and Fox clashed. That wouldn’t be too surprising given Fox’s evident tendency to let coaches do their jobs as long as they got results. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if the absence of input from Fox this year will have an effect on the defense.

How Big Will Nick Kwiatkoski’s Role Be in 2018

Kevin Fishbain at The Athletic gives fans reasons to be optimistic in 2018:

The duo inside… — Injuries to [Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman], suspensions and Freeman’s subsequent release put the Bears in position to add [Roquon] Smith, the most instinctive player in the draft who brings speed and playmaking to the middle of the defense. He’ll be paired with a healthy Trevathan, who has been an impact player against both the run and pass when on the field. He’ll be motivated to prove he’s worthy of sticking around in 2019 for the last year of his contract with fourth-rounder Joel Iyiegbuniwe looming. There’s a lot more speed in the middle of the field to bring down the ball carrier or run with tight ends up the seam, and the instincts the two starters possess should lead to more takeaways, a number the Bears still have to increase. Trevathan and Smith form one of the better inside linebacker pairings in the league.”

I’m a little surprised no mention was made here of Nick Kwiatkoski. I’d be more than a little surprised if Kwiatkoski wasn’t a factor at inside linebacker, especially early in Smith’s rookie season.

Kwiatkoski had a sneaky good year in 2017. Pro Football Focus had the 2016 fourth rounder rated very highly amongst other players at inside linebacker. They ranked him third in the NFL in run-stop percentage and he was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.

“Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.

“His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.”

The Bears probably wouldn’t have picked both Smith and Iyiegbuniwe if they were totally satisfied with Kwiatkoski. My guess is that, as was the case with safety Adrian Amos, PFF rated Kwiatkoski more on whether he did his job well last year over whether he was a high impact player on the field.

Smith is, of course, going to be given every chance to show he brings that high impact. Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to ignore his strengths in terms of what he adds to the roster, at least until we see if Iyiegbuniwe has what it takes to replace his solid play on the field. My guess is that we’ll see a lot of Kwiatkoski before the season is over.

The Bears Have No Players in the NFL Network’s Top 100. Again.

John Mullin points out what we have known for a long time. The Bears will (once again) not have a player in the NFL’s Top 100:

“This year’s blanking follows a shutout in last year’s poll, which represented [voting] returns from more than 900 players. This year the number was more than 1,100, making the rankings more than simply the opinion of an individual or even small group.

“Making them more disquieting from a Bears perspective is the fact that this marks a de facto third consecutive year that the Bears approach a season without a player whose peers rate him among the top 5 percent in the game. Because the 2016 survey (coming out of the 2015 season) listed running back Matt Forte (No. 90) as the lone Bear, and he was on his way to the New York Jets by the time his number was called.”

“One of [Bears GM Ryan] Pace’s mandates has been to bring Bears talent to a level competitive with at least the NFC North. The more than 1,100 players canvassed don’t think it’s happening: The Bears are one of only four teams (plus Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and the Jets) not represented in the top 100, while Detroit (2), Green Bay (7) and Minnesota (5) have multiple selections. Even the 0-16 Cleveland Browns boast a pair – wide receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Carlos Hyde) by virtue of their offseason moves.”

I was asked on a recent podcast if I thought the Bears could be the new Los Angeles Rams this year. That is certainly what Pace had in mind as he crafted his offseason and followed many of the steps the Rams did last last year by, for instance, hiring a good, young, quarterback-friendly head coach in Matt Nagy.

But, much though I want to believe this plan will work, I had to squash the idea on the podcast. The Rams had a lot of talent when they fired Jeff Fisher and hired Sean McVay including Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley. Both will be in this year’s top 10 on the list.

The addition of Nagy will help make the Bears better this year. But the fact of the matter is that both he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have zero impact players to work with. Without difference makers on either side of the ball, it’s going to be extremely difficult for this team to be competitive in a very good NFC North.  The responsibility for that falls directly upon the shoulders of Pace. And until that problem is corrected, the Bears will likely be going nowhere.

How Will Leonard Floyd Get His Sacks in 2018?

Lorin Cox at USA Today draws some conclusions from the data at Pro Football Focus:

Vic Fangio’s pass rush won on stunts and twists

“The Bears weren’t one of the teams that used them the most often, but they ranked fifth in pressure rate when using stunts, affecting the quarterback on 45.6 percent of these plays.

“That’s pressuring the quarterback on almost every other stunt. It helps having athletic pass rushers like Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks (respective to their positions) who can be tough to block when they’re on the move.”

This tendency of the Bears defense to use stunts so effectively may be why they are a bit more comfortable with what is at best a mediocre group of pass rushers heading into the 2018 season.

Having said that, one of the things you notice when you watch the Bears is that Floyd almost never gets pressure unless he’s running a stunt. There were a notable exceptions but for the most part Fangio schemed to get him free.

If the Bears are going to have success this season, Floyd is going to have to have more success when he finds himself one-on-one with blockers on the outside.

Will the Bears Offense Run Faster in 2018?

Lorin Cox at USA Today doesn’t think the Bears offense will be any quicker to snap the ball this year.

Last year under John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, the Bears’ offense was the NFL’s slowest in terms of the time it took to snap the ball, according to Football Outsiders (via The Ringer).

However, [new Bears head coach Matt] Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs were actually the second-slowest to snap the ball, just ahead of the Bears.

It’s worth remembering that Nagy hired former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich to help bring some spread concepts to the offense. Along with that may be a renewed commitment to a hurry up offense, at least in spots. It may not be enough to make a huge difference statistically but this is something that Nagy, himself, has said he’d like to do depending upon the opponent.

Are we going to see the kind of speed offense that Helfrich ran at Oregon? No. But Nagy wouldn’t have hired him unless they has a simpatico vision for how the offense would run and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nagy brought the no huddle to the offense more than his mentor, Andy Reid did in Kansas City.

Is the Size of the Bears Receivers a problem?

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Once upon a time, a Bears receiver named Brandon Marshall reminded us that he’s 6-foot-5 and that there weren’t many defensive backs out there that could match up. He and Alshon Jeffrey were supposed to be a mismatch nightmare tandem for seasons on end. Alas, that wasn’t to be. While I’m as excited as the next fan about the offense’s potential, I worry about the shorties catching the ball: [Taylor] Gabriel, [Anthony] Miller and Tarik Cohen. That said, wouldn’t it be ideal for [Allen] Robinson and Kevin White, both 6-3, to start on the outside with Gabriel filling in where he naturally fits, in the slot? I keep hearing that Gabriel and Miller can play outside. Seems like a recipe for Cutler-esque interceptions to me. – Greg M., South Side

“I wouldn’t put [Jay] Cutler’s propensity to turn the ball over on the Bears having short wide receivers in the past. I think the Bears have a good blend of skill position players when you think about skill sets and where coach Matt Nagy can line them up on the field to attack opposing defenses. I think Gabriel and Miller have the ability to play inside and outside and remember that the slot receiver is as important as ever in today’s NFL. [Mitch] Trubisky did a nice job of minimizing turnovers last season. He threw only seven interceptions in 12 games. I don’t know that the height of Gabriel and Cohen is a reason to think picks will pile up. Keep in mind that Miller measured 5-foot-11 at the scouting combine.”

I agree with Biggs that the height of the Bears receivers in recent years had little to do with turnovers. But I think it had a definite effect on the offense as a whole. From the very first year that he arrived in Chicago, Cutler made it clear that he preferred larger receivers, for instance, when he characterized former Bears speedster Johnny Knox Devin Hester as “not a go and and get it, guy”. Cutler wasn’t trying to be openly critical about it and he didn’t indicate that he was uncomfortable with Knox. But it was evident that larger receivers was what he was used to and that’s what he wanted. It wasn’t a coincidence that the first guy he befriended in Chicago was the biggest receiver on the field, 6’5” tight end Greg Olsen. The same thing happened in Miami when he hit the field and immediately sought out the 6’3” DeVante Parker. Cutler was far more comfortable with big receivers who could fight for a 50:50 ball in the air.

In a similar vein, I think what the Green Bay Packers did this off-season was interesting. The Packers are facing far more man coverage than they used to nowadays. For instance, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio prefers this kind of coverage and we can anticipate that new Lions head coach Matt Patricia will prefer to run the same kind of defense he did in New England.

The Packer’s response? Sign the 6’7” Jimmy Graham at tight end and draft a huge group of wide receivers in J’Mon Moore (6’3”), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6’4”), and Equanimeous St. Brown (6’5”) to go with the 6’3” Geronimo Allison. As I pointed out on a recent podcast, these players are going to present huge match up problems for teams who don’t have the corner backs and safeties to match up with them in coverage.

Having said that, I do think there’s a reasonable chance that Trubisky will handle an offense with shorter receivers better than Cutler did. For one thing, as the fan who wrote the question points out, if White and Robinson both turn out to be good, he won’t have to make due with those shorter receivers all the time in every situation. For another, he has an offensive head coach in Matt Nagy who should know how to take advantage of the better speed and agility that shorter receivers tend to have.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Antonio Brown, I’m sure many fans moaned about the fact that he was only 5’10” and predicted that he’d be strictly a slot receiver. We know how that worked out. Similarly, I think we won’t know too much about the Bears current configuration until we give them a chance to succeed.

One More Bears Question Before Training Camp

It’s going to be an interesting summer and there’s a lot to look forward to as we all observe what the Bears do. Leave it to Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune to provide just enough insight into the state of the team heading into training camp.

Biggs provides a pretty comprehensive look at the questions that we’ll all be looking for answers to this year by pointing to 10 of them. The whole article is worth reading but I’ll briefly state them here:

  1. Is Mitch Trubisky the real deal?
  2. Can the Bears finally stay healthy?
  3. Is there enough talent and depth at outside linebacker?
  4. Can Allen Robinson regain form?
  5. Will the secondary have stickier hands?
  6. Is Jordan Howard a good fit for the scheme?
  7. Can Kyle Fuller replicate an outstanding season?
  8. Will right guard Kyle Long return healthy and remain healthy?
  9. Is Trey Burton ready to be a playmaker?
  10. How will Matt Nagy juggle play-calling duties with being a head coach?

This was a good article and one I’ll keep handy as I consider how the Bears summer is progressing. Having said that, I’ve got a couple more. I’ve actually already addressed the first in previous article, “What impact will the fact that Nagy is a first time head coach with limited experience even as a coordinator have on the team?”.

The second one has occurred to me more and more as more information has leaked out about the new offense and how it will work. “How quickly can the players get up to speed with a new offense?”

This question has more than the usual amount significance this year with this team. The reason is the complexity of the offense that Nagy is bringing to the Bears. It is going to require not only an inexperienced quarterback in Trubisky to read the defense correctly, it is, more than usual (for the Bears), going to require the receivers to do so as well. This means that everyone has to be on the same page not only when the ball is snapped but after the defense starts moving. Cliff Harris at behindthesteelcurtain.com explains.

“The most obvious way a QB and a receiver need to be “on the same page” is by understanding coverages. Teams tend to structure their passing concepts with built-in adjustments to the coverage they’re getting. If a defense presents cover-2 (two deep defenders), the outside receiver might run a vertical route to force one of the deep defenders to get all the way to the sideline to cover him. If it’s cover-3, however (three deep defenders), that vertical will not work. There are too many deep defenders to throw down the sideline here. Therefore, the outside receiver will convert his vertical route to an out or a comeback at 12-15 yards… If the quarterback or the receiver fail to properly diagnose the coverage and/or don’t know the proper adjustment, it can result in a sack, an interception, or one of those really ugly throws to nowhere that leaves the fans thinking, Who the hell was that to?

“Pro defenses do a great job of disguising coverages, so it’s rarely as simple as depicted above.”

This goes far beyond simply recognizing a blitz and running a hot route. The proper adjustments are going to have to be made quickly and everyone is going to have to react correctly.

To my knowledge the Bears haven’t tried to implement an offense this complicated in a very long time. I may be understating the complexity of the offenses we’ve seen since then but the last coordinator that I know tried to implement anything like this was John Shoop way back in the days when Dick Jauron was the head coach. At that time it was a total disaster and we have rarely seen an offense as uncoordinated as that one since then.

In fairness, even back in those days, the scheme wasn’t the only problem. The Bears flat out lacked talent and the receivers frequently struggled to get off of the line of scrimmage.

Nevertheless, it was common to see the quarterback throw the ball to one spot while the receiver was going to another. If they were lucky the ball went out of bounds or fell harmlessly to the ground. If they weren’t, a defender would be the only guys to be where the ball ended up going and an interception resulted.

I’m certainly not comparing Nagy to Shoop. But what I am wondering is if the Bears are going to be able to avoid those problems as they try to learn this offense and act get together as a unit to make it work. For an offense to execute, all 11 guys have to do their job correctly. The more complicated it is, the less likely it is that will be the case.

A lot is going to depend on how quickly the players can pick the offense up and, especially, how well it’s taught. If the new coaches, who are just learning the scheme themselves, can’t convey the necessary information in a way that makes it easy for the players to pick up, the offense may never be executed to its potential. Its going to be a terrible eye sore if that turns out to be the case.

Realistically it’s possible – and perhaps likely – that we may be in for some ugly offensive football early in the season next year. Perhaps it will eventually emerge as something beautiful. And perhaps not. Like the questions above, it will be a situation that will be worth keeping an eye on.

Patience with New Bears Head Coach May Be More Than Usually Necessary

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune quotes Bears head coach Matt Nagy after a recent practice on the difficulties involved in getting the Bears new offense up and running:

“[The Bears players] understand that in Kansas City it took us five years to get (where) we got to. We’re kind of at a pace right now where we have to, at times, pull back and say to yourself: we’re months into this thing, not years. The more reps we can get in practice — whether it’s … splits, alignments, shifts, motions — the more they can see themselves doing it. That’s what we want.”

There’s a lot to like about the hiring of Nagy but there’s one inescapable fact about it that should bother anyone who follows the team. Nagy is a yet another Bears first-time head coach. He’s one in a long line of them over the last 24 years that includes Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron, Lovie Smith, and Marc Trestman. Over that period of time, only John Fox had previous coaching experience. Indeed, the only truly successful coach the Bears have had in that time since Mike Ditka was Smith. That’s not at all unusual. Bill Belichick, the greatest head coach in NFL history, didn’t get it right until the second time around in New England after failing as a first time head coach n Cleveland.

Each of these coaches had to learn on the job and Nagy will be no different. What makes his job even more challenging is his inexperience. He has, for instance, only called plays for half a season.

But by far the most worrisome part of his learning process will be figuring out the best way to install a new offense, something he’s never done before on his own. Nagy spent his entire coaching career under veteran head coach and offensive guru Andy Reid, who served as the defacto offensive coordinator. Nagy has never served as an offensive coordinator on a team where he was basically in charge.

You would expect under the circumstances that Nagy would follow Reid’s example as closely as possible. But he doesn’t appear that he’s doing that, at least not entirely. Backup quarterback Chase Daniel played for the Chiefs in 2013, Reid’s first year as head coach. Daniel estimates the Bears have installed 10 times as many plays as the Chiefs had in the spring that first year.

Nagy’s purpose is apparently to keep feeding quarterback Mitchell Trubisky as fast as possible to see how much he can handle. But it’s not just Trubisky. It’s the 10 other guys on the field with him. And they all have to do their jobs in order for the offense to run. Even assuming Trubisky can handle it, what are the chances all of the other guys can as well? Could Nagy’s impatience to get as much of the offense as possible installed as quickly as possible cost the Bears in the long run? Who knows?

Nagy is doing everything for the first time and there’s no guarantee that everything he does is going to work well. In fact, history shows that it’s quite the opposite. And Bears fans are just going to have to be patient and live with the mistakes. Again.