Defense is a big reason why the Bears are in first place in the NFC North entering Week 9
Heading into the 2018 NFL season, the Chicago Bears already had plenty of optimism on their side. The pieces were seemingly in place. The offensive vision of new head coach Matt Nagy combined with the return of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, as well as the flurry of signings in free agency, topped off by the promise and potential of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
But what really moved this team forward was the Labor Day weekend trade that brought pass rusher extraordinaire Kahlil Mack to Chicago. The Bears had concerns about their pass rush and general manager Ryan Pace addressed that issue by not only trading for Mack, but also making him the highest paid defensive player ever with a $141 million contract extension.
Mack has made his presence felt from day one. And since then the Bears (4-3) have established themselves as one of the top defenses in the league, while the offense has flashed its immense potential on occasion. Halfway through the season Chicago is in first place in the NFC North, but there is still plenty of work to do. The Bears have nine games remaining because of an early (Week 5) bye, five of those against divisional opponents. The undefeated Los Angeles Rams also will pay a visit to the Windy City in Week 14.
Holding off Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit in the NFC North will be a challenge, but the rest of the season should be fun to watch. Here's how the upstart Bears grade out so far.
This was the biggest area of concern for the Bears heading into this season, hence the reason why offensive-minded Matt Nagy, who comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, was hired to be the new head coach. His reputation as a “quarterback whisperer” was a major reason why many NFL teams were interested in interviewing him for their opening. Nagy ultimately chose the Bears with one of the reasons being the opportunity to work with Mitchell Trubisky. He saw the talent and potential in the second-year quarterback.
General manager Ryan Pace invested heavily in the offense in free agency as he opened up the checkbook to bring in wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton, as well as re-signed offensive lineman Bradley Sowell because of his versatility. He then added even more pieces by drafting wide receivers Anthony Miller and Javon Wims, along with offensive lineman James Daniels.
Nagy took a lot of heat for not giving Trubisky and a lot of the starters many reps during the preseason but that's irrelevant now given the fact the offense ranks 10th in the NFL in total offense (382.7 ypg) and ninth in scoring (27.7 ppg).
Trubisky may not rank high among the league leaders in passing yards or touchdowns, but he has gotten the job done while providing some spectacular moments or performances. He threw six touchdown passes in the Week 4 win over Tampa Bay and already has three 300-yard passing games. He's also shown an ability make plays with his legs (296 rushing yards, 2 TDs) when needed.
The No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 draft is still going through some growing pains, as evidenced by the six interceptions thrown and 16 sacks taken, but he's shown improvement across the board and is currently on pace for a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season.
An area of some concern has been the running game as it hasn’t been consistent. Jordan Howard, who was the subject of trade rumors during the offseason, has rushed for 392 yards and three touchdowns but his single-game high is 82 yards, which came against Green Bay in Week 1. The plan was to use Howard more in the passing game, but he has totaled three catches for 29 yards thus far. Tarik Cohen on the other hand has thrived in Nagy's offense. Used as both a runner and receiver, Cohen has 622 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 13.3 yards per reception and leads the team in receiving with 398 yards.
Burton got off to a slow start, but he has picked things up and leads the way with four touchdown catches. Robinson has been bothered by a groin injury recently but he has made is presence felt as one of Trubisky's favorite targets. Gabriel leads the team in receptions and has made his share of big plays. Miller has been a nice surprise early on and is making the most of his opportunities. He has totaled just 14 catches in six games but three of those have gone for touchdowns.
The offensive line has done a solid job, while dealing with some injuries. The most recent one to Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, however, will test this group moving forward. This offense could use more production from the running game, but the unit's overall results have been solid, if not spectacular at times.
With Vic Fangio returning as the defensive coordinator along with players such as Akiem Hicks, Sam Acho, Nick Kwiatkoski, Danny Trevathan, Kyle Fuller, Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson (among others), many figured the Bears would be in good shape. Then they added Aaron Lynch and brought back Prince Amukamara in free agency. They followed that up by drafting Roquan Smith, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Bilal Nichols and Kylie Fitts. From there the plan was to finally tap into Leonard Floyd’s potential and make the defense feared again.
Then came the Khalil Mack trade and that changed everything. And after the season opener at Green Bay in which the Bears held a 20-0 lead for nearly three quarters, the league was put on notice. Mack’s debut included a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.
Mack ranks among the league’s top 15 in sacks (5) and is tied for the NFL lead in forced fumbles (4), even though he missed one game and was limited severely in another due to his ankle injury. Trevathan has been a tackling machine and the anchor of this unit. Fuller has already recorded three interceptions.
Overall the Bears are in the top 10 in the league in both yards (329.6) and points (20.6) allowed per game. They are the third stingiest against the run (83.1 ypg). There have been some hiccups, most notably in the fourth quarter in the overtime loss at Miami and on a few occasions in the home loss to New England, but for the most part this defense has gotten the job done.
If young guys like Smith and Leonard Floyd can continue to develop and progress, there's no telling how good this defense can be down the stretch, especially once Mack gets back to 100 percent.
The Bears gave Cody Parkey $15 million to be a significant upgrade over last year’s failed kicking trio of Connor Barth, Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent. So far he’s been just that as he’s made 11-of-14 field goal attempts (78.6 percent), and all 23 extra point attempts. Pat O’Donnell is consistent as always, he’s currently averaging 45.5 yards per punt. Benny Cunningham may not be an offensive weapon but he leads the Bears with 173 kick return yards (21.6 yards per return).
Cohen also has had an impact as a punt returner, averaging 11.7 yards per with a long of 42. The only negative thus far is the 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown given up to the Patriots' Cordarrelle Patterson in Week 7.
This may not be the special teams units of the mid 2000s, but the Bears have gotten more positive results than negative out of the third phase of the game.
There's still a ways to go, but the Bears are seemingly well positioned to make their first playoff appearance since 2010. It’s too early to tell if they can wrest the NFC North away from Minnesota with Green Bay and Detroit not too far behind in the standings, but Chicago should be a tough out for every team that remains on the schedule.
If the running game can be a little more consistent, that should help take some of the pressure off of Trubisky, who needs to continue to improve his accuracy and decision-making. The defense is already solid and should continue to get better as the younger players get more experience and Mack's ankle injury heals completely.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)