Bears have Super Bowl hopes thanks to strong defense
There’s nothing short of a Super Bowl that Matt Nagy can produce in his second year as the Bears’ head coach that can top the unexpected resurrection he orchestrated in 2018. In his first season as a head coach at any level, Nagy elevated a team that had suffered through four consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North to a division title and a 12–4 record, the franchise’s best in 12 years. But the NFL Coach of the Year faces a whole new set of challenges in 2019, the most difficult of which figures to be much greater expectations than any Bears team has faced in at least a decade. The 2018 season ended in a disappointing defeat in the wild card round, but almost every key player is back. The schedule, however, is much more difficult than last year’s. In 2018, the Bears had one of the NFL’s easiest schedules; in 2019, they face a slate that is tied for fifth-most difficult based on 2018 records.
The Bears have hitched their wagon to quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, for better or worse. Given a much better supporting cast in 2018, Trubisky showed significant improvement over an unimpressive rookie campaign, but there is still much room for improvement if he is to become a franchise quarterback. Trubisky’s ability to escape the rush and make plays with his legs helped turn potential negative plays into positive gains on multiple occasions. But he also struggled with inconsistent accuracy as a passer, a flaw that must be addressed if he is to live up to his draft status as the second overall pick.
After Allen Robinson II missed all but three plays in 2017 because of a torn ACL, the big, physical wide receiver served notice that he could be Trubisky’s go-to guy for many years. Starting slowly as he worked his way back to 100 percent, Robinson caught 55 balls for 754 yards, despite missing three games. Entering his age-26 season, there’s no reason the 6'3", 211-pound Robinson shouldn’t be all the way back this year to his 2015-16 form when he caught 153 passes for 2,283 yards and 20 touchdowns. Taylor Gabriel gave Nagy a gadgety weapon, catching 67 passes for 688 yards, but he didn’t provide as many big plays as hoped. Anthony Miller flashed as a rookie and led the team with seven TD catches, but he faded down the stretch, in part because of a chronic shoulder injury that the Bears hope offseason surgery will fix.
Veteran tight end Trey Burton had a breakout season in his first year in Chicago, but the Bears need the athletic pass-catching weapon to take another step if the offense is to do the same in 2019. Burton underwent sports hernia surgery in the offseason but is expected to be ready by Week 1. Adam Shaheen, a 2017 second-round pick, needs to stay healthy and turn potential into production after two mostly disappointing seasons.
Third-round running back David Montgomery is a much better fit in Nagy’s offense than departed Jordan Howard, particularly as a receiver. What remains to be seen is how he fits in with free-agent addition Mike Davis, who has similar versatility but lacks the “wow” factor of the diminutive Tarik Cohen. Montgomery possesses many of the tackle-breaking, make-you-miss qualities of Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in the Chiefs’ offense when Nagy was the offensive coordinator, so he could quickly become the starter. At 5'6" and 181 pounds, Cohen is more a complementary player than a workhorse, although he is an excellent receiver who led the Bears with 71 catches in 2018. Nagy intends to use all three in the committee approach he favors.
The O-line returns all five starters after right tackle Bobby Massie was re-signed. But it appears left guard James Daniels and center Cody Whitehair will flip-flop their 2018 positions, putting both in their most natural spot. Daniels transitioned into a starter as a rookie, shortly after his 21st birthday. Right guard Kyle Long is a major force when healthy and a team leader, but he’s got a lengthy injury history, having played in just 26 games the past three seasons. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. doesn’t get much credit, but he doesn’t get beat much, either.
The Bears have entrusted new coordinator Chuck Pagano with arguably the NFL’s best defense. The former Colts head coach replaces well-respected Vic Fangio, who was hired as the Broncos head coach. In four years in Chicago, Fangio built a powerhouse and almost every key contributor returns. The Bears lost safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan in free agency. But they swapped in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety and Buster Skrine at nickel, and any change is expected to be negligible. The Bears might even be better, considering Clinton-Dix has 14 interceptions in five seasons and was a Pro Bowler in 2016 with the Packers, and Skrine has 85 starts and nine interceptions in eight seasons.
The unit boasts Pro Bowl players at all three levels, including Akiem Hicks at left end, Khalil Mack at outside linebacker, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. The 2018 Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways and 27 interceptions and set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season. Hicks provides stout run support and much better pass rush than expected from a 332-pounder; he has 21.5 sacks in his three seasons with the Bears. Without the benefit of training camp or the preseason, Mack stepped into a new system and led the Bears with 12.5 sacks in 14 games while forcing six fumbles. His overall play was rightfully credited with helping a great defense become elite. Fuller tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, while Jackson picked off six passes and returned two of them, and a fumble recovery, for touchdowns. In just two seasons, Jackson has five return touchdowns.
The four Pro Bowlers get plenty of support from teammates who haven’t yet received the same accolades but are valuable contributors. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman anchors the front against the run, and 2018 fifth-round defensive lineman Bilal Nichols worked his way into the starting lineup by the final month of the season. At inside linebacker, Danny Trevathan is a consistent veteran presence in both phases, while Roquan Smith flashed Pro Bowl potential as a rookie with five sacks and a team-best 121 tackles. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd enjoyed his healthiest season yet but has only flashed the massive potential that made him the ninth overall draft pick in 2016. Playing across from Mack should help propel him to the next level, where his athleticism and versatility allow him to contribute in coverage and make him a pass-rush threat in addition to a sideline-to-sideline run supporter. Eight-year veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara had perhaps his best season, tying a career high with three interceptions.
Cody Parkey failed in the latest attempt to replace Robbie Gould, as has every kicker employed by the Bears since they inexplicably cut their longtime stalwart before the 2016 season. Parkey missed seven field goals and three missed extra points in the regular season and then famously missed the potential game-winner in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. An open competition will be held to find his replacement. Cohen is an electric punt returner who can also return kickoffs, but the Bears would like to use him only on punts.
It’s entirely possible the Bears could be a better team this year and still not match last year’s 12–4 record because they face a more difficult schedule, at least on paper. But this is a team built to win now, with a roster full of ascendant players who are at their peak or still approaching it. Pagano has vowed not to tinker too much with the successful defense Fangio built, and he inherits a wealth of talent. On offense, GM Ryan Pace has helped procure players who better fit Nagy’s offense, and it will be that unit that determines whether or not the Bears advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Anything less would be a disappointment.
Prediction: 1st in NFC North
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)