1st-and-10: Bears face an early moment of truth
With a 3-game losing streak, the 5-4 Bears look headed to mediocrity. They have a chance to prove their doubters wrong against a Vikings team they usually play well against — 4-0 under Matt Nagy.
A telltale Bears season that once looked like it could at least tiptoe to 10-6 or maybe stagger to 9-7, now looks like it’s careening to 8-8 — or worse.
To hear Matt Nagy’s well-intentioned belief in his offense ring more and more hollow in the aftermath of each loss is becoming awkward and a little painful. Every time Nagy insists the offense will get there, it provides more evidence that it will not. The latest examples: a false start on fourth-and-one; a false start on fourth-and-six; a timeout after a successful fake punt; David Montgomery stuffed on fourth-and-one; an aborted shovel pass; a Montgomery fumble returned for a game-over touchdown; and no targets for Cole Kmet.
On the field, the Bears look closer to a team headed for an uncomfortable offseason of change and/or fan discontent than a playoff contender on the rise. Nagy’s trying to run Andy Reid’s offense with Ryan Pace’s players and it’s just not working — and it seems like he’ll be the last to know that.
And his inexperience — obscured in his 12-4 debut in 2018 — is showing a little more each week. The latest misstep: intimating Monday that if he does give up play-calling duties, he won’t let us know. That has disaster written all over it. Better to just announce it and send the message that he sees the same game we do and is willing to swallow his pride to try to get this offense on track.
On paper, though, the Bears are where many thought they would be — 5-4 after a fast start and a tough three-game stretch against the Rams, Saints and Titans, with a playable schedule in the final two months of the season.
The Bears aren’t dead yet, but they face an immediate moment of truth Monday against the Vikings at Soldier Field. The Vikings (3-5) are rejuvenated after a 1-5 start. But whether they’re good or bad, the Bears play them well — they’re 4-0 against the Vikings under Nagy.
The Bears, in fact, have won 16 of 19 games against the Vikings at home since Jim Miller threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Robinson with 3:39 left in 2001. And all three losses are by a field goal.
If the Bears aren’t as bad as they’ve looked, this is the place to prove it.
“We’ll rally around one another. We’re fighters. This city is fighters,” Nagy said. “That’s just kinda who we are — our fans, everyone, all of us together. We’ve gotta rally around each other. We’ve gotta pull together. And that’s gonna be our biggest challenge right now. I’m looking forward to it.”
2. Every game produces more indictments of Nagy’s offense. In two games since Nagy said rookie tight end Cole Kmet “is going to start playing more in this offense . . . we have to be aware of that, understand that and start using him more,” Kmet has had one target in 66 snaps against the Saints and Titans.
Furthermore, tight ends coach Clancy Barone on Monday described Kmet this way: “Even when he’s covered, he’s not covered.” When a team desperately in need of offensive production has an “always open” receiver with eight targets in nine games, it’s just another symptom of an offense that ranks 29th in the NFL in yards and points.
3. The Bears not only did not score in the third quarter against the Titans, but seem to be getting worse. They had seven negative events on their first 17 offensive snaps of the second half Sunday. To wit:
A mishandled snap by Nick Foles from rookie center Alex Bars on the very first play. A false start by rookie Arlington Hambright. A false start by tight end Jimmy Graham. A sack of Foles. Intentional grounding by Foles after another blitzing linebacker was not picked up. An illegal motion by rookie Darnell Mooney. And a fumble by David Montgomery that was returned for a touchdown.
The Bears have scored an NFL-low seven points in the third quarter this season. Last year the Bears were fourth in the NFL in third-quarter scoring, with 108 points.
4. Nagy bristles at the charge of being too cute, but the aborted shovel pass to Allen Robinson was yet another example. The play blew up when Bars and right tackle Rashaad Coward were beaten and Foles was tackled for a one-yard loss.
Then again, it could have been worse. When an almost identical shovel pass against the Buccaneers in 2016 similarly blew up, guard Kyle Long suffered a season-ending ankle injury that marked the beginning of the end for the three-time Pro Bowl lineman. So at least this time, nobody got hurt.
5. As problematic as third-quarter scoring has been, the Bears lead the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring with 92 points. But even that is dubious.
Most of their fourth-quarter scoring (76 of 85 offensive points) has been in desperation — after the Bears trailed 23-6 (Lions), 26-10 (Falcons), 19-3 (Colts), 24-3 (Rams), 23-13 (Saints) and 24-3 (Titans).
In fact, the Bears have scored 51.7% of their points in the fourth quarter — the highest percentage in any single quarter in the NFL by far.
6. The Bears’ defense against Derrick Henry — 68 yards on 21 carries — bodes well for their upcoming matchup against the Vikings’ red-hot Dalvin Cook. Without nose tackles Eddie Goldman and John Jenkins, the Bears stopped Henry for two yards or less on 14 of his 21 carries (66.7%) — the most by any Titans opponent this season. Henry had two yards or less on 41.6% of his carries coming in.
Though the Bears’ run defense has been substandard this season, they still can raise their game on occasion. Last year, Cook came into Soldier Field in Week 4 as the NFL’s leading scorer (125 yards per game, 6.6 per carry) and the Bears held him to 35 yards on 14 carries — without Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols.
7. For What It’s Worth Dept.: Former Northern Colorado quarterback Kyle Sloter is on the fringes of the NFL fringe — cut by the Broncos, Lions and Vikings before being signed to the Bears’ practice squad this week.
But as a rookie with the Broncos in 2017, he outplayed Mitch Trubisky in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game. Sloter was 5 of 6 passing for 94 yards and a 47-yard touchdown for a perfect 158.3 rating — rallying the Broncos to two touchdowns for a 24-17 win. His 125.4 rating in the preseason was the highest of all rookie quarterbacks that season. So you never know.
8. Danny Trevathan took his share of heat for substandard performances earlier this season after recovering from an elbow injury he suffered last season. But the veteran linebacker seems to be regaining his speed and quickness — never more apparent than on a nifty downfield pass break-up against the Titans’ Corey Davis on Sunday.
“He didn’t play good against Detroit [the season opener]. He knows that. We all know that,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “If you take that game out, he’s gotten better every single week. This past four-game stretch, he’s playing lights out. The way he’s playing right now is inspiring.”
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Raiders linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, whom the Bears let go in free agency in favor of Trevathan, had 13 tackles (10 solo) in a 31-26 victory over the Chargers — plus a one-on-one tackle of Tyrod Taylor on a potential game-tying two-point conversion.
10. Bear-ometer: 9-7 — vs. Vikings (W); at Packers (L); vs. Lions (W); vs. Texans (W); at Vikings (L); at Jaguars (W); vs. Packers (L).