Change of plans: How the Bears’ coordinators adjusted to a short week
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With a short week of preparation for the Lions on Thursday, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t have much time to take in the game that everyone is talking about: the Rams’ 54-51 victory against the Chiefs on ‘‘Monday Night Football.’’
“I didn’t see any of it but the last two minutes,” Fangio said. “But the score isn’t what I’d like to see as a connoisseur.”
There were defensive touchdowns scored by the Rams and Chiefs but also plenty of defensive breakdowns. Offensive fireworks defined the scorefest that some pundits consider a harbinger for a new era in the NFL.
“I thought [the] 1958 Giants and Colts was the big game,” said Fangio, referencing that year’s NFL championship known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
“I don’t know. It’s just we live in such a one-week news cycle in the NFL. Let’s see what happens next week.”
As for this week, it’s been a jam-packed whirlwind for the Bears coming off a statement win against the Vikings on Sunday night, then preparing for the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Here’s what was on the table for Fangio and the Bears’ two other coordinators:
When the Bears installed their offensive game plan for their first matchup with the Lions on Nov. 11, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said that more went into it than typical weeks, as they had two games against the Lions in mind.
“Definitely,” he said. “We talked of, ‘Hey, we’ll do . . . A, B and C, and [if] A, D and E are really good, let’s keep that.’ ”
But things still change. Helfrich, in a convoluted way, said he expects it. The Bears saw plenty of man coverage in their 34-22 win at Soldier Field, but that can change at Ford Field.
The Lions also will have Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay back in their lineup. He missed their first meeting with a knee injury.
“There is stuff that happens with them,” Helfrich said. “There is stuff that happens with us.”
For the Bears, that stuff includes quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s change in health. He’s dealing with a right shoulder injury. But the Bears won’t change their playbook for backup Chase Daniel.
“They’re not that significantly different,” Helfrich said. “Certainly, you’re going to tailor things to one person or another, absolutely, but within the same structure. We’re not going to change the offense if something happens. You can’t. You can’t do that. But certainly there are nuances to whoever is in there.”
In Fangio’s eyes, familiarity is an advantage that works for both teams when a rematch occurs in a short period.
“Once these guys started watching and preparing [Tuesday], the recall is there because it was 10 days ago,” Fangio said. “[It’s] the same easy recall for them when they watch us. And [it’s] knowing full well they’ll do things a little bit different [but] not wholesale.”
Still, it helps that the Bears’ defense is recalling a winning effort in which Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked six times and intercepted twice.
For Fangio and his staff, finding ways to motivate the defense is important. It’ll help if Trubisky doesn’t play, but there are still areas for the defense to improve.
Collectively, it’s ending a bad fourth-quarter trend.
Over the course of the four-game winning streak, the defense has allowed 42 points in the fourth quarter. It’s by far the most of any quarter. They allowed only 10 points in the first half in their victories against the Jets, Bills, Lions and Vikings.
The Lions scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter in their first meeting.
“It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing in particular,” Fangio said. “We need [to] improve our fourth quarter.”
Also, certain individuals need to be motivated. It could be challenging young outside linebackers Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts to make up for the loss of Aaron Lynch (concussion).
Or it could be pointing out rookie linebacker Roquan Smith’s mistakes.
Smith is coming off back-to-back games with double-digit tackles. But he still missed a big one on Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs late in the second quarter, and it led to a 25-yard gain.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins was intercepted on the ensuing play, but the Vikings were in field-goal range because of Smith’s miss.
“He knows that,” Fangio said. “We emphasize it all the time. Those guys are tough runners after the catch that that team has, and he went too high. The guy ducked him and took off, and that was the [Vikings’] biggest play of the game.”
Building on success
Special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor’s top priority this week wasn’t helping kicker Cody Parkey redeem himself. They didn’t make any trips to Soldier Field, though Tabor said they likely will continue to do so before home games.
Tabor’s challenge was similar to Fangio’s and Helfrich’s.
“It’s the same with regard to jamming a lot of information in there,” Tabor said. “The good news is you played them a week ago, or whatever that was, so the recall happens pretty fast.”
Mistakes have defined the Bears’ special teams, whether it’s Parkey hitting the uprights four times or allowing two touchdowns against the Patriots.
If Trubisky doesn’t play against the Lions, though, it’s important that the Bears have a clean day on special teams. And that starts with Parkey, who is 16-for-21 on field goals and 30-for-32 on extra points. Every point is important.
After Parkey made a 48-yard field goal late against the Vikings, his teammates ran out to the field to celebrate with him. The support continued after the game in the locker room, too. His teammates chanted “Par-key! Par-key!” after coach Matt Nagy called on him to break down the team. He was later named the NFC special teams player of the week.
“Pro’s pro,” Tabor said. “He never gets too high; he never gets too low. He stays the course; he believes in himself.”
Kicking to Cohen
The Bears’ 25-20 victory against the Vikings featured a first this season for running back Tarik Cohen. It was the first time he returned a kickoff.
Cohen was the returner on the Bears’ hands team in the final five minutes when he returned Dan Bailey’s kick for a 22-yard gain.
Before that, running backs Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell handled every return this season with mixed results.
Mizzell replaced Cunningham as the Bears’ primary kick returner in Week 9 against the Bills. His longest return was a 20-yarder against the Vikings.
Why don’t the Bears use Cohen, who returned 26 kickoffs for 583 yards last year as a rookie, more on kickoffs?
“Those are game-time type decisions, where you’re at and those type of things,” special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “Obviously, he adds a lot of value to us on offense and in the punt-return game. So, if we do venture down that, you have to pick and choose your moments.”
With quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s sliding ability becoming a topic of conversation following his right shoulder injury, it was interesting to hear whom coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich considered the worst at it.
Nagy: “I’ve been around some bad sliders, including Michael Vick — and he’d laugh at it. He couldn’t slide to save his life. We used to go out and put the Slip ’N Slide out after practice and try to teach him, and he couldn’t do it. Then you’ve got these baseball players that have played baseball in high school that know how to do it. Mitch knows how to do it. He knows how to slide.”
Helfrich: “Marcus Mariota is one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever been around. [He’s] very similar to Mitch in a lot of ways, and [he] was the worst slider in the history of athletics. We got him with baseball coaches and all these other things. Guys kind of have a natural way to get down or protect themselves, and Mitch has done a good job of that.”
Q: How well do you think [John] Fox would have done with this roster? — @1GSDlover
A: Good question. I would argue that Fox also would have a winning record. He would have benefitted from the addition of outside linebacker Khalil Mack. His offense also would look better with receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton. But I still would have concerns about Fox’s approach offensively as coordinators Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains still would have answered to him. He influenced their game plans, play calls and concepts. Matt Nagy fits the modern mold. He’s innovative with his calls and concepts. He’s what Trubisky needed.
Q: Is the coaching staff/management concerned about Anthony Miller’s emotions getting the best of him in game?
A: To a certain extent. The Bears want him to be himself. Nagy has his “Be You” mantra on the walls of Halas Hall and on his playsheet for a reason. Miller does have a fire to him. He also likes to talk trash. But Miller’s come-get-some demeanor also is why the Bears liked him so much in this year’s draft. The Bears don’t want to see Miller’s fire turn into penalties, but they also don’t want to put restraints on his competitiveness. They want him to play with that “Memphis Grind.” There is a fine line to find for Miller.
Q: How hot is Vic Fangio going to be in the offseason when a quarter of the head coaches seem to be fired every year?
A: He’s going to be lukewarm at best. He’s one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL, but he’s a defensive coach. Fangio might get an interview or two, but it’s tough to tell if the right situation will open up for him. Defensive-minded head coaches, not including Bill Belichick, just don’t seem to have long shelf lives in the NFL right now. Teams want to pair a young, offensive-minded head coach with a young quarterback. The belief is that there is a better chance of finding long-term stability with that approach.