Is the Bears’ arrow pointing up?
That will be the question no matter what happens against the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Bears were at least trending toward that low-bar minimum measurement of progress in John Fox’s second season — establishing a top-10 defense and being competitive enough to provide evidence they are laying the foundation for a quantum leap that Fox and general manager Ryan Pace insist is coming. And maintaining a top-5 draft pick as a bonus.
But after a discouraging performance in a 41-21 loss to the Redskins on Saturday at Soldier Field — Matt Barkley threw five interceptions and the defense allowed 478 yards — the Bears hardly looked like a team that, as Fox said Saturday, is “in a way better position to be in striking distance moving forward.” Their previous four losses were by three, three, six and six points. At this point, even a victory over a Vikings team staggering to the finish after missing the playoffs following a 5-0 start will be dubious.
Fox did have one point — the 3-12 Bears are in better shape than they were in 2014, when they lost their last five games under Marc Trestman to finish 5-11.
“You look at our division — you look at some of the scores in our division two years ago,” Fox said. “You look at some of the statistics — in particular defensively. You look at the age of the team two years ago. With that comes some growing pains. These things weren’t build in a day.”
But that argument — which Fox has had to make with greater frequency recently — doesn’t resonates quite as well at the end of Year 2 as it did in Year 1. And it will start to ring hollow if Fox is making that argument at any point in Year 3. That’s when things will get interesting at Halas Hall. The Bears have taken the step back. It’s almost time to insist on seeing the two steps forward.
2. For what it’s worth, at this time last season the Cowboys were 4-11 and Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were still preparing for college bowl games. The Bears still are at least one offensive tackle away from having the kind of offensive line that gave the Cowboys a chance to maximize Prescott and Elliott and parlay the two rookies into a turnaround season.
2a. Five of the 12 teams currently in position to make the playoffs were under .500 last season: the Cowboys (4-12), Giants (6-10) and Lions (7-9) in the NFC; the Dolphins (6-10) and Raiders (7-9) in the AFC.
3. With the Jaguars beating the Titans, the Bears moved up to third in the draft order and can finish no lower than sixth if they beat the Vikings on Sunday.
The current draft order (with record and strength-of-schedule in parentheses): 1. Browns (1-14, .547); 2. 49ers (2-13, .502); 3. Bears (3-12, .521); 4. Jaguars (3-12, .534); 5. Rams (4-11, .502); 6. Jets (4-11, .517).
4. After making progress despite injuries and inexperience in the secondary, the Bears defense appears to have hit the wall. In the past two weeks, they’ve allowed 451 yards to the Packers and 478 to the Redskins. Two weeks ago the Bears were seventh in the NFL in total defense (326.5 yards allowed per game). Now they’re 12th (344.9), a big drop this late in the season.
4a. Big plays have been the culprit in losses to the Packers and Redskins. The Bears allowed five plays of 40 or more yards in their first 13 games. They’ve allowed six in their last two games — 61, 60 and 42 yards against the Packers; 61, 57 and 46 yards against the Redskins.
5. Rookie Jordan Howard is a clear-cut MVP for the Bears this season — based on performance, consistency and availability. The fifth-round pick from Indiana is averaging 92.6 yards per game in his 12 starts. With 1,178 yards, he needs 61 yards rushing yards against the Vikings to break Matt Forte’s rookie record of 1,238 yards in a season. He’s had 77 or more rushing yards (and 99 or more yards from scrimmage) in his last eight games.
6. If you’re looking for signs of progress,second-year wide receiver Cam Meredith has come a long way since early season fumbles against the Cowboys in Week 3 and the Colts in Week 5.
An undrafted free agent from Illinois State, Meredith had nine receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown against the Redskins. It was his second consecutive 100-yard game after having nine receptions for 104 yards against the Packers — and his fourth 100-yard game this season.
Meredith leads the Bears in receptions (61) and receiving yards (827). He’s averaging 13.3 yards per catch and has scored four touchdowns.He started as a fill-in until Kevin White becomes the player the Bears expect. Now, Meredith looks like part of the foundation.
Meredith’s most impressive play against the Redskins was a 32-yard gain to the 1-yard line — he caught the ball at the 15 and fought his way nearly into the end zone. If you’re looking for signs of progress, Meredith is a player who has come a long way since early season fumbles against the Cowboys in Week 3 and the Colts in Week 5.
“He’s grown in a lot of ways in regards to finding open windows and feeling the defense — not just running his route as it says on paper,” quarterback Matt Barkley said. “He’s grown a lot, even from when I first got here, especially in his maturity in the offense.”
7. It’s amazing how NFL defenses continue to underestimate Packers receiver Jordy Nelson no matter how successful he is. Last week in a critical late-game situation, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio decided to give more safety help to Davante Adams than to Nelson — allowing Nelson to blow by Cre’Von LeBlanc for a 60-yard reception that set up a winning field goal. On Sunday, the Vikings’ secondary — in a bizarre case of insubordination —rejected coach Mike Zimmer’s game plan to have Xavier Rhodes shadow Nelson, with veteran Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn and Trae Waynes covering him.
It was a classic case of “everybody thinks they can cover the white guy.” Nelson burned the Vikings for seven receptions, 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first half before Zimmer re-enforced the original plan. Shadowed by Rhodes, Nelson had two receptions for nine yards in the second half. But it was too late. The Packers won 38-25, eliminating the Vikings from playoff contention.
8. With a minus-5 turnover differential against the Redskins, the Bears are minus-16 for the season — tied with the Jaguars for 31st place in the NFL.
Their 10 takeaways this season would be a franchise-low, breaking the record of 17 set last year. Prior to 2015, the Bears never had fewer than 20 takeaways in a season, and have averaged 33 per season since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978.
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Giants kicker Robbie Gould was 4-for-4 on field goals — 35, 35, 29 and 41 yards and made his only PAT, but it wasn’t quite enough in a 24-19 loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
Gould is 8-for-8 on field goals this season and is seventh most accuarate kicker in NFL history (284-of-331, 85.8 percent). He also has hit his last seven PATs after missing twice against the Bears and once against the Browns the following week.
10. Bear-ometer: 3-13 — at Vikings (L).