First-and-10: Playoffs? Bears need to win NFL’s war of attrition to get there
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Now that the Bears have established themselves as a potential playoff team, they face arguably the biggest battle of all in the NFL over the next 12 consecutive weeks: the war of attrition.
The 3-1 Bears — still in first place in the NFC North — have every right to set their sight on a playoff bid. They have what at this time looks like a playable schedule after the bye. Of their final 12 opponents, only the Patriots (3-2) and Rams (5-0) are over .500. The Bears are three-point favorites against the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday and could be favored in four of their next five games. (For what it’s worth, betting-line favorites are 51-25-2 straight up this season). Even the Vikings and Packers appear vulnerable at this point.
But even with a defense and offense on the rise, the Bears still have to win the all-important war of attrition. (Eagles running back Jay Ajayi on Sunday became the 37th player to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament this season). Can they stay healthy the next 12 weeks without a break?
So far, so good. The Bears have been relatively healthy through the first month of the season. Tight end Adam Shaheen is on injured reserve with an ankle/foot injury, but he is expected to return in the second half of the season. Cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) and rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller (shoulder) missed the Buccaneers game but were “running around” at practice Monday and are expected to return soon even if they don’t play against the Dolphins. Linebacker Sam Acho (torn pec) is out for the season. Acho played just one defensive snap in the last two games before getting injured with Khalil Mack around.
During the same time last season, linebacker Jerrell Freeman, wide receivers Cam Meredith and Kevin White, safety Quintin Demps, linebacker Willie Young, backup guard Eric Kush and long-snapper Patrick Scales were on injured reserve.
This year? Just Shaheen and Acho. After back-to-back years with 19 players on injured reserve, general manger Ryan Pace revamped the team’s training staff to address the issue. He hired Jason Loscalzo as head strength and conditioning coach and Andre Tucker as head trainer. So far, the results have been positive.
“I want to think that it’s by design,” Nagy said. “That was a very important subject for us coming into the thing — for Ryan and myself, understanding how important it is. I give a lot of credit to Jason Loscalzo, Jen Gibson [sports science coordinator] and Andre Tucker for really holding that part down.”
While Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville knocks on wood whenever this subject comes up, Nagy does not.
“Some people can say it’s luck. I don’t think it’s luck,” Nagy said. “I think that for us it’s a constant communication and making sure we’re treating each individual the right way. And what that does ultimately is help us win.”
2. The early bye week generally is not preferable. Teams that have their bye in Week 5 or earlier are 36-26 after the bye over the last 10 years (14-16 on the road) — though 15-5 in the last four seasons.
On the other hand, Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid, is 16-3 after the bye in his 20-year coaching career, including 7-0 when the bye is Week 5 or earlier. Nagy gave his players the full week off even though they had played just four games.
“The rest is important, and it’s not always just physically, it’s mentally,” Nagy said. “It can be a stressful time, whether it’s Week 4 or Week 12. I think it’s really just a belief and trust system with the players, the coaches and then when you do come back [from the week off], you have a good practice and you don’t go through it [in] slow motion. You go through it full speed.”
3. Linebacker Leonard Floyd was hoping to return from the bye without any brace on the right hand he broke in the preseason. It remains to be seen if he’ll have free use of his hand against the Dolphins.
Nagy was oddly flippant when asked if Floyd would be able to play with free use of his hand for the first time Sunday.
“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” Nagy said. “I’m going to have to find out. I honestly don’t know. I don’t care, either. That’s really low on my list right now.”
4. Look for rookie James Daniels to get more playing time after he played 24 snaps at left guard and three at right guard against the Buccaneers. The Bears are not afraid to alternate Daniels and veteran Kush throughout the game, but at Daniels’ current rate of progress, he eventually figures to win the job.
“His focus on his technique is what sets him apart from other young guys,” right guard Kyle Long said. “I had no knowledge of technique or scheme [as a rookie]. He came from a great school [Iowa], and his coach was very detail-oriented in regard to the technical aspect of football. And [with] our coaches here, as well.”
5. Daniels, who turned 21 on Sept. 13, became the seventh player in franchise history to play before turning 21 when he played on special teams in the opener against the Packers on Sept. 9.
Long started as a rookie in 2013, but he was 24 years old. When Long was 21, football wasn’t even in the picture.
“I was working at Jack’s Surfboards in Newport Beach [California],” he said. “I wasn’t in school. I rode a skateboard to work. I was folding T-shirts and stocking bands, and I was playing basketball for good dinner money down at Main Beach-Laguna — we won some games.”
6. If running back Jordan Howard wasn’t upset about his light workload against the Buccaneers, as he said Monday, he needs to grow up a little bit and handle his professional responsibilities a little bit better. Blowing off reporters after any game is rude, and when it happens after a 38-point victory, it only invites speculation that he’s a selfish player. It’s part of the job, son.
7. Isaiah Irving figures to be the next man up with Acho on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. But keep an eye on rookie Kylie Fitts, whose pass-rush skills could be particularly impactful in this defense. And Fitts has made a point to take advantage of having Mack in the same linebacker room.
“It’s really good to learn from one of the best,” said Fitts, a sixth-round draft pick from Utah. “It’s great to see how he treats practices, off the field — training his body, the workouts he does. He’s always working hard. It’s cool to see that. I’ve learned a lot from him. I sit right next to him in meetings. I want to learn as much as I can.”
8. With the Jaguars’ defense allowing 23 points in a 30-14 loss to the Chiefs, the Bears’ defense is No. 1 in net points allowed (12.8 per game). That includes 65 points allowed by the defense and 14 points scored on interception returns by Mack and Amukamara.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Meredith’s successful return from knee surgery continued with five receptions for 71 yards from Drew Brees — including a 46-yard catch — in the Saints’ 43-19 victory over the Redskins. He also had a fumble that was recovered by former Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee and returned 24 yards. Meredith has nine receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown this season.
10. Bear-ometer: 10-6 — at Dolphins (W); vs. Patriots (L); vs. Jets (W); at Bills (W); vs. Lions (W); vs. Vikings (L); at Lions (L); at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L).