Revisiting the 2017 Rams template: Bears staying within striking distance
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As the Bears wallowed through the muck of another disappointing season under John Fox in 2017, the idea of quickly becoming a playoff contender seemed far-fetched.
Rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky showed little discernible growth with a nondescript receiving corps. The Bears had no Pro Bowl players. General manager Ryan Pace had a poor record in free agency, and his draft successes were trumped by a dubious first-round history — Kevin White, Leonard Floyd and Trubisky.
But as the Bears careened toward a 5-11 finish, with seven losses in their last nine games, the Rams were providing a template of hope. In 2016, the Rams were in similar dire straits — 4-12 for their 12th consecutive playoff-less season. Rookie quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the draft, wasn’t very good — 0-7 as a starter with a 63.6 passer rating.
And they turned it around quickly. The Rams replaced their stale, defensive-minded veteran coach (Jeff Fisher, who had been fired with three games to go in 2016) with a young, offensive-minded rookie coach in Sean McVay. They upgraded Goff’s receiving corps. They hired a veteran defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips. And off they went — finishing 11-5 and winning the NFC West as Goff blossomed into a Pro Bowl quarterback and the offense jumped from last in scoring to first.
Without a Todd Gurley in the backfield, the Bears probably were not in position to make that kind of quantum leap. But in every other facet, the Rams were a legitimate template to follow.
So eight games into this season, how are the Bears doing? At 5-3, they’re one game behind the Rams’ 6-2 pace of 2017, which actually is a fair overall measurement. The Bears have not matched the Rams’ turnaround pace, but they’re not so far away that they can’t catch up with a strong second half.
Here’s a closer look at how the 2018 Bears are faring in matching the Rams’ template:
With upgraded weapons, coach Matt Nagy has provided the offensive boost the Bears were looking for — particularly with an aggressive mindset. But the offense has been in work-in-progress mode all season, taking smaller steps than the Rams took under Sean McVay and Jared Goff. By this time last year, the Rams already were an offensive juggernaut, leading the NFL in scoring and ranking 11th or higher in every major offensive category.
The Bears are 17th in yards and 11th in offensive points. But the arrow is pointing up — they’ve improved from 24th in total yards to 17th in the last four games.
For what it’s worth, the combined output of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen (217 touches, 1,161 yards, 5.4 average, nine touchdowns) is almost equal to Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown at this time last season (232 touches, 1,208 yards, 5.2 average, 11 touchdowns).
Mitch Trubisky has made steady progress, completing 167 of 260 passes (64.2 percent) for 1,949 yards and 16 touchdowns with seven interceptions for a 96.2 rating. Jared Goff was on a similar pace a year ago — 147-for-244 (60.2 percent) for 2,030 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions for a 97.9 rating. It’s worth noting, Goff’s 97.9 rating was ninth in the league. Trubisky’s 96.2 is 16th.
“There’s still areas I have to improve within my game and still growing in that,” Trubisky said, “but I feel comfortable and confident with where I am as a leader with command of this offense, getting in and out of the huddle, seeing things post-snap. I think it’s all starting to slow down, so [I’m] just trying to improve all areas of my game.”
With outside linebacker Khalil Mack, the Bears have reached a new level — not only fourth in yards and third in points allowed, but they have 14 interceptions, 21 takeaways, 24 sacks and three defensive touchdowns.
The Rams and Aaron Donald were a notch below at this time last year — 16th in yards, tied for ninth in points, with 10 interceptions, 15 takeaways, 25 sacks and two defensive touchdowns.
“We can be as dominant as we were last year and even more so,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said.
“We haven’t played our best game yet,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “We’re still scratching the surface, and we have yet to put a complete game together. I think we’re still in search of that.”
SPECIAL TEAMS, ETC.
The Bears’ special teams have been substandard overall — allowing a 95-yard kickoff return and a blocked punt in a loss to the Patriots. Cody Parkey is 13-for-16 on field goals. The 2017 Rams already had Pharoh Cooper’s 103-yard kickoff-return touchdown. And Greg Zuerlein was 24-for-25 on field goals. Edge: Rams.
The 2017 Rams had the better midseason point differential — plus-108 to the Bears’ plus-82. The Bears have the better turnover differential — plus-10 to plus-3.
So overall, the Bears are a step behind the 2017 Rams, who finished 11-5 and lost to the Falcons 26-13 in a wild-card playoff game. But they have room for growth in the second half.
“We’re operating on all cylinders,” Akiem Hicks said. “And we’ve fought through adversity. We lost to Miami in the sun. We lost to New England when they’re running outside and doing the screen dinking-and-dunking game. And I think we’ve looked at those challenges and said we can be better than that.”