With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Chicago Bears, who finished 5–11 in 2017.
1. First-time head coach Matt Nagy was hired over from Kansas City because his system features the misdirection, presnap motioning and multi-option plays that NFL offenses are trending toward. Nagy aims to isolate specific opponents (often linebackers) with run/pass assignment conflicts or get defenders flowing one way and the ball going the other. A highly-schemed approach is the best fit for second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky, whose physical tools are good but not great.
2. Nagy should feature rollouts and bootlegs. Though still developing, Trubisky’s out-of-pocket vision is excellent. And while he’s not quite Russell Wilson, he’s very deft throwing on the move.
3. Many rollouts and bootlegs come off play-action, which is a great way to limit a QB’s reads and get him throwing against predictable looks. Moving-pocket play-action stems from a zone ground game, and Chicago has one of the league’s best. Everyone along this young, steadily constructed offensive line, save for maybe right tackle Bobby Massie, is tailormade for zone blocking. Plus, workhorse back Jordan Howard is arguably football’s best all-around zone runner.
4. Learn the name Tarik Cohen. The 2017 fourth-round running back will be featured in many of Nagy’s designer concepts, like Tyreek Hill was in Kansas City. Cohen doesn’t quite have Hill’s speed (no one does), but he’s certainly fast enough—and, more importantly, quick enough—to get himself in space. Nagy knows this is the exact type of weapon defensive coordinators most worry about. In this scheme, Cohen’s greatest value might be as a decoy.
5. Much has been made about the signing of free agent receivers Taylor Gabriel and especially Allen Robinson, as well as the second-round selection of Memphis wideout Anthony Miller. And yes, upgrading the receiving corpse was GM Ryan Pace’s most obvious task this offseason. But the biggest signing could be ex-Eagles No. 3 tight end Trey Burton, whose $22 million guaranteed suggests he’ll supplant the average Dion Sims as No. 1 on the tight end depth chart. Hopefully, Burton will often be on the field WITH Sims. Two–tight end sets, especially with Burton’s versatility as a blocker and receiver, are where Nagy’s scheme can most effectively integrate the running game and passing game.
6. George Halas. Dick Butkus. Mike Singletary. Brian Urlacher. And now, the Bears hope, Roquan Smith. The eighth overall pick remains unsigned. But once he joins the Bears, they’ll be getting a run-and-chase tackler who, with an NFL combine weight of 236 pounds, is quick enough to compete in coverage. Within the NFL, the Bears are regarded as one of football’s best-coached defenses. Coordinator Vic Fangio employs a lot of two-deep coverages that present blurry zone looks to the quarterback. The big chunks of blurriness come from how safeties align and rotate coverage. But the small chunks that make Chicago special come from subtle deceptions at linebacker. Fangio prefers to keep two linebackers on the field at all times; Smith could be this defense’s difference between good and great.
7. The most underrated player in football is defensive end Akiem Hicks. He has the initial burst to augment his thundering strength, and his technique became more refined in 2017. Keeping two safeties back deep puts more pressure on your linebackers in run defense. Hicks’s destructiveness assuages that.
8. Re-signing cornerback Kyle Fuller was a big win for GM Ryan Pace, not just because Fuller was coming off an outstanding season and has a great feel for defending the top of routes, but because the division rival Packers wanted him. Fuller got a four-year contract worth $56 million ($18 million guaranteed). With Prince Amukamara also having a strong ’17 campaign and being re-signed for three years and $27 million ($18 million guaranteed), and sturdy Bryce Callahan back in the slot, Chicago returns its entire secondary. With such familiarity, safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson should make more big plays in 2018.
9. Most big defensive plays stem from a pass rush. It’s time for pliable 2016 first-rounder Leonard Floyd to emerge as an everydown edge-bender. Floyd has the backside chase speed to be a 12-sack producer. The question is: Who will generate pressure opposite him? Sam Acho finished strong in 2017, but he’s been a role player much of his seven years. Free agent pickup Aaron Lynch, who played for Fangio in San Francisco, flashed star potential early in his career but hasn’t matured enough to fulfill it.
10. Those edge rushers are important because Fangio is not a big blitzer. He will, however, employ zone exchanges, where a linebacker or slot corner rushes and a defensive lineman drops back into coverage. Fangio also likes to rush three and drop eight into coverage.
BOTTOM LINE: The NFC North is too good for the Bears to surge high in 2018, but this team is markedly better than last year’s.
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