World’s Best Preview: Inside the Bears
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here’s our weekly look inside the opponent. This week, it’s the Chicago Bears.
TRUBISKY’S NOT ALL THAT’S DIFFERENT: The improved play of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky isn't the only thing new about the Bears since Week 1. In Round 1 between these teams, Bears coach Matt Nagy forgot about two of the team’s early draft picks. Rookie running back David Montgomery, a third-round pick and the team’s first selection, had six carries – including only one in the second half. He played 38 percent of the snaps. That’s better than Anthony Miller, a second-round pick last year. Miller played 21 percent of the snaps and was targeted only once (zero catches) in the passing game.
Montgomery has become the team’s workhorse running back, with a team-high 680 yards.
At Iowa State, Montgomery was known for his punishing, tackle-breaking style. There’s been some of that, though his 2.33 yards after contact ranks just 53rd of 60 qualifying backs, according to Pro Football Focus. However, he is 13th with 35 averted tackles, according to PFF. Generally, in getting what’s blocked and fighting for more, he’s become a focal point of the offense. In the first six games, Chicago ranked 26th with 20.8 carries per game. In the last seven games, Chicago’s ranked 12th with 26.7 carries per game.
“He’s been solid for them,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “I think it was expected when they drafted him, and I think we saw signs of it opening night. He had a couple nice runs, but he’s really matured. You look at him now, he doesn’t look like a rookie back anymore. That’s a big part of their formula, is the ability to run the football, get ahead of the sticks. And obviously he’s been a significant part of their success.”
The re-emergence of Miller might be a bigger story. As a rookie, he had 33 catches for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. Through the first four games of this season, he had just four catches. It’s been a different story the last four games, though, with 24 catches.
Miller, who had four catches in the first four games, has been a vital cog of late with 24 catches in the last four games. During that span, he is tied with Davante Adams for eighth in receptions and 13th in yards among receivers. Miller and Allen Robinson (76 catches, 898 yards and seven touchdowns, including 23 receptions for 280 yards and a league-high four touchdowns the past four games) give the Bears a quality one-two punch.
BEAR DOWN: Of course, Chicago’s calling card is not Trubisky or Miller. It’s the hard-hitting, dominating defense that once again is keeping teams off the scoreboard.
The Bears are fourth in points allowed (17.8), ninth in total defense (and sixth with 5.00 yards allowed per play), seventh in rushing defense (and third with 3.73 yards per carry), 13th in passing defense (but sixth with 6.18 yards per attempt) and seventh on third down (35.1 percent). That compares rather favorably to last year, when Chicago was first across the board in scoring (17.7 points per game), yards allowed per play (4.78), per rush (3.78) and per pass (5.72), and fourth on third down (34.3 percent).
So why are the Bears 7-6 after going 13-3 last year? Trubisky’s third-year struggles are part of it but the defense hasn’t been as dynamic. Last year, Chicago was No. 1 in takeaways (36), No. 1 in interception percentage (4.39) and No. 9 in sack percentage (8.13 percent). Those numbers stand in stark contrast to this season, with Chicago ranking 17th with 16 takeaways, 27th in interception percentage (1.65) and 25th in sack percentage (6.20).
All of those big plays resulted in big swings of field position that the Bears haven’t benefitted from as often this year. Moreover, Chicago has gone from six defensive touchdowns to only one this year.
The Bears’ defense figures to regain the services of Akiem Hicks. The Pro Bowl defensive end has missed the last nine games with an elbow injury but is expected to be activated from injured reserve in time for the game. His lone sack this year came in the opener vs. the Packers, and he had a sack and a forced fumble in last year’s game at Lambeau Field.
However, the Bears will be without both of their starting inside linebackers. Roquan Smith, a sideline-to-sideline defender with a team-leading 100 tackles, was placed on injured reserve on Monday. Danny Trevathan, who is second on the team with 70 tackles, is out with an elbow injury. Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis will take their place in the lineup. Kwiatkoski is no slouch with 45 tackles. Pierre-Louis stepped in against Dallas and had five tackles and two pass breakups.
“Well, 44 (Kwiatkoski), I’ve always thought he’s been a really solid player,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He rocked me a couple years ago and I know where 44’s at most times when he’s in the game. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he’s played and his approach to the game. He’s been backing up both Danny and Roquan this season and he does a hell of a job. He’s a great player. Roquan obviously made himself into a really solid player. He’s a sideline-to-sideline guy, a big tackler, so that’s going to hurt them a little bit. But they’ve got some depth on defense.”
MACK ATTACK: You didn’t click on this link to find out Khalil Mack is the straw that stirs Chicago’s defensive drink. Everyone knows that. He has 7.5 sacks and five forced fumbles, one off the league high. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s tied for seventh among NFL edge defenders with 61 total pressures.
Of note, his rushes are split almost equally between the left and right sides as the Bears probe for matchups. That means, unlike most weeks, the No. 1 rusher won’t be the primary responsibility of either left tackle David Bakhtiari or right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Both players – and the guards, as well – will get their fill of No. 52.
“That’s something that we definitely have noted, that he can line up either side,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “Shoot, even on third downs sometimes they’ll put him inside. They’re probably doing it to keep us a little more off-balance, so you can’t just set everything towards him.”
In Week 1, 31 of Mack’s snaps came from the defense’s left side vs. 24 on the right.
SPECIAL-TEAMS CHALLENGE: Green Bay’s special teams might have turned an important corner.
Heading into the game against the Giants a couple weeks ago, Green Bay was No. 26 in our five-category, field-position-based special-teams rankings. However, after a midseason slump, punter JK Scott has had two good games in a row and Tyler Ervin provided an enormous spark to a historically bad punt-return unit last week. Coupled with Green Bay’s greatly improved kickoff coverage, which has limited the opponent to no better than a 20-yard average the past five games, coordinator Shawn Mennenga’s units appear to be hitting their stride at a perfect time.
“I feel like we’re improving in all areas,” Mennenga said on Thursday. “You just want to continue to see the growth and those things. To me, it’s 16 one-game seasons. You can build confidence based on improvement but, at the end of the day, you still have to do it on Sunday. We talk about one play at a time. We don’t get a second or third down, like offense or defense does. If you screw it up, it can lead to a big kickoff return or big punt return or, vice versa, you can lose yardage. Our guys have done a really good job of focusing on the details and continuing to try to improve the little things. I see that happening. To say we’ve turned a corner, no. If you have a bad game, then you can say you haven’t, but I feel like we’re continuing to improve and I like where we’re going.”
Are the Packers legitimately better? They’ll find out on Sunday, because receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is No. 2 in the league with a 30.2-yard average on kickoff returns and running back Tarik Cohen is fourth in the league with a 9.1-yard average on punt returns.
“Obviously, their resumes speak for themselves. Two Pro Bowl returners,” Mennenga said. “I know Cordarrelle is one of the best of all-time as far as his average. He’s just a big guy that hits it. Cohen has been a Pro Bowl returner and is dangerous every time he touches the balls. And Chris (Tabor, Chicago’s special teams coordinator) does a good job with getting those guys blocked up and getting them free. They’re definitely the best duo of returners we’ve seen.”
Patterson has a touchdown this season, giving him seven in seven NFL seasons. Chicago ranks second in the league in average starting field position following a kickoff return at the 27.2.
“You always know field position, especially when you start getting into these colder-weather games, field position becomes so big,” Nagy said.