The Chicago Bears take a 2-2 record to Minnesota for Sunday’s NFC North battle with the Vikings. The Tribune’s Brad Biggs answers questions about the conservative offense, the porous run defense, the still-developing offensive line and more in his weekly Bears mailbag.
Luke Getsy has severely underwhelmed so far as offensive coordinator. Is this level of conservative play-calling what we’re in for during his tenure or are we going to see an evolution of a playbook that eventually leads to more explosive plays? — @hockeyfrank26
There was a handful of questions about that this week, and it was a fair question after the first three games. It was Air Getsy on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and anyone suggesting the Bears were too conservative against the New York Giants probably wasn’t tracking the play distribution.
Quarterback Justin Fields attempted 22 passes, ran the ball seven times and was sacked six times. One of the seven rushing attempts might have come on a run-pass option, although it was designated as a “scramble” in the game book. Let’s call it a designed run play off an RPO. In that case, there were 34 called passing plays and 26 runs (19 handoffs to Khalil Herbert, six to Trestan Ebner and the Fields RPO run). The way the offensive line has been run blocking, that seems like a fairly aggressive game plan.
The issue is the Bears are not executing offensively. The passing game has struggled when Fields has been pressured and when he has had time. He has been very inconsistent operating in the pocket, and until that improves, it will be bumpy. You’re correct that this offense has had a critical lack of explosive plays. But it wasn’t because the Bears were hesitant to use pass plays on the call sheet.
It’s tough for Getsy to expand the playbook, too, when the Bears are struggling to sustain drives. Fields is completing less than 51% of his passes, and I’m not sure the “Let Justin cook” crowd would be real pleased with the results if the Bears started chucking it a lot more. They need to devise game plans that put them in the best position to compete and then execute them. Against the Giants, that led to throwing the ball and the Bears had a couple of nice plays and probably more missed opportunities.
Much has been said about the defense being in need of more playmakers and quality depth. That aside, the most immediate fixes may be in the schemes and individual matchups set up by the defensive coordinator. The Packers and the Giants beat them both physically and with well-designed and executed plays. Now that there are four weeks of film for opponents to study, do you think opposing offensive coordinators have found the weak spots and are exploiting them schematically? Or is it a matter of their guys beating our guys or our linebackers not setting up the alignments correctly, or all of the above? — Chris R., Midlothian
When a defense is being consistently trampled — and that is where the Bears are, allowing a league-high 183.3 rushing yards per game — it is everything. It’s scheme, personnel and execution. The scheme makes the Bears susceptible to the run as they ask the defensive linemen to penetrate first. But the Bears made adjustments against the Giants and were not just sitting in a Tampa-2 shell against an offense that wasn’t going to throw much.
The Bears need to overhaul their personnel on the defensive line, and that’s a point I tried to make after the game. You can’t look at this roster and say the Bears just need to fix the offensive line and get better wide receivers for the quarterback. They need to improve their front seven and get some difference makers. They will have a tough time defending the run all season, and when they encounter teams with good running backs and good passing games, they will be in conflict.
Look at the Minnesota Vikings this week. They have Dalvin Cook in the backfield and arguably the best wide receiver in the league in Justin Jefferson. The defense needs to be better at the point of attack and the linebackers need to play with better eye discipline so they’re not gashed on quarterback bootlegs.
What makes the “play action” part of a play-action passing game so difficult for some QBs? Aaron Rodgers and Daniel Jones (at least on Sunday) did a great job with a fake handoff to freeze the linebackers. Others are awful. Justin Fields’ fake handoff typically is nowhere near the running back and therefore has little to no impact on the D. Thoughts? — Jim A., Plymouth, Minn.
For play action to work at its best, the running game and passing game have to match each other. The beginning of the play needs to look like a run in terms of formation, alignment, down and distance. Play-action passing becomes particularly effective when an offense can break its tendencies. In other words, it gets aggressive throwing the ball on downs that it typically runs. It flips the script and takes a shot when the defense has data and information that suggest a run is coming.
The best play-action throwers, and Rodgers is certainly one of those, are able to anticipate and see windows and throw with location — not accuracy. Accuracy is when you are talking about the pass being completed. Location is ball placement. That’s when a quarterback hits a receiver in stride and a 12-yard dig route can turn into a 25-yard gain because the receiver is immediately in position to get upfield. When Rodgers hits his back foot, the ball is coming out. Timing and rhythm are there.
Jones isn’t a polished play-action thrower, but he’s good with sleight of hand and hiding the ball, and with Saquon Barkley in the backfield, he grabs the eyes of defenders. Linebackers are taking two steps downhill and now they have to backtrack when the quarterback keeps the ball. The problem the Bears had is their edge or force defenders did not play with good eye discipline, and that left them vulnerable to Jones escaping on the edge and really gashing them.
The Bears don’t have great timing and rhythm in their play-action game, and when Fields throws it, too often he’s late in letting the ball rip.
Justin Fields must feel like instead of being drafted in the NFL, he transferred to a Division II school. Is there any offense in the NFL with less proven, less high-profile offensive players than the Bears? Whether you look at O-line (with Cody Whitehair injured), WR, TE or RB, the Bears have to be near the bottom in aggregate starting salary by position group. Fields needs to make lemonade out of lemons in this offense. — Bob B., Chicago
Did you get a good luck at the Giants depth chart on offense Sunday? With the injuries they have at wide receiver, I would take the Bears group. That isn’t saying a whole lot, but you’re not exactly breaking new ground here. The Bears need a lot of new personnel on offense. We knew that when training camp opened, we saw it in the preseason and it’s even more glaring now during the regular season.
It’s well-documented that Justin Fields hangs on to the ball too long. Is this a symptom of the limited offensive skill players and their inability to get open (we don’t get the downfield view on TV) or his ineffectiveness with reads and progressions? — John P.
It’s a function of a lot of things. Fields is still inexperienced with only 14 career starts. The Bears have talent issues at wide receiver and on the offensive line. In a timing-based system — and all passing offenses require excellent timing — it can be problematic when the ball doesn’t come out with rhythm.
Sometimes, though, when Fields holds the ball too long, it leads to big plays. Those are the off-schedule plays that can turn into huge gains. We’ve seen more of those turn into runs, but there was the long touchdown pass to Dante Pettis against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 that was the result of a broken play.
I think we will start to see more explosive plays in the passing game that are a result of Fields holding on to the ball and waiting for something to come open downfield. He needs to keep his eyes up and climb the pocket better. When that happens, the Bears should see improved results.
I like the realistic route Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus have taken in inheriting the Ryan Pace roster and financial situation. That said, I struggle to understand how they could’ve taken such an inactive approach to improving the wide receiver position in Year 1. I get that Justin Fields isn’t their guy in that they didn’t draft him. But if you’re kicking the tires on his rookie deal, don’t you get a few people around him who can make plays to see what you’ve walked into? They let Allen Robinson go, fine. But Byron Pringle is just a guy and Velus Jones Jr. was a stretch. Darnell Mooney isn’t a true game-changer. Why wouldn’t the Bears have at least tried to bring in a guy like Christian Kirk or JuJu Smith-Schuster to help Fields develop? It seems like with a few weapons this team could be playoff-caliber. — Jeff G., Palmetto Bay, Fla.
Fair question. The first thing I would say is the list of available free-agent wide receivers back in March wasn’t great. Robinson, who clearly wanted to head elsewhere, was one of the top options. Kirk, whom you referenced, signed a huge deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars that was roundly criticized. Just as you submit that Mooney isn’t a game-changer, I don’t think Kirk is either, and $72 million over four years is a huge payday. Kirk has been productive for the Jaguars with 20 receptions for 327 yards and three touchdowns, so maybe that contract doesn’t look quite as bad as some thought at the time.
I would put Smith-Schuster in a similar category as Pringle. I’m not sure they are very different, and Smith-Schuster has been banged up a little in recent years. He’s definitely not a difference-maker. Chris Godwin was destined to re-sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Los Angeles Chargers moved to re-sign Mike Williams. The Dallas Cowboys re-signed Michael Gallup, who was injured, and after that you were looking at guys like D.J. Chark. The big wide receiver moves of the offseason were made in the trade market, and I can understand Poles wanting to have his top draft picks in 2023.
You raise a valid point and it’s a fair criticism of the team’s approach to this season, but you have to consider the reality that there simply wasn’t a big supply of receivers in free agency and definitely not guys I would look at and say, “You sign him and you’re getting a legitimate No. 1.” The Bears have to completely remake this position in the offseason, and it will be interesting to see what moves they make.
What is your opinion on the handling of Teven Jenkins this season? He has appeared to be the best lineman, but this coaching staff seems to treat him more as a stopgap rather than a long-term piece. I’d like to hear your thoughts. — @danheinz3
We are four games into a rebuilding season with a new coaching staff and front office, and while I know people want immediate answers, it’s unusual when you get those in evaluating football players. Jenkins has looked good and has got a chance to get significantly better. I was skeptical if the move to right guard would work, especially considering the time he missed during training camp. I was wrong.
It’s still a new position for Jenkins, and the coaches are setting a standard for practice and games. Matt Eberflus told us Lucas Patrick was moved into the starting role because Jenkins had a poor Wednesday practice, but they didn’t push him to the side. He continued to rotate in every two series with Patrick. Let’s see how last year’s second-round draft pick performs over an entire season. Then we will have a much better idea if he’s part of the future on the line or just a guy who is in there until an upgrade can be acquired.
What wide receiver do you think the Bears will aggressively pursue before the trade deadline? — @chi_773ale
Do you really think a wide receiver who can be a difference-maker for the Bears beyond the second half of this season would be available in a trade? Unless the Bears are in the race for a playoff spot near the end of October, what would be the point of being an aggressive buyer in the trade market? To what end? The Bears would have to spend 2023 draft picks to make a move, and then I would be answering mailbag questions from January through March about why they used draft capital on a position at which they might be better off drafting talent. This is not the season to be an aggressive buyer when it comes to trades. I could see the Bears being an aggressive seller, but I’m not sure who they have to deal. It’s something to keep an eye on the next few weeks.
When will they figure out the O-line? They can’t keep rotating guys in and out, playing different positions. Set the best players in their spots and let’s go. — @jht728
The offensive line had an especially rough game against a Giants defense that can be unpredictable with unscouted looks and different pressures, something defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is known for. I thought the offensive line, relative to how it played last season and the skepticism about the unit during training camp and the preseason, was OK through the first three games. Did the line play great? No. Was it terrible? No. It was improved over last season and better than I expected. Any critique of the offensive line has to point out the team is third in the league in rushing, averaging 177.3 yards per game, and fourth with 5.2 yards per carry.
Just like the Bears are evaluating quarterback Justin Fields to determine how he figures into their future, they are going through the same process with the offensive line. Sure, they would love to feel great about five starters right now, or even four, but you have to understand where they are coming from in installing a new offense. I believe line coach Chris Morgan has done a pretty good job to this point, and there’s reason to believe this unit can get better as the season unfolds.
Will there be more rocky weeks the rest of the way? Probably. It’s unrealistic to think the Bears won’t have issues against some of the top front sevens. Fields was sacked 10 times through the first three games, more than the Bears would like but not an alarming total. Go back and watch those plays, and there was a chance for him to avoid the sack on at least four of them and to do so with a check-down completion on a couple.
The broken right thumb Lucas Patrick suffered at the start of training camp forced the Bears to adjust. That happens. He has rotated with Teven Jenkins at right guard, and with Cody Whitehair likely out for at least a few weeks — Whitehair could land on injured reserve this week — the rotation is done for the time being. I think you will see Patrick at left guard and Jenkins at right guard Sunday in Minnesota. Center Sam Mustipher had a rough game against the Giants. Based on how he played the first three weeks, he should bounce back against the Vikings.
Other than PR/KR, how much do you think Velus Jones Jr. will play next week? — @topofthemorrow
We’ll have to see. Jones didn’t play on offense against the Giants. I imagine he could get a little time against the Vikings, and the Bears would be wise to seek ways to get him the ball in space. I don’t think we will see him play a ton of snaps, though. He has missed a lot of practice time since mid-August with his hamstring injury. But finding packages to use him should be a priority.
The pass rush has been lackluster or nonexistent throughout four games. What’s the problem? Miss Khalil Mack? — @just_acy
The problem is pretty evident. The Bears are not stopping the run. When you don’t defend the run well — the Bears rank last in the NFL — you don’t earn the opportunity to rush the passer. You can complain about the pass rush in the loss to the Giants, but how many legitimate chances were there to get after Daniel Jones or Tyrod Taylor? Five? Six?
The Bears actually rank 13th in the league in sacks per pass attempt at 6.93%. So it’s not nearly as bad as you think. It’s just that they hardly are getting any chances to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback — and they won’t until they do a better job of stopping the run and forcing opponents into second- or third-and-long situations. Of course the Bears would be better with Mack, but this isn’t a woulda, coulda, shoulda world.
I get that it was the preseason, but I don’t even see any whiffs of the type of offense we saw in the first half against Cleveland. Where did that game plan go? Were things really that different in the preseason game to throw all that out the window once the games counted? — @mosconml
You also didn’t see any of the Browns’ best defensive players on the field in that first half. Justin Fields and the Bears offense might look like that if teams would sit five of their best defensive players like the Browns did in that game. It was basically a first-team offense against a second-team defense.
If the over/under is 130 on Dalvin Cook’s running yards this week, are you thinking over or under? — @mike__chicago
That’s a really high figure, even against a porous run defense. The Bears have done a nice job against Cook in seven career games. That was under a different scheme with some different personnel. Cook has 130 carries for 480 yards (3.7 per attempt) with two touchdowns against the Bears. He did run for 132 yards on 24 carries on Dec. 20, 2020, at U.S. Bank Stadium, a game the Bears won 33-27.
Cook has not gone over 100 rushing yards this season and has topped 130 only once in his last 13 starts with a 205-yard effort in a Week 14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. The challenge is keeping Cook from running loose while also not allowing wide receiver Justin Jefferson to beat them over the top. Cook will get his yards, but the Bears need to eliminate explosive runs. I’d go under just because that’s a pretty big number.