On Sunday it’s the battle of the B’s as the Buffalo Bills host the Chicago Bears. The Bills are looking to get back on track after a tough Monday Night Football loss to the New England Patriots while the Bears are coming off a dominate performance against the New York Jets. Ahead of the match-up we talked to Jeff Berckes from Windy City Gridiron to get the scouting report on the team.
1) How important was it to trade for a difference-maker like Khalil Mack?
Early on, it meant everything. The defense in September was playing lights out. It’s not just what Khalil Mack does on the stat sheet that improved the defense, but what his presence does for the other good players on this defense. He has freed up a lot of advantageous situations for other rushers, and allowed the secondary to make big plays on hurried throws and tipped balls. In short, he’s been the missing piece to this defense. He really is everything he was advertised to be, plus some. He’s been an instant leader with this team and has really helped bring a level of excitement to this squad that has been missing since Brian Urlacher retired. As Bills fans know from a guy like Bruce Smith, there’s a level of fun to look forward to with a truly great player on your favorite squad. I know there are probably a fair number of Bills fans that cheered for Mack in college and we fully open the gates to the great fans of Buffalo to make Chicago their second-favorite team.
Unfortunately, Mack hurt his ankle early in the Miami game and, while he tried to play through the injury, he wasn’t at all effective against Miami or New England. The Bears gave Mack the week off against the Jets and may do the same against Buffalo this weekend to rest up for an important divisional stretch coming up. The important part is to get him healed up and ready for the second half of the year.
2) How much has Mitch Trubisky developed from last year?
Last year the Bears were coached by John Fox who (being charitable here) thought of offense as an annoying appendage to the game—something to be forgotten and looked upon with disdain. There was a rumor that Fox didn’t even know that General Manager Ryan Pace was planning on drafting a quarterback and there was a great reluctance on his part to play Trubisky early. If not for Mike Glennon’s severe incompetence as a starter, I imagine Trubisky would have sat on the bench all of 2017. All that’s to say I didn’t take too much from Trubisky’s play last year into my expectations this year more than to know he can take a snap and hand the ball off.
This year with new Head Coach Matt Nagy, Trubisky was thrown into a modern offense with completely new weapons and has mostly been able to pass the test. With a thin college resume, he has further to go than some of the other young quarterbacks out there in terms of climbing the learning curve, but his athleticism has helped move this offense in the right direction. His best game came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he threw six touchdown passes—something that hasn’t happened since Sid Luckman in the 1940s for the Bears. I’d say the biggest difference that I see from last year to this year is his confidence in making the downfield throw. While the highs have been remarkable, the growing pains are still present. Trubisky will make a few mistakes every game and while that has some Bears fans rushing to judgment, he’s on pace to set team records in yards and touchdowns. At a minimum, Trubisky has shown enough to remain confident that he can develop into a good NFL quarterback.
3) What is the biggest difference from this year’s team against last year?
Coaching philosophy. Matt Nagy is very different than John Fox and that’s really helped ignite this team. It helps to have much better skill-position players, but there just seems to be a much more open and inviting philosophy with Nagy than the cranky old man act of John Fox. This is Chicago’s version of the Sean McVay / Wade Philips show out in LA – although to be fair, Vic Fangio is a cranky old man and Wade seems like a delightful human being.
I think players seem to be having a lot more fun than they were under the Fox regime. For example: Fox seemingly found an offensive spark last year with Tarik Cohen, the water bug / live-wire running back. Fox immediately found a way to glue Cohen’s hands to the bench. Conversely, Nagy sees Cohen and says, “How do I get this guy more involved?” Guys are buying in and guys are having fun. As a fan, it makes it actually enjoyable to watch games.
4) What area would you like to see improve on this team?
Tackling in the secondary definitely was the difference in the Miami game and contributed to issues in the Patriots game. That absolutely has to get better. That defense also needs to figure out how they play without Mack because even when he gets healthy, he can’t play every snap. Yes, it’s more fun when you can play with your best on the field, but there needs to be some creativity to get pressure when he’s sidelined.
On offense, it really comes down to Trubisky’s progression as a young quarterback. I’d like to see him connect on the throws he’s missing, but those don’t haunt my dreams like the bad throws he’s forcing into coverage and / or across his body. I really believe it’s a learning-curve issue and he can get better, but some of the throws he’s made this year… they should come with a warning for fans with heart issues.
5) Who has been the Bears’ diamond-in-the-rough this season?
That’s a good question. One player that has been emerging that doesn’t really have any buzz at this point is Bilal Nichols. A fifth-round pick out of the University of Delaware, Nichols has really progressed well in his rookie campaign. Depth at defensive line is so important in today’s game and Nichols’s progression has come as a welcome surprise.
On offense, I want to point out that Taylor Gabriel is playing very well. A bit of an afterthought to some Bears fans after signing Allen Robinson II to be the WR1 and Trey Burton to be the move tight end, Gabriel was an important signing to bring a speed element to this offense. He’s been good on downfield throws but has also impressed in his intermediate route running and even some big downfield blocks. In fact, he leads the team in receptions. I like his attitude and the experience he brings to this young roster.