There’s no sugar-coating it. The Bears’ unexpected 24-21 loss to Jon Gruden’s squad in London this past Sunday stung. The Week 5 outing that was supposed to be Khalil Mack’s “revenge game” was anything but.
Instead of heading into the bye week tied for the division lead, it’s back to the drawing board for head coach Matt Nagy as they now sit tied for last place with the Minnesota Vikings. Whether the Monsters of the Midway dealt with jet-lag or lack of sleep from changing time zones, this simply didn’t look like the same team 3-1 that had just chalked-up three straight wins.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s action was the team’s performance up-front. On both sides of the ball, the line of scrimmage was utterly dominated by the Raiders. On the season thus far, one of the most surprising developments for the Bears has been their porous offensive line play.
In 2018, this was a unit that was graded out by Pro Football Focus as the 11th-best in all of football. Returning each of their five starters heading into this season, the O-line was once again expected to be one of the most stout in football. Through five games, however, it’s turned out to be one of the team’s major weak points. This is puzzling, especially since they’re led by one of the most widely-respected offensive line coaches in the league in Harry Hiestand.
Beginning with Chicago’s run game, it’s been almost non-existent. After placing 11th in the NFL last year with 121.1 yards per game, the team has churned-out just 80.6 yards per game in 2019 (seventh-fewest in the league). Their 3.4 yards per carry is also bottom-four in the league, something that’s unacceptable if the Bears truly want to contend this season.
It’s possible that the team misses the presence of former Pro Bowl running-back Jordan Howard, who was traded to the Eagles this past offseason, but the team still has plenty of capable runners. Rookie ball-carrier David Montgomery, who holds the NCAA’s record for forced missed tackles in a season and rushed for over 1,200 yards as a junior at Iowa State, should surely be averaging better than his current 3.3 yards per attempt.
On a somewhat positive note, this group has fared better in pass protection, allowing a 6.5 percent adjusted sack rate and receiving the 16th-best ranking in that category by Football Outsiders. While still not ideal, it’s a similar number to 2018 (6.0 percent).
In the offseason, Matt Nagy questionably decided to flip-flop Cody Whitehair and second-year man James Daniels at the center and guard positions. Both played well in their prior roles, as Whitehair was even awarded Pro Bowl honors in 2018. This is left many, including myself, scratching their heads as both have taken a noticeable step back in the early going.
Kyle Long has also struggled mightily. Being a fan-favorite in the Windy City after continually battling injuries over the years to suit up for his team, it appears his hip issue has become a real concern. It may be a tough move to make, but this coaching staff needs to start weighing different options to take Long’s place and allow himself to get his body right.
As a team, the Bears’ discipline has been an issue as well, accruing 43 penalties this season for a total of 360 yards. On the o-line, Charles Leno leads the NFL with eight flags himself. This, simply, cannot continue.
It’s a well-known narrative in football that games are won and lost in the trenches, and Chicago has proven that to be true. Luckily, the Bears still boast one of, if not the most dominant front-sevens in the NFL on the defensive side of things, which has led to partial success to this point. But as we saw in this last game, you can’t always rely on your defense to get the job done. It takes a full team-effort on both sides of the ball.
With a grueling second-half schedule that awaits them, the O-line will need to tighten the screws and get to the bottom of their struggles during the bye. With nearly two weeks to prepare for their next contest against the New Orleans Saints, there’s still hope that they can get back on track.
“I believe wholeheartedly in our guys,” said Matt Nagy following Sunday’s defeat. “But we need to — every coach, every player — it’s time to start looking at themselves in the mirror and figuring out why you’re out there.”
Well said, coach.