It would be easy to get the impression that Khalil Mack is the beginning and end of the good things that are happening in Chicago. The man is impressive, and every sign indicates that he was worth both the picks given to trade for him and the contract he inked to keep him with the Bears long-term. However, while he is certainly helping the Bears both directly (by being a beast) and indirectly (by making things easier for everyone else), it’s worth looking at three other things the Bears have quietly gotten better at this year. It’s early to draw sweeping conclusions, but the results we have so far look good.
NFLpenalties.com (one of the most aptly named websites out there) tells us that with 19 penalties across 3 games, the Bears are tied for 6th in the NFL for fewest penalties incurred It’s not just that penalties are being declined, either, because they are still 6th in total flags (at 21). Even better, they are also tied for 4th in the NFL for penalty yards suffered (135).
The bad news is that they are 26th in the NFL for pre-snap penalties, with 10. No one player is really owning the penalty situation and sticking out in that regard, however. Three of those were non-specific penalties (illegal shift and illegal formation), and Eric Kush only has two on the season--even if both came at a bad time in a single game.
This is a clean team so far, and it has probably helped them make it to 2-1. As the offense continues to progress, this situation should only get better. In particular, as the offense settles down and those pre-snap penalties subside, this team has the potential to play some of the most disciplined football Chicago has enjoyed in a long time.
Discipline wins football games.
Controlling Tight Ends
For roughly as long as I can remember, the Bears have struggled against tight ends. This was true even before the position developed into the brutal mismatch that it has become in the modern NFL. However, a tour through Pro Football Reference suggests that the Bears finally seem to be getting on top of the problem.
In the first game, Jimmy Graham had only 2 receptions for 8 yards against the Bears to open the season and Lance Kendricks had a single reception for 13 yards; together these two tight ends managed 3 receptions and 21 yards. Those two have averaged 6 receptions and 72 yards in each of the other two games of the season. The Bears didn’t win the game, but it was a close call and it wasn’t because they let tight ends open up the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, Nick Vannett and Will Dissly have had 15 receptions and 212 yards plus a pair of touchdowns so so far, averaging 5 receptions and 71 yards per game. Against the Bears, they had 6 receptions and 67 yards (as well as one of those touchdowns). This seems less impressive, in that the Bears are more or less just holding pace with the other Seahawks opponents, until you remember that half of those yards (and the touchdown) came in the last three minutes of the game when the Bears were up 24-10. This was a classic “garbage time” drive.
Perhaps more importantly, however, go back and watch the touchdown itself. Roquan Smith is engaged against CJ Prosise and reads Wilson, actually coming free and closing on Dissly about two steps (at most) too late to break up the play. Was that ideal? No. You’d like him to read the play on time. It was, however, his first professional start and he was playing against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. He won’t be two steps late to diagnose that play by mid-season, and he probably won’t be two steps late against a lesser passer.
Finally, Jermaine Gresham and Ricky Seals-Jones combined for 2 receptions and 44 yards against the Bears. Overall, these two are at 3 receptions and 27 yards per game. Why do I consider the Bears’ performance against this group a victory, then? Because most of that was a single 35-yard touchdown catch in the opening stages of the game, and it happened at a particularly weak moment for the Bears’ defense. One of the ways the Bears have been controlling tight ends is through creative use of their linebacking corps, and Leonard Floyd was not on the field for that play.
In fact, Smith and Floyd are the keys to negating tight ends in this current iteration of the Fangio defense. Sometimes Floyd forces a TE to work against him as he comes down, but just as often Floyd uses his length and speed to play the cover linebacker role. Meanwhile, Smith’s speed and power help him to do the same thing. Having two versatile chess pieces like this can only help the Bears as Smith learns the professional game and as Floyd gets healthy again.
The Bears have a third-down conversion rate around 40% (39.53%, actually). That’s only good for 17th in the NFL, but it’s also the highest third-down conversion rate the Bears have enjoyed since 2015. Part of this is, regardless of fan perception, because of the lower rate of pass plays that are being called and because the team is staying “on schedule” as it were.
The Bears are passing on 57% of their plays, making them the 22nd-most likely team to pass the ball in the NFL this season. This is an uptick from the the not-quite 55% rate of last season, and it’s still less than the 60%-ish of the prior season. In other words, while Nagy’s scheme does actually make use of short passing plays, and while fans might wonder why he can’t just bring himself to use Jordan Howard in short yardage situations, he is using his running backs. He is using them 43% of the time, when the league average is around 39% of the time (+/- 6%). And it’s working.
Teams win by keeping their offense on the field, and whatever other limitations the offense has, it has managed to run 198 plays, good for ninth in the NFL (and three of the teams ahead of them have been to overtime).
Obviously, they need to continue to improve in this category. However, this is a significant step in the right direction, and it’s a testament to Nagy’s ability to install an effective offense in less than a quarter of a season of football.
So, those are three things that the Bears are doing well that might have been lost in the shadow of Khalil Mack. Now, with that out of the way, please return to enshrining #52 in his proper place as one of the most enjoyable football players of his generation.