Our 2019 NFL Preview hits the road for a swing through the NFC North, beginning in the Windy City, where the Chicago Bears look to build upon last year’s revival, in which they returned to the Playoffs for the first time since 2010. After years of building from the ground up, everything seemed to come together for the Bears, who in their first season under Matt Nagy’s leadership secured their first NFC North Title in a decade, behind an emerging young Quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, and a dominant Defense which erupted after the trade for Khalil Mack. Though they came up just short in the NFC Wild Card Round of the Playoffs, this certainly appears to be a team on the verge of greater things as they continue to garner more experience. So what’s next for Chicago in 2019? Will Trubisky continue to develop? Will the Defense continue to terrorize opponents? Did they finally find a Kicker after Cody Parkey embarrassed himself in the Playoffs? Let’s take a look and find out, shall we?
Monsters of the Midway
Few franchises have an identity ingrained in one particular side of the football as the Bears, who throughout their history have always been associated with physical, aggressive, tenacious Defense. Whether it was the vaunted 1985 Bears that captured the club’s last Lombardi Trophy, or the 2006 incarnation that nearly accomplished that same feat, Chicago is defined by their play on Defense, with the majority of their legends plying their trade on that side of the football. So is it of any coincidence that in this latest era of success, that the Defense is leading them once again? In a season that was largely defined by high-flying, explosive Offenses, this group was a throwback to the days of old, ranking tops in the NFL in a slew of categories, including Points Allowed (17.7), Takeaways (36), First Downs Allowed (278), Interceptions (27), Run Defense (80.0 Y/G), and Rushing Touchdowns Allowed (5). Already a solid unit the year before, the Bears really took off after paying a king’s ransom (Two First Round Picks, a Third, and a Sixth) to acquire Khalil Mack (47 TKL, 10 TFL, 18 QBH, 12.5 SK, 6 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD) via trade with the Oakland Raiders. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year did not disappoint, racking up 12.5 Sacks, Six Forced Fumbles, and an Interception despite missing a pair of games with a sprained ankle, validating the mammoth contract (6 Years, $141 Million, $90 Guaranteed) he received upon completion of the trade. Of course, he had plenty of help around him, with three of his teammates joining him at the Pro Bowl, including massive Defensive Lineman, Akiem Hicks (55 TKL, 12 TFL, 16 QBH, 7.5 SK, 3 FF, 5 PD), and ballhawking Defensive Backs Kyle Fuller (55 TKL, 7 INT, 21 PD) and Eddie Jackson (51 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 6 INT, 2 TD, 15 PD). Look for Sophomore Linebacker, Roquan Smith (121 TKL, 8 TFL, 5 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD), who was a veritable heat-seeking missile in his first year as a pro, to take the next step under new Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Pagano, who steps in for the departed Vic Fangio (who is now the Broncos’ Head Coach). Before his reign as Head Coach with the Indianapolis Colts, Pagano made his bones as the Baltimore Ravens’ Defensive Coordinator back in 2011, ranking Third Overall in both Points and Total Yards Allowed.
Keys to the (Windy) City
While the Defense dominated week in and week out, a major component of Chicago’s resurrection in 2018 was the considerable improvement of Mitch Trubisky (66.6%, 3,223 YDS, 6.72 NY/A, 24 TD, 12 INT, 72.8 QBR). After a rather disappointing Rookie Season, the former No. Two Overall Pick improved by leaps and bounds under the guidance of Matt Nagy, who utilized the young Quarterback in a manner that could eventually unlock his charge’s potential. Nagy’s credentials in terms of working with Quarterbacks is ultimately what earned him the job in the first place, and his work with Trubisky has further validated the club’s decision. Just take a look at the contrast between 2017 and 2018 for the 24-Year Old; as a Rookie he completed just 59.4% of his Attempts for an average of 182.8 Yards on a dismal 5.53 Net Yards per Attempt, with as many Touchdowns (7) as Interceptions, and sporting a QBR of only 31.6, though as a Sophomore he improved exponentially across the board, completing 66.6% of his Passes for 230.3 Yards per Game on 6.72 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, all the while registering a stellar 72.8 QBR. That’s some serious change, folks. Arguably the most understated part of his development though, is his mobility, which Nagy made good use of, with Trubisky rushing for 421 Yards and Three Touchdowns on Sixty-Eight Carries. The Bears also did an excellent job in upgrading his Supporting Cast, bringing in the likes of Taylor Gabriel (67 REC, 688 YDS, 10.3 Y/R, 2 TD), Allen Robinson (55 REC, 754 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD), and Trey Burton (54 REC, 569 YDS, 10.5 Y/R, 6 TD) as veteran pass-catchers, while tabbing another Receiver, Anthony Miller (33 REC, 423 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD), in the Draft. With the group largely returning intact, it’s reasonable to expect even bigger things out of this unit, particularly their Quarterback in 2019…
Though he was far from the most heralded of the many coaching hires from the 2018 Offseason, Chicago’s appointment of Matt Nagy is proving to be the most shrewd of them all. After a decade of serving as one of Andy Reid’s many lieutenants in Philadelphia and Kansas City, the former Quarterback was acquired with the mandate of cultivating the Bears’ Offense, most notably the aforementioned Trubisky, whom the club traded up to No. Two Overall to select in the 2017 NFL Draft. If you’ve read up to this point, then you already know that he’s performed a masterclass with Trubisky, but his work with the Offense as a whole is a major reason as to why he ended up taking the league’s Coach of the Year honors by the end of term. Nagy really got the most out of a unit that was from prolific or explosive, though nonetheless managed to average 26.3 Points per Game (9th Overall). Apart from Trubisky, one player that really flourished under his guidance was versatile Tailback, Tarik Cohen (99 CAR, 444 YDS, 4.5 Y/R, 3 TD). The diminutive playmaker was treated as nothing more than a change of pace or Scatback under the previous regime, only for Nagy to put his versatile skillset to use; Cohen featured far more heavily in this variation of the West Coast Offense, reeling in Seventy-One Receptions on Ninety-One Targets for 725 Yards and Five Touchdowns, which parlayed into 170 Total Touches, 1,169 Yards from Scrimmage, and Eight Touchdowns. This guy only started seven games, folks. Furthermore, the Bears were far more effective with the Sophomore on the field than they were with his more heralded teammate, Jordan Howard (250 CAR, 935 YDS, 3.7 Y/C, 9 TD), who upon entering the final year of his contract, was traded away to the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFL Draft. Chicago used their first Draft Pick (73rd Overall) on a younger, cheaper option, David Montgomery, with the logic being that the Iowa State product better suits Nagy’s scheme. Either way, look for Cohen to continue to play a larger role in the attack, with Montgomery potentially complementing him more seamlessly than his predecessor.
2019 Forecast: 10-6
As great a story as the 2018 Chicago Bears were, there is plenty of reason to believe that they’ll be making even more noise this season, for just about their entire roster will be returning intact, and given their overall youth, their projected improvement could very well prove to be a problem for the rest of the league. Mitch Trubisky improved dramatically in his first season under the guidance of Matt Nagy, with the two appearing to be a perfect match for one another. Another year together should make this Offense even better, while the Defense shouldn’t miss a beat under incoming Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Pagano. This team is absolutely loaded on this side of the football, which should definitely play to the veteran coach’s strengths, for he thrived with similar talent at his disposal in Baltimore. With all that said, we highly doubt that Chicago will be catching anyone by surprise in 2019, with a much more difficult schedule awaiting them. Seriously folks, it’s absolutely hellish after the Bye Week. The NFC North also figures to be improved, with Green Bay reloading and Minnesota likely to remain a force within the Division. However, we’re going to reiterate that what we all saw out of this team a year ago was far from a finished product, and with that Defense supporting them, Trubisky and the Offense will be granted every opportunity to continue their evolution. Now if only their Kicker can do his job…