8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rams -5.5, Over/Under: 45.5
A pair of teams hoping to return to the Playoffs following disappointing campaigns clash tonight in the City of Angels, as the Los Angeles Rams play host to the Chicago Bears from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Coming into 2020, the Bears (5-1, 1st in NFC North) looked like a dumpster fire in the making. All the telltale signs were there of a team headed towards a renovation; they were in salary cap hell, with an underperforming Quarterback that has fell well short of expectations, while the Supporting Cast around him was full of holes. True, since being selected Second Overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, Mitchell Trubisky (59.3%, 560 YDS, 5.40 NY/A, 6 TD, 3 INT, 56.4 QBR) has been nothing short of a bust in terms of developing into a franchise Quarterback, particularly when you consider that the franchise could have chosen either Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson at the time, which is something that the faithful in the Windy City have NOT let forgotten. The Offensive Line also lacked punch, with injuries derailing them in 2019, leading to a rushing attack that slumped to twenty-seventh overall in yards (91.1) and twenty-ninth in yards per carry (3.7). Furthermore, the skill positions were underwhelming, with everyone outside of veteran Receiver, Allen Robinson (40 REC, 474 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 2 TD), serving as a question mark. So following an uninspiring Offseason that created more questions than answers, how in the hell has Chicago managed to start this season off at 5-1?
That may just be the toughest question to answer in the league thus far, because on paper the Bears certainly don’t look like a 5-1 football team. The Offense really hasn’t been that much better under the veteran hand of Nick Foles (62.5%, 878 YDS, 5.35 NY/A, 6 TD, 4 INT, 49.9 QBR), who replaced the underperforming Trubisky midway through the third game of the season. As he often does, Foles ignited Chicago to rally back from a 26-10 deficit and beat the Atlanta Falcons, 30-26 on the road, and has since gone 2-1 as the Starting Quarterback. However, anyone expecting this guy to put together a Super Bowl run like he did in Philadelphia shouldn’t get their hopes up, for Foles hasn’t looked much better than the man he replaced; despite completing a slightly higher percentage of his passes (62.5%), the oft-traveled journeyman has committed more turnovers (4) than his predecessor, averaged fewer yards per attempt (5.35), and posted a lower QBR (49.9). In fact, the Offense as a whole has yet to crack 300 total yards since the change, though given what Head Coach, Matt Nagy, has to work with, it may be a bit unrealistic to expect much more out of them. Our guess, is that given his history with Foles (they worked together in Kansas City in 2016), the hope is that the passer will become more acclimated to his supporting cast via more reps, which would go a long way towards turning this surprising run of success into a sustained one. However, if we’re going to be completely honest with you (and ourselves), the primary reason that the Bears have been able to get off to this start has been the play of their Defense, which continues to be one of the very best in the NFL. Through six games, Chicago is only outscoring their opponents by an average margin of two points with all five of their victories decided by one possession, and the Defense has made that entirely possible by making life miserable for their opponents. In his second year with the club, Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Pagano, has this group firing on all cylinders, ranking sixth overall in points allowed (19.3) and seventh overall in total yards relinquished (314.2). In an era in which Offenses have racked up passing yards wholesale, this group has been one of the best in the game at shutting down that particular facet of the attack, ranking tenth in Pass Defense (224.2), fifth in net yards per attempt (5.7), and ninth in sacks (15), all the while yielding the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (4). And that last figure looms the largest, for nobody has been better in terms of defending in the red zone, where this latest incarnation of the monsters of the midway have relegated the opposition to a mere 36.4% touchdown rate in that area of the field, tops in the league. Defensive Tackle, Akiem Hicks (23 TKL, 6 TFL, 10 QBH, 3.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 PD), and Edge-Rusher, Khalil Mack (21 TKL, 6 TFL, 8 QBH, 4.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 PD), have been DOMINANT, combining for a dozen tackles for loss, twenty-eight quarterback hits, and eight sacks, while Linebackers, Roquan Smith (52 TKL, 7 TFL, 1 FF, 4 PD) and Danny Trevathan (36 TKL, 1 PD), cover more ground then most Defensive Backs. Pagano is really happy to have Hicks back healthy, after the Pro-Bowler missed all but five games in 2019 due to knee and elbow injuries, with the 6-4, 352 behemoth creating all kinds of havoc at the line of scrimmage which creates a wealth of opportunities for his teammates.
“Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly? I think we’d rather win ugly… Ultimately in the NFL it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that you get it done. If you put up 50 points and you lose a game, those 50 points don’t mean anything.”Nick Foles, Bears Quarterback on his team’s success despite their offensive struggles
When we last saw the Bears, they extended their strong start by besting the overachieving Carolina Panthers in a 23-16 victory on the road. Though they never trailed in the affair, Chicago survived a late rally from the hosts, with their Defense ultimately putting them to rest on the final drive. Things started promising enough for visitors, who picked off Teddy Bridgewater at the Quarterback’s own one-yard line, with the aforementioned Foles finding his rookie Tight End, Cole Kmet (3 REC, 32 YDS< 10.7 Y/R, 1 TD), for the score on the ensuing series. However, the majority of the Offense’s work throughout the rest of the evening was rather uninspiring, with three drives ending with a field goal before Foles finally engineered a 10-play, 56-yard drive that he finished off with a rushing touchdown. Carolina would catch fire late though, scoring ten points on back-to-back drives, before Pagano’s Defense stepped up to force a turnover on downs before picking off Bridgewater yet again to end the contest altogether. In the end, the Panthers were held to 303 total yards on twenty-three first downs, a combined 4-of-15 on third and fourth down, and forced into three turnovers, with Bridgewater intercepted twice and sacked on four occasions. Veteran Safety, Deandre Houston-Carson (5 TKL, 1 INT, 2 PD), closed out the affair with latter of the two picks, while five different players logged a sack. Offensively, the visiting side only managed 261 total yards on twenty-two first downs, but Foles did a solid job of keeping drives going on third down (7-of-14), and didn’t take a single sack. With that said, Nagy is going to have get some more production out of the running game, which floundered again to a mere sixty-three yards despite twenty-five carries, while also looking to clean up the mistakes, as they were flagged ten times for a loss of ninety-two yards.
Meanwhile, the Rams (4-2, 2nd in NFC West) weren’t necessarily expected to light up 2020 either, particularly with how the roster had been trimmed down during the Offseason. After coming up just short in Super Bowl LIII, Los Angeles swung for the fences by adding a wealth of top performers via both Free Agency and trade, but ultimately missed the Playoffs altogether slumping to an underachieving 9-7 finish. The downside of falling short of expectations following that myriad of transactions was an inflated wage bill, which had this team facing salary cap hell, particularly after handing out some major coin to the likes of Quarterback, Jared Goff (67.4%, 1,570 YDS, 7.71 NY/A, 10 TD, 4 INT, 70.1 QBR), Tailback, Todd Gurley, and Defensive Tackle, Aaron Donald (19 TKL, 6 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.5 SK, 2 FF< 1 FR), in recent years. And it’s with that said that Head Coach, Sean McVay, and General Manager, Les Snead, set out to trim the proverbial fat, with a number of prominent figures leaving the club in an exodus of talent. Veteran defenders Clay Matthews, Aqib Talib, and Eric Weddle were outright released, while their younger running mates, Corey Littleton and Dante Fowler, left for greener pastures in Free Agency, with venerable Defensive Coordinator, Wade Phillips, finally calling it a career. Furthermore, the Offense said goodbye to Gurley, three years removed from earning Offensive Player of the Year honors, in a clear salary dump, while Receiver, Brandin Cooks, was traded to the Houston Texans in an attempt to recoup some much-needed draft capital. Needless to say, it’s a completely new team that opened up SoFi Stadium a month ago, though have they fared thus far, you ask?
Well, though they’ve managed to jump out to a strong start, there is still much to learn about these Rams. While we completely understand that a win is a win, it needs to be stated that this team has hardly faced the toughest of competition, with all four of their victories coming against denizens of the NFC East, which has been by far and away the worst division in the National Football League, combining for a miserable record of 5-18-1 (.208). Subsequently, their two losses, a 35-32 defeat at the Buffalo Bills and most recently a 24-16 failure at the San Francisco 49ers (which we’ll get into shortly), have gone on to reveal some flaws which you would have to imagine will be exploited in the rugged NFC West, where all of the inhabitants are .500 or better. On paper, the Defense has performed well under new Coordinator, Brandon Staley, but again you have to look at the competition that they’ve been facing; Washington, New York, and Philadelphia have been rudderless on Offense thus far, making them an easy mark for the aforementioned Donald & Co in comparison to the Bills and Niners who averaged 382.5 total yards against them. It’s a valid question as to how they’ll hold up against better Offenses, particularly those who can really make things happen in the run game, for defending that facet of the game has not been one of their strong suits thus far, allowing 109.0 yards per game (12th Overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (18th Overall). Sure, Donald remains arguably the most impactful defensive player in the league today, but the rest of the Defense lacks playmakers, even with All-Pro Cornerback, Jalen Ramsey (17 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 PD) manning one boundary. Part of the problem of trimming the roster down in the manner that they did is that this is a team that is incredibly top-heavy, with a few players eating up a huge amount of the salary cap, leaving their overall depth perilously thin as a result. Now, they’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any major injuries at this point, but one can’t help but feel that McVay is running this show on egg shells. What this team will require to get back to prominence is for some of the younger, more unheralded players to emerge and fill the void of their predecessors. Tailbacks, Darnell Henderson (72 CAR, 348 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 3 TD), Malcolm Brown (55 CAR, 217 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 2 TD), and Cam Akers (26 CAR, 113 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 0 TD) will attempt to collectively fill void left by Gurley, while Tight End Tyler Higbee (18 REC, 222 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 3 TD) can help by adding a seldom-used dimension to the Offense. Defensively, Taylor Rapp (33 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 PD) must take the next step in his development in the Secondary, while former Bears First Round Pick, Leonard Floyd (17 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 2.0 SK) has an opportunity to reignite his career opposite Donald, who routinely attracts a wealth of attention in the trenches.
“Clearly it wasn’t my best… It was just some uncharacteristic stuff for me, missing guys open there early. It’s something that I’ve never done in my life and don’t expect to ever repeat.”Jared Goff, Rams Quarterback on his struggles in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers
When we last saw the Rams, they were busy getting pummeled on primetime at the 49ers in a 24-16 affair that really wasn’t as close as the final score would lead you to be believe. Even with their plethora of injuries, San Francisco managed to physically manhandle Los Angeles at the point of attack, racing out to an early 14-point lead, and by as much as 24-9 midway through the final stanza. The hosts owned a commanding 37:55 advantage in time of possession, rushing for 122 yards on thirty-seven carries, with Jimmy Garoppolo looking much better in his second game back from a high ankle sprain, completing 23-of-33 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. His counterpart, Goff, did not enjoy the same success, managing just 198 yards on 19-of-38 passing with a pair of scores and an interception, routinely missing his targets as the Niners’ pressure clearly got to him. For instance, he targeted Robert Woods (27 REC, 329 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 3 TD) ten times only to hook up on four occasions, with much of the same from Cooper Kupp (31 REC, 374 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 2 TD), who was targeted nine times winding up with only three catches. In the end, it was simply a case of the Offense failing to get into any semblance of a rhythm due to the hosts chewing up the possession, particularly early in the contest, as the visitors only managed to amass 109 total yards in the First Half. The Defense also struggled to pressure Garoppolo; you would think that a team that had logged seventeen sacks through the first five games wouldn’t have any problem rushing a Quarterback coming off a high ankle sprain, but that was precisely the case on Sunday as the Rams failed to sack him, only hitting him three times. And Donald? He hit him just once.