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Five underappreciated elements of the Chicago Bears’ 3-1 start

October 4, 2018
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We’ve spilled ample blood, sweat and tears breaking down the biggest factors in the Bears’ strengths and weaknesses to this point, most notably the addition of Khalil Mack, the development of the Mitch Trubisky-led passing game and the shocking playmaking of the secondary this season. But we feel there have been a few elements of this team that have not received their proper due during the solid start. So here are the five most under-appreciated aspects of the start of the Bears’ season:

The Chicago Bears are 3-1, in first place in the NFC North heading into their bye week. Even with the Week 1 meltdown at Green Bay, the good vibes are flowing following their biggest home blowout — by 38 points — in 38 years.

We’ve spilled ample blood, sweat and tears breaking down the biggest factors in the Bears’ strengths and weaknesses to this point, most notably the addition of Khalil Mack, the development of the Mitch Trubisky-led passing game and the shocking playmaking of the secondary this season.

But we feel there have been a few elements of this team that have not received their proper due during the solid start. So here are the five most under-appreciated aspects of the start of the Bears’ season:

Offensive line

There was a moment during the 48-10 smashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where the TV broadcast panned to a smiling Kyle Long — and it said everything you needed to know about how the game was going without him saying a word.

But it also spoke of the Bears’ solid play up front this season. The Bucs game might have been the high-water mark to this point, but the Bears overall have done an excellent job of protecting the sometimes skittish Trubisky and allowed this precision-and-timing offense to gain some footing.

According to Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson, the Bears have allowed a mere 19 pressures as a unit through four games. (Contrast that with the Minnesota Vikings, who allowed 29 pressures by their count … in Week 4 alone.) Trubisky was sacked only once against Tampa Bay, and he ran for 53 of the Bears’ 139 yards on the ground last week.

“You stop the tape,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said, “and you watch the green grass we talk about all week long. If you have green grass as a quarterback, the quarterbacks in this league are too good to not strike. So when the offensive line protects the way they protected, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Even with some poor run blocking in spots, this unit has played well together. The Bears also have the luxury of promoting from within, having given second-round pick James Daniels his first offensive action on Sunday (27 snaps). That allows them to move Daniels into the starting lineup to replace left guard Eric Kush, or perhaps even put Daniels at center and slide Cody Whitehair out to guard over the bye.

Those are good problems to have for a unit — led by Long — that has been mostly very good so far.

Roquan Smith

On just about any other team there might be a lot more talk about the No. 8 pick in the draft, especially considering his slow start prior to the season. Losing his playbook was a one-week story this offseason, but his extended holdout (followed by a hamstring injury) created quite the nervous speculation about just how much an off-the-ball linebacker might be able to contribute in Year 1 without a full training camp.

After the training wheels came off against Green Bay, when he almost lucked his way into a sack on his first NFL snap, Smith has been mostly excellent thus far. Another layer to the Mack trade was that it took some pressure off of Smith to become an instant playmaker — as well as helping clean some lanes up front to find the ball.

Smith has started each of the past three games and played 151 of a possible 179 defensive snaps (84.4 percent). He’s second on the team in tackles with 18, six behind his fellow ILB running mate, Danny Trevathan, and has made a few eye-opening plays in each game. Against Seattle, Smith nicely broke up a pass to RB Chris Carson, and the rookie beautifully sniffed out a screen vs. Cardinals RB David Johnson for a 2-yard loss in a two-minute drill the following week.

But Smith’s coverage also can’t be overlooked. According to PFF, Smith was targeted only once on 35 possible coverage snaps in Week 4, allowing one catch for 8 yards. His coverage ability was one of his hallmarks coming out of Georgia and it allows defensive coordinator Vic Fangio not to ask too much of Trevathan, who was scorched a few times in coverage at Arizona.

So far, the rookie has been very good, all things considered. With so much playmaking ability around him, and as he gets more comfortable in the scheme overall, it’s only a matter of time before Smith makes more disruptive plays.

First-half dominance

Save for shockingly spotting the Cardinals a 14-0 first-quarter lead, the Bears have been an excellent first-half team this season. Insert a joke here about the second half of the Packers game if you will, but more times than not teams playing from ahead tend to have long-term, sustained success.

The Bears rank eighth in the NFL in 17.0 points scored in first halves this season, and yes, that was skewed some by the 38-point outburst against the Bucs. But the Bears were at a measly 8.2 ppg in first halves a year ago, so they’re more than doubling last year’s mark to this point.

Likewise, the Bears’ defense ranks second in the NFL in first-half points allowed at a paltry 5.0 (Jacksonville is first at 3.0, but no other team allows fewer than 6.8 per first half). Once more, this is a huge upgrade over the Bears’ 2017 season, in which they gave up an average of 11.9 first-half points.

The leaders in first-half point differential last season were the Patriots (plus-118), Eagles (plus-95), Vikings and Rams (both plus-92) and Jaguars (plus-86). Those were the four teams that ended up playing in the two conference championship games, plus the Rams, who won the NFC West at 11-5.

This season, the Bears rank No. 1 in the NFL in first-half point differential at an impressive plus-12.0. The Jaguars (plus-10.2) are next, followed by Washington (plus-9.3), the Rams (plus-8.0) and the Chiefs and Steelers (tied at plus-6.8). The other three NFC North teams are all in the negative: Lions at minus-0.7 points, Packers at minus-2.2 and the Vikings at a stunningly bad (and league-worst) minus-9.6.

Or to put it another way, the Bears have gone from trailing by a field goal at half on average last season to leading by almost two touchdowns after 30 minutes through four games. That’s one formula in which Nagy’s team is absolutely killing it.

Special teams

Last season was mostly a sub-par performance from the Bears’ special-teams groups, save for a few trick-play touchdowns and some nice punt-return work from Tarik Cohen. They ranked 24th overall in PFF’s rankings and 27th in the highly regarded rankings compiled annually by Rick Gosselin.

But this season there has been an uptick across the board in the early going. More solid than terrific, the Bears’ special teams nonetheless have become very reliable. Cohen has helped the team’s punt-return average currently sit at fourth overall, punter Pat O’Donnell is sixth in net average and kicker Cody Parkey is 9-of-10 on field-goal tries and perfect on extra points.

That’s a great place to start. Other league rankings, such as kickoff coverage (14th), punt coverage (18th) and kickoff-return average (21st), are decidedly average. But there really hasn’t been any glaring weakness at all.

Scour on Twitter and you almost hear a weekly roar from Cleveland Browns fans, who bemoaned the loss of special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who is now running the Bears’ teams along with assistant Brock Olivo. There’s both disciples of Dave Toub, who remained revered in these parts for his work with the Bears’ special-teams units in the 2000s. (Toub’s Chiefs, not surprisingly, lead the NFL in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA ratings after four games; the Bears’ units rank eighth.)

When Anthony Miller is considered healthy, he could give the kick-return unit a boost, and it feels like Cohen is close to taking back a punt the distance any game now. Losing Sam Acho for the season will hurt the coverage units and the return blocking. But there’s a nice core in place with players such as Sherrick McManis, Josh Bellamy and Benny Cunningham.

Defensive linemen (not named Akiem Hicks)

Hicks is finally starting to receive national attention — mostly for his excellent play, but unfortunately for him, also for his tirade and ejection against the Bucs. Hicks won’t be suspended for the Week 5 game against the Miami Dolphins, according to WGN’s Adam Hoge. Regardless, the good news is that Hicks isn’t the only standout performer up front.

Nose tackle Eddie Goldman has had an excellent start to the season after receiving a contract extension. His dominant play was especially evident against the Seahawks, with a sack that nearly resulted in a safety, and he followed it up with another strong showing vs. the run against Arizona.

The breakout performer has been Roy Robertson-Harris, who has been something of a pet project of Fangio and DL coach Jay Rodgers the past few years. Morphing his body from a tall, rangy outside linebacker to a bulkier down lineman — all while maintaining his special athletic traits — Robertson-Harris has flashed some serious potential.

His hit on Aaron Rodgers changed the NFL season, and Robertson-Harris lived in the backfield much of that first game. He’s been receiving steadily increased reps ever since. Robertson-Harris’ pressure on Cardinals QB Josh Rosen helped force an interception that pretty much sealed the game.

Fifth-rounder Bilal Nichols wasn’t active in the opener, but he’s made noise in limited playtime. He had a late tackle for loss against the Cardinals and added a half-sack and two tackles for loss against the Bucs. Rounding out the group are Jonathan Bullard, who has started previously, and Nick Williams.

Losing Hicks, even for a game, would be a tough blow. But with Mack’s pressure and a very underrated defensive line, the Bears still would be in very respectable shape up front.

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