This week has the Minnesota Vikings heading to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears in what has become a critically important game for both teams. We were able to talk to our SB Nation Bears counterpart, Windy City Gridiron, to talk about this week’s prime-time game. We exchanged questions with Jeff Berckes, one of their front page contributors, and he gave us some great insight into the game and the Bears from their perspective. To get even more lowdown on the Bears, go read WCG, and then follow Jeff and WCG on Twitter. Jeff’s Twitter handle is @gridironborn, and WCG is @WCGridiron. Sorry, I don’t do Instagram, so I have no idea if they have Instagram accounts, or what they are if they do.
So enjoy the read and get off my lawn, you damn kids with all your social medias.
DN: Coming in to the season, RB’s Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen were thought to be a dynamic 1-2 duo in the backfield with Howard the lead back, and Cohen the diminutive yet explosive change of pace back. Yet as the trade deadline approached, rumors were the Bears were looking to shop Howard. So far this year, Howard is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry, and Cohen has more yards from scrimmage than Howard does. So were the trade rumors legitimate? Who is the go to back for the Bears, and is there a chance Howard isn’t in Chicago next year?
WCG: I’ll admit that I didn’t believe the trade rumors in the offseason that Howard may be on the block, but after seeing the early returns on this offense it does seem as though they’d be willing to move on from him. My colleague put together a great video dive into what’s going on with Howard that’s worth a watch that may help explain that 3.4 ypc. Howard is only in his 3rd season, so there’s still another year left on his rookie deal, making it likely that he’ll return if a trade can’t be completed next offseason. It wouldn’t surprise me to see General Manager Ryan Pace take a running back in next year’s draft to complement Cohen and this offensive scheme better than what Howard has done thus far.
As far as the go-to back, Howard still leads Cohen in carries, 137 to 56, and has been surprisingly effective in his limited targets in the passing game. Still, you’re right to identify Cohen as the bigger threat. Tarik Cohen, AKA Chicken Salad (he can make something out of nothing), brings such a creative, fun element to the offense and the return game that every time he touches the ball, you hold your breath. Last year, when Cohen provided a rare spark, John Fox got nervous and glued his hands to the bench. This year, new Head Coach Matt Nagy actively works to find creative ways to get him the ball in space. He’s fast becoming a fan favorite.
DN: Last year, the Bears traded up one spot in the draft to select QB Mitchell Trubisky, a move that was widely panned at the time, mostly for the compensation given up and the assumption he would still be available one pick later. Fast forward to now, and Trubisky has substantially increased his completion percentage, QB rating, and QBR while leading the Bears to a 6-3 record and first place in the NFC North. He seems to play really well against less than stellar competition, but just okay against the better teams. Is he the real deal or not, and does the draft day trade matter to Bears fans anymore, if it ever mattered at all?
WCG: In the moment, I hated the process behind the whole thing. During free agency, the Bears signed the Ginger Giraffe, Mike Glennon, to a fairly sizable deal. It was a weird move in that he wasn’t very good with Tampa Bay and if you wanted a veteran stop-gap to groom a rookie behind, Brian Hoyer was already in the building. The signing of Glennon also seemed to inspire zero free agents to look at Chicago as a quality destination, and with John Fox already feeling like a lost cause, it was fair to wonder where this was going. So the Glennon signing threw me and many other Bears fans for a loop, thinking Pace was going defense to try and complete his defense (I was big on Jamal Adams, safety for LSU and now the Jets) or trade down to acquire more picks and wait for the 2018 QB class. In a move that apparently not even John Fox knew about, Pace traded up with San Francisco, gave some assets up to do it, and took the least experienced QB of the 3 guys with a first round grade. I was someone who liked DeShaun Watson more than Trubisky coming out, so I was equally nonplussed at the pick of Trubisky over Watson as I was with surrendering assets when the Bears were in desperate need of more draft picks.
With all that in context, I think it was fair at the time to be confused and maybe even a little upset about the process. However, I don’t understand the insistence of carrying around that baggage as part of the process to evaluate the growth and development of a young QB. Literally no one cares about my or anyone else’s pre-draft thoughts and the fact that some fans still want to be proved right about it is a little baffling. When Trubisky put on the pads for the first rookie mini-camp, I was in on his development and what he could bring to the table. It’s a sunk cost at this point and it doesn’t matter one iota what it cost to get him at this point.
To the big question (is he the real deal?), my answer is: I have no idea. I don’t think anyone else does either and the guys that have been vocal against Trubisky (Michael Lombardi of The Ringer, for example) are committing the sin of rushing to judgment just as much as anyone ready to crown him as the next great QB. There’s enough tape out there to make either argument at this point. In my opinion, he has shown enough to be excited about what he could develop into with more experience in the brand new system and developing rapport with his brand new receiving corps. These things take time and in our impatient, distracted society, I think we lose sight of the fact that QB is the most difficult position in sports to master. He’s certainly helped make things exciting this year and I for one am excited to see how he is able to handle a good Vikings defense.
DN: Khalil Mack (rightly) takes up all the oxygen in the room when people start talking about the Bears defense, but he’s not the only reason Chicago is the fourth overall defense in both yards and points scored. They were a good defense last year, but besides Mack, what has been the main reason the Bears have jumped from a top ten defense to a top five defense?
WCG: Football Outsiders has the Bears as the top rated defense in the league right now and it’s been a total team effort. Continuity in the secondary has really paid off as Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, and Bryce Callahan form an impressive trio at corner. Combine that with the steady play of Adrian Amos Jr. and the emerging star Eddie Jackson at the safety positions, and this secondary has been one of the best units in all of football. Of course, secondary play is helped by a great pass rush and when Mack has been healthy, he has been the key to unlock other players around him. Akiem Hicks is a force of nature and was the best defensive player on the team before the Mack trade. Rookie Roquan Smith is starting to show his speed and instincts at the ILB position, giving the front 7 the potential of another special player. It’s hard to point to a weak spot right now and it seems like every week a new guy shows a flash. Bears fans are wired a little differently than most fan bases and having a defense that can wreak havoc, turn the ball over, and put points on the board gives us sustenance like hotdish [ED. note: it’s freaking casserole] to Vikings fans.
DN: The Bears made a conscious effort to upgrade the weapons around Mitchell Trubisky in the off-season. In free agency, they signed WR’s Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson. In the draft they took WR Anthony Miller in the second round, and he still had Howard and Cohen out of the backfield, obviously. Is there a ‘go to’ guy in that group that Trubisky looks for on third down, or when the offense needs a big play? Conversely, is there a guy (besides Kevin White) that’s been a disappointment or has yet to live up to their billing in the eyes of Bears fans?
WCG: I don’t know how Kevin White can be a disappointment this year when some of us (okay, just me) thought he’d fail to make the roster, but yeah, we’ve all pretty much accepted the fact that his career just isn’t getting off the ground in Chicago. Dion Sims is a guy that got a nice contract for a blocking tight end, was a cut candidate in the preseason, but stuck around to haul in 2 of 4 targets for 9 yards... If he never gets another target in Chicago, that’ll be fine by me. Otherwise, I don’t know if anyone is exactly disappointing.
One of the underrated things about Trubisky’s development in this offense is his willingness to spread the ball around. Maybe that’s born out of the scheme, but he’s been able to balance the attack with targets spread to Allen Robinson II (51), Gabriel (52), Miller (41), Trey Burton (45), and Tarik Cohen (50). Robinson missed two games, otherwise he’d be out front and he’s certainly the guy with the WR1 profile. Gabriel has lived up to his contract on the outside and Burton has worked the middle with savvy. Miller is definitely the guy that is starting to emerge more now that he’s healthy, working out of the slot and making some contested catches. It’s a fun group considering Trubisky was throwing to special teamers and lawn chairs last year.
DN: The Bears sit at 6-3 and are in first place...BUT (I...like...big BUTSANDICANNOTLIE)...the six teams they’ve beaten are a combined 18-38 and not one of them has a winning record, while the teams they’ve lost to are all at .500 or better (16-12-1). The teams they have wins against aren’t in any way, shape, or form good (and no you may NOT make fun of the Vikings losing to the Bills thank you very much)...so let me ask you--are the Bears for real, or just benefiting from a favorable schedule to this point?
WCG: This team’s got it goin’ like a turbo ‘Vette, Ted Mix-a-lot. Good teams are supposed to beat up on bad teams and the Bears have done a pretty good job of that. They’re generally comfortably out in front, even if it isn’t always pretty, against some of the lesser teams in the league. But, this is a young team with a first year Head Coach and they’re still learning how to close games out. The game against Green Bay opening week was a terrible collapse that should have been a victory and the Miami game was a disaster that we’re all trying to forget about (much like that Buffalo game I’m not allowed to bring up). So, yes, I do think these Bears are for real if maybe a little ahead of schedule. You play the schedule that’s in front of you and we’ll know a lot more about this Bears squad by Thanksgiving dinner with 2 divisional games within 4 days of each other.
DN: Bonus: What do you see Chicago’s final regular season record being, and who wins the division—Chicago, Minnesota, or does Green Bay go on a run and surprise us all?
WCG: I thought this team was going to be in the 9 or 10 win range at the start of the year but I wouldn’t be shocked if this team can finish 11-5 if they’re able to stay healthy. Assuming the Bears can split with Minnesota and take games against the Lions, Packers (home), Giants, and 49ers, they’ll hit that mark. I picked Minnesota to win the division before the year with the Bears making the wildcard. I’d be happy to see that flip but let’s just both agree that a 7-8-1 finish from Green Bay would be something we can both cheer about.
Yes, the Packers finishing 7-8-1 is something we can, in fact, agree on. Thanks again to Jeff and the good folks at WCG. Here’s to a good game with no injuries on Sunday night.