The Frustration Bowl

It could only end this way.  It was the Chargers and Bears, after all.

Since it was the Los Angeles Chargers, there was the usual amount of self-destruction.  Keenan Allen tripped over his feet on two consecutive third-down passes, and Hunter Henry dropped another third-downer.  The Chargers ended up 2-10 on third down (0-5 in the first half)

Allen and Mike Williams both dropped touchdown passes in the end zone in the second half.  Los Angeles missed a field goal, had an interception, and committed 8 penalties.  With less than a minute to play in the first half, Charger defenders twice committed third-down penalties that extended Chicago’s final drive of the half.  In many ways, the same old Chargers.

And yet, in spite of the self-inflicted wounds, Los Angeles broke their huddle with the ball on their own 15-yard line with just 2:04 left in the game, and holding a precarious 17-16 lead (the Bears had also done some self-destructing).

But things at this point weren’t quite as simple as taking a knee and going home.  Chicago had managed to maintain all three of its timeouts.  They would also get a stoppage after the next play at the two-minute warning.

With no chance to really eat the clock (or force Chicago to use a time out) with a run on first down – and since Los Angeles has suddenly become averse to running the ball – Ken Whisenhunt dialed up another pass play.  To this point, Chicago had not sacked Charger quarterback Philip Rivers.

But, on this play, Khalil Mack spun around left tackle Trenton Scott and spilled Rivers for a six-yard loss.  The Charger fans knew what was coming next.

Two plays later, it was third-and-12, with 1:55 still to go.  The Bears had used only one of their time outs.  With the Bears’ defense dropping deep into zone coverages, Henry found an open patch of grass, took the pass, and turned up field.  True to his Charger DNA, Henry got 11 yards on third and 12.  The ensuing Chicago time out and punt left Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on his own 35-yard line, with 1:33 and one time out left on the clock.

The week before had not been Trubisky’s finest hour.  In a 36-25 home loss to New Orleans, Mitch ended up throwing the ball 54 times with only 251 yards to show for it (4.65 yards per attempted pass).  As he took the field to begin this game, Mitch had fallen to next to last in average yards per pass at 5.24, and dead last in the NFL in yards per completion, averaging just 8.1 yards for every pass completed.

Needless to say, it was not a comfortable week for Mitch.

Additionally, the first 58.5 minutes of this contest had seen its share of frustration for the home town team.  They controlled the clock for 19:22 of the first quarter, but went 0-for-4 in the red zone, kicking 3 field goals and missing another.  They would finish 1-for-5 in the red zone; 1-for-4 in goal-to-go-situations.  But the back breaker seemed to come about midway through the final period.

With 9:39 left in the game, Chicago receiver Taylor Gabriel exploited a blown assignment in the Charger secondary and tore up field with only Thomas Davis trailing far behind.  But Mitch overthrew him.  On the next play, LA defensive end Joey Bosa pushed tackle Charles Leno into Trubisky.  Mitch tried to spin out of trouble.  The ball slid out of his grasp.  And Los Angeles had the ball deep in Chicago territory.

It was the second brutal turnover by Chicago in the half, and the one that set up LA’s lone second half touchdown.  But now the football gods were giving Mitch another chance.

On second down, Mitch floated a perfect pass to Gabriel, who had found a void in the LA zone deep to the offensive left.  No overthrow this time.  Gabriel pulled it in for 22 yards.  On the next play, Trubisky found Allen Robinson over the middle for 9 more yards.

The Bears were now on the LA 34-yard line – about a 51-yard field goal, if they kicked it then.  They needed one more play.

With 53 seconds left in the game, and the Bears on the 32-yard line, they got that play.  And it was Trubisky that delivered it.

As he dropped to pass, his pocket began to implode in front of him.  As before, Mitch spun out of trouble, but this time holding onto the ball.  Stepping out of Melvin Ingram’s diving tackle attempt, Trubisky darted 11 yards down to the 21 to put a dagger into the hearts of the Chargers.

There were still 43 seconds left, and the Bears did still have one time out, so they could potentially have taken a shot at the end zone – or at least tried to move in a little closer.  Coach Matt Nagy would take heat for this, but his team was riding a two-game losing streak, and while the offense had played better this week, they were far from mistake free – having turned the ball over on consecutive possessions earlier in this half.

Not willing to put at risk a game he felt was already won, Nagy had Trubisky kneel down, drain the clock, and call his final time out.

And so it would have to come down to this.  Over the last few seasons, there are probably not two teams anywhere in the NFL that have lost more games on missed kicks in the waning seconds than the Chargers and the Bears.  There were four seconds left on the scoreboard clock as Eddy Pineiro lined up his 41-yard kick.  Trubisky and Rivers watched helplessly from the sidelines.

The snap was good.  The hold was perfect.  For about one second it looked like the kick would slice just inside the left upright.  But then it began to tail, and, well, you can guess the rest.

Both of these teams had made the playoffs in 2018, and were hoping to build off of that success.  Both now have losing records (the Chargers are 3-5, the Bears 3-4) although there is still enough season left to turn things around. But both of these franchises are left with questions.

The victory softens the scrutiny the Chargers will be under – at least for a week.  Los Angeles still delivered an inconsistent performance with too many dropped passes and too many penalties.  Add to the concerns a vanishing running game.

Los Angeles ran the ball only 12 times the entire game.  In the second half, they had 5 rushes for 7 yards.  This is now the third time in the last 4 games that LA has run the ball less than 20 times.  In 2018, they at least had a semblance of balance, ranking nineteenth in rushing attempts (399) and fifteenth in rushing yards (1873).  This year’s team has fallen to twenty-eighth in both categories (160 rushing attempts for just 556 yards) as well as in average yards per attempt (3.5).  With Melvin Gordon back in the fold to go along with leading rusher Austin Ekeler, the Chargers should be able to run the ball at least as well as most.  Gordon had 8 carries on Sunday, and Ekeler 3.  At this point, this is beginning to get pretty glaring.

In Chicago, they will be spending another uncomfortable week.  They will now have to go into Philadelphia to play a dangerous Eagle team.  The questions here are plenteous.

The vultures circled Piniero’s locker after the game.  It was a tough miss.  Eddy is 12 for 15 this year, including a game-winner against Denver in Week Two.  Everybody misses sometimes.

Nagy will be asked about his game management – and about his choice of starting quarterback going forward.  Matt could have been more aggressive at the end, but imagine the hullabaloo if something untoward – like another interception – had deprived them of the opportunity to kick a makeable field goal.

As to Trubisky, yes he has regressed a bit.  In leading the Bears to the playoffs last year, he registered a 95.4 passer rating with a 24-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.  This year he is at 81.4 with a 5-3 ratio.

Chicago fans – not necessarily noted for patience – would do well to keep a few things in mind.  First of all, the development of a young quarterback isn’t always a straight-line progression.  The Trubisky of 2018 is still in there, but may take a little more time to unfold.

Moreover, Mitch hasn’t been the same – certainly as far as running the ball – since his injury.  In 2018 he ran 68 times for 421 yards (6.2 average) and 3 touchdowns.  With the 2019 season half over, Mitch has just 9 rushes for 31 yards, so health would seem to be a significant factor.

If I were a Bear fan – in spite of the agony of another irritating loss – I would take a couple of clear positives away from this game.

First, in spite of some continued inconsistencies, Mitch Trubisky led the team on what was essentially a game winning drive with just a minute and a half left in the game.  If Piniero hits the field goal, Chicago is celebrating Trubisky as the hero.

Even more important, in Week Eight the Bears re-discovered their commitment to the run.

In the Week 7 loss to New Orleans, the Chicago Bears ran the ball 7 times for the entire game – only twice in the second half.  They ran the ball a total of 24 times in the previous two games.  They entered Week Eight thirtieth in running attempts (125), twenty-eighth in rushing yards per game (70.0), twenty-eighth in yards per carry (3.4), and twenty-seventh in rushing touchdowns (2).

This is no way to support a young quarterback.  Last year, they ranked sixth in rushing attempts (468) and eleventh in yards (1938).  The 16 rushing touchdowns they scored ranked seventh.

On Sunday, though, the Bears finally found the man to replace last year’s leading rusher, Jordan Howard.  In a breakthrough game, rookie David Montgomery bolted through the surprised Charger defense for 135 yards on 27 carries – a 5.0 average.  The team finished with 38 rushing attempts (20 of them in the second half) for 162 yards – their most since battering Minnesota for 169 yards in Week 17 last year.

The averages – Montgomery’s 5.0 and the team’s 4.3 – are slightly deceptive.  The output included one 55-yard burst.  Take that away and David averaged 3.1 yards per on his other 26 carries, and the team average drops to 2.9.  Only 9 of Montgomery’s 27 carries, and 12 of Chicago’s 38 rushes gained more than 3 yards, so this was literally three-yards and a cloud of dust running.

The Bears opened the second half by running on their first six plays – one short of their entire total from the previous week.  If the Bears didn’t exactly gash Los Angeles, they at least showed more run commitment than at any time this year.

That is a building block.  The Eagles are significantly tougher against the run than Los Angeles (they currently rank eighth), so if the running game is back, it will get a stiffer test next week.

But if it is back, it will lead to better afternoons in Chicago.

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