By game’s end, Chicago quarterback Nick Foles was just launching desperation deep throws up the field to covered receivers. In his last drive of the game, Foles threw 8 passes. Four were short passes designed to cover the yardage needed for the first downs that would keep the drive moving. He completed all of those, but for just 18 yards. The other four went up the field. The shortest of these carried 19 yards to Darnell Mooney. It was the only one of the four that was completed – the others were batted harmlessly to the turf.
Coming into the game, Nick was averaging 7.97 air yards per pass attempt (the league average is 7.94). On Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, Nick averaged 11.2 air yards over his 40 attempts, meaning that for the game he threw the ball about 130 yards farther up the field than the offense ideally called for.
He had four different receivers with multiple targets who averaged more than 15 yards per target: Allen Robinson (16.8 on 4 targets), Cole Kmet (17.5 on 2 targets), Mooney (22.1 on 7 targets) and Javon Wims (24.0 yards on 2 targets).
The multiple offered prayers made sense. The Bears were down 14 points as he began that drive, and – to Chicago’s credit – instead of trying to nickel-and-dime their way down the field when down two scores, they were looking for that big play that would give them a chance to come back.
But the fact that they were in that position (and that they scored no offensive touchdowns during the game) were potent indicators that their game plan had failed on all levels.
Needing to neutralize the Ram pass rush, the emphasis was on the running game. The Bears sought to keep ahead of the chains, complete a lot of short passes, and look for their deep shots where they could. But the running game was crushed from the very beginning. By games end, the Bears had called only 17 running plays (against Foles’ 40 passes) and gained only 49 ground yards. Chicago’s running backs averaged only 1.12 yards before contact by the defense (the NFL average is 2.43). Lead runner David Montgomery broke 3 tackles on the night, but that only earned him an extra 2.0 yards after contact, as there was always another Ram defender waiting. Avoiding the pass rush didn’t work either. Foles came into the game having suffered just 4 sacks in his 3 previous starts. He was sacked 4 times alone by the Rams – punctuating LA’s 24-10 conquest (gamebook) (summary).
It was another struggling outing for an outfit still trying to find itself. Chicago – on the heels of managing just 279 yards Monday night – now ranks twenty-ninth out of thirty-two teams in total offense, and dead last running the ball – averaging 84.1 yards a game. Their 3.8 yards per carry is just thirtieth. Their 1.6 rushing yards before contact is second worst in the league (Buffalo is getting 1.5 before contact so far this year). This number, by the way, is kept by pro-football reference here.
The passing attack hasn’t been any healthier. Foles holds a 77.6 passer rating – ranking him twenty-seventh. Two series before that final series against the Rams, Nick completed one of those deep balls – a 42-yard fling to Robinson. It was the team’s very first completion of 40 yards the entire season.
Oh, did I mention that – after Monday’s loss – the Bears are 5-2.
This has been one of the surprising sub-themes of the first half of the 2020 season. There are several flawed teams – teams that struggle profoundly on one side of the ball – that are, nonetheless, off to excellent starts. The Bears have ridden their usually elite defense to stay within a half game of the Packers. They aren’t the only ones doing better than their numbers would suggest.
The Buffalo Bills are below the league average in both points scored and points allowed, but they lead their division with a 5-2 record. The Rams are also riding their defense as the offense has been just good enough to get them to 5-2.
The Titans, Seahawks and Saints are all struggling defensively. They are 5-1, 5-1 and 4-2 respectively.
Their achievements have been entertaining, but they beg the question, how long can these teams keep this delicate balancing act going? Dragging an ineffective half of the team behind them creates a kind of mathematical gravity that all these teams are trying to overcome. History suggests that unless these teams shore up their weak units, their seasons are due to end in disappointment. The Rams missed the playoffs last year after suffering through similar offensive inconsistencies. The Seahawks and Saints both made the playoffs despite leaky defenses, but both lost early in the playoffs, ultimately let down by those defenses.
Buffalo did make the playoffs, although they were not a plus offensive team, and their lack of firepower was noticeable as they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Titans, of course, made it to the Conference Championship in spite of having a middling defense (number 21 in yards allowed and number 12 in scoring). Even at that, though, they were better in 2019 than they have been so far this year (number 25 in yards allowed and number 16 in points allowed).
With several teams playing well on both sides of the ball, all of these teams may defy gravity for a while – perhaps even until the playoffs. But, like Nick’s long, downfield passes, gravity can only be defied for so long.
TB and TB12 Cruise Again
The Raiders are the latest team that has struggled with a mini outbreak of the virus. It cost them much of their practice time this week – and a starting offensive lineman. Not optimal situations when facing a team playing as well as Tampa Bay is right now.
Even so, the game Raiders kept things closer than you might have expected. Up until there was 7:29 left in the game, Las Vegas was still within four points (24-20). But the Bucs scored two touchdowns in the next 49 seconds, and the rout was on.
Working with air-tight pass protection, Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading to a 127.0 passer rating. Watching Tom that afternoon should have finally dispelled any remaining concerns that his skills were eroding with age. His apparent decline in New England the last couple of years had more to do with the erosion of the talent around him – yes, the receiving corps, but also the offensive line that afforded him little pocket time. In Tampa Bay, he has all the luxuries that the Patriots could no longer afford him, and Tom is answering with a vintage season.
But Brady and his closet full of receivers is only half the story in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have come to the party with a defense that is very much in the conversation for the NFL’s best. In yards allowed, they rank third, ranking first against the run. Opposing offenses average just 66 rush yards a game against them. The 3.0 yards they allow per rush is also the NFL’s best average. They hold opposing passers to an 84.3 rating – this is the sixth lowest figure in football. This is underpinned by a pass rush that has already claimed 25 quarterbacks (the second highest total in the league), and is dropping them on 9.1% of their drop-backs (the fourth best figure in the NFL).
As predicted over the offseason, this Tampa Bay team has a lot of pieces, and must be considered as legitimate challengers. There are a couple of lingering questions I have about them, though. Questions that I hope to have answers for by the time the playoffs start.
Concern number one is the rushing attack. Against Vegas, Tampa Bay ran for only 85 yards in a game they won (eventually) by 25 points. They ran only 25 times in the game, while Brady threw 45 times. For the season, Tampa Bay sits at nineteenth in the league in rushing (105.7 yards per game). But the feeling is not that the Bucs can’t run – it’s that they won’t. Bruce Arians is clearly enamored with his passing game – which is all well and good, until somebody takes it away.
In his heyday in New England, the Patriots always seemed to be able to morph into a dominating running team when they felt the need to. The day that Tom runs into that elite pass rush that grounds his passing game, he isn’t going to have an effective running attack to turn to. If that happens in the playoffs . . .
My other concern has to do with their grit. All of their wins, so far, have come with all the pieces clicking together. They have mostly won walking away.
But their two loses this season have been in the games when they needed to overcome some adversity – their own mistakes, bad calls from the officials, great efforts by the other team, etc. Thus far they haven’t been able to prevail in those gritty fist-fights that championship teams need to win if they are going to reach the promised land – games like the ones the Steelers and Cardinals won last week.
This team, while impressive, still needs to prove to me that they can deal with adversity. Tom Brady notwithstanding.