A lot of people had written Chicago off after their 0-3 start, but the Bears have fought back into playoff relevancy and sit at 4-5 along with five other NFC teams. They're doing it with improved play on defense and, more importantly, an offense that functions efficiently and effectively even without one of the league's most heavily utilized players, Matt Forte.
In the last three weeks (a loss to the Vikings and wins over the Rams and Chargers), Chicago is fourth in the league in point differential (24), sixth in points scored (79), sixth in completion percentage (70.1), sixth in passing yards (789), sixth in rushing yards (359), seventh in yards per play (5.97) and third in total time of possession. Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Adam Gase needed a few weeks to get onto the same page, but the two are working in concert right now and as Chris Burke put it over at Sports Illustrated, "the Bears boast the most dangerous offense in the NFC North" right now. That's saying something when you look at what Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit have done over the past few seasons.
Nothing Chicago is doing is super innovative or unique, old-school concepts and old-school schemes, but the mix of play-calls and excellent game planning by John Fox and Gase has shown up. It's utilizing your weapons correctly. It's getting the most of your personnel. It's keeping the defense off balance and guessing. And, it's Jay Cutler executing.
You almost hate to compliment a team for simply running a smart game plan and correctly accentuating their strengths, but it's less common than you'd imagine.
It showed up on Sunday when the Bears went into St. Louis to take on the Rams, a team that owns probably the best defensive line in the NFL and was boasting the fifth-ranked defense in the league, per Football Outsiders DVOA. To mitigate the advantage that the Rams would have in the trenches at home, Gase devised a robust plan of attack that would take advantage of an aggressive group but also utilize the type of talent he has on his team.
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When you're taking on a team that features a multitude of first-rounders on the defensive line, you've got to be prepared to get the ball out of your quarterback's hands quickly. We've seen what the Bears look like with Jimmy Clausen running the show, and no one on Chicago's sideline wanted to go there again. So, in addition to leaning heavily on their run game (Chicago ran the ball a season-high 37 times), the focus was on getting the ball out of Jay Cutler's hands quickly, allowing his playmakers to do their thing.
That showed up on the Bears' second offensive play.
Tight end Zach Miller (not the former Seahawk) lined up in the tight slot and Chicago's pre-snap look here is tough to diagnose for a defense. The personnel (two tight ends) and splits (all very close to the formation) typically would say "a run is coming" to the defense, but instead, it's just a simple quick-out throw to Miller.
Here's the idea: On second-and-11, get the ball out quickly, pick up a few yards and set up a manageable third down. That's it. Except, Miller does something extraordinary with it.
"It was a quick out," Cutler said after the game, "we run it all the time. He busted it back inside, broke a tackle, and outran ‘22' (Trumaine Johnson), one of their starting corners. The guy had an angle on him and he made a good move and finished it."
The cool thing about this play is that Miller actually looked up at the Jumbotron as he was running downfield, saw Johnson closing in on him, and hooked right to avoid the tackle.
Said Miller, "After I made the initial guy miss, Alshon (Jeffery) threw a great block and then once I got by him it was just - 'don't get caught.' I was looking up at the Jumbotron and I saw them closing in, and I gave them one swerve over to the right and I was lucky to get to the end zone."
Those quick outs were a staple, but another thing that the Bears did effectively was to simply take what the defense was giving them and dump it off underneath.
The Rams like to play a soft zone much of the time, allowing throws underneath as long as they're not getting beat over the top. Well, that's nice in theory, but if the offense continues to execute well and avoid mistakes, it can be a difficult strategy to employ.
Here's one example from the first quarter. In their base two-tight end set (Martellus Bennett played every snap, and Zach Miller played in 80 percent of offensive snaps), the Bears run mirrored routes with the tight ends right at the first-down marker. This route combo draws in the attention of the second level linebackers and safeties, allowing running back Jeremy Langford to simply release down the middle of the field.
That's just easy money. Chicago avoids third down with a simple staple.
"[It's] the same thing I've talked about all year long," Jay Cutler told reporters last week when asked about Adam Gase. "He has done a great job of making sure the quarterback is comfortable with the system, making sure we're comfortable with the protections. On game day, he does a really good job on first, second, third down of putting us in good spots."
Don't ask Cutler to do too much. Spread the field. Give the quarterback options at several levels of the defense so he can either take a shot or dump it off.
A few more examples of this showed up in the third quarter. These are two consecutive plays that get the Bears out of their own end and are exceedingly simple.
These quick dump offs against soft zone coverage are very effective at picking up three to five yards, particularly against a team like the Rams that will give you that.
Screens are another play that have the potential to work well against the Rams because they're an aggressive team up front. This, along with the trap plays that Chicago used in the run game, ask an opposing defense to attack upfield.
Late in the second, on a second-and-7 from deep inside their own territory, Gase calls the perfect play.
Gase might have seen tendencies from the Rams to send extra rushers in situations like this, he might have had a gut feeling that they'd do it here, or he might have just gotten lucky. Whatever the case, it works like a charm.
Well executed on the pass, perfectly blocked and Jeremy Langford does the rest.
Gase has said recently that he has not had to alter the play sheet since Matt Forte has been injured. The rookie Langford has done everything he's been asked to do. In the case of this screen play, he might have been able to do something even Forte could not have. Per NFL.com, Langford "reached 20.66 mph on his 83-yard catch-and-run, the fastest speed recorded by a Bears ball carrier this season."
There were a few other things that Chicago did well in this game that took advantage of an aggressive front.
The Bears put together a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that featured several short-yardage plays, and I liked how they handled each of them.
On a fourth-and-1 here from the St. Louis 38, Chicago correctly decides to go for it with the game tied. Instead of banging it up through the tackles where the Rams have concentrated much of their firepower, they roll out with a play-action bootleg.
I really like how they have Langford as the first option, but they also run Mark Mariani on what's called a "swap boot" over the formation, and that gives Cutler a second option. Cutler's third option here is to just run it himself.
As we've seen a few times this year, Cutler isn't the easiest dude to bring down, and he'll run over a defensive back if he gets the chance. The image of an unshaven, unathletic Smokin' Jay Cutler is so contrary to real life. He is very underrated for his athleticism.
The Bears easily pick up this fourth down, and I liked the design because it gave Cutler three clear options.
A few plays later on that same drive, the Bears face a similar third-and-1 situation, and just run the ball up the gut and pick up six yards. Got to keep a defense honest.
Later again, Chicago has a first-and-goal, and again decides to run a little play action with it. Zach Miller, out to the right of the formation, fakes a block for a moment before releasing downfield. No one picks him up.
On that drive, Jay Culter was 7 for 7 for 41 yards on play-action plays.
One more wrinkle that the Bears utilized a few times in this game is what are called packaged plays. On these looks, Cutler has the option to choose from a number of "plays" all wrapped into one. For instance, below, he has the option of handing off immediately to Langford, another option to swing a pass out to the right (which is blocked like a screen), or to turn and throw to the left for the same effect. His final option is to simply keep the ball himself.
In this case, he chooses to swing it out to his right. Watch how each side of the play is blocked identically while the offensive line blocks like it's a run.
Easy money, as the Rams are playing well off of the line. Also nice in this look is that both tight ends are flexed all the way outside to the wing, giving the Bears a more robust blocking option for the swing pass options. In the case above, it's Martellus Bennett blocking for Alshon Jeffery.
They do something similar again in the third quarter.
Instead of taking his first option to hand off or his second option to throw a swing pass out to the left, Cutler keeps the ball and, using that athleticism I mentioned earlier, picks up a huge chunk of yardage.
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All in all, I really enjoyed watching the Bears' offense in this game and that's kind of surprising, considering the way things have gone for Jay Cutler over the past year or two (or more). He's playing within the confines of the offense, he's not trying to do too much and Gase's scheme isn't asking him to do too much. Cutler finished just short of a perfect quarterback rating in this game (one-fifty-fun), throwing three touchdowns, no picks, and completing 79 percent of his throws.
Gase's scheme has all the hallmarks of a smart game plan. Mixing short, intermediate and long passes; using route combinations that give Cutler options on several levels, stretching the defense laterally and vertically, using two tight end sets to disguise run-pass tendencies; using play-action, using multiple concepts in the run game, including zone blocking, pulling, trapping, inside handoffs, toss plays and read option. They're balanced. They're unpredictable. They're making the most of their weapons, and using them correctly.
Now, it's a small sample size, so I'm not saying this is the second coming of the Greatest Show on Turf or anything, but it's refreshing to see a coordinator and quarterback work well together with the weapons at hand. The cool thing about what Chicago has going is that they're still getting healthy. They face a decision on rookie Kevin White soon, Matt Forte is close to coming back, and there's a bevy of other injured players that are close to getting back. With their offense clicking and the NFC still a wasteland of parity, the Bears have a real shot at making a playoff run. It's hard to believe after their start, but here we are.
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