As I prepared to watch every snap of Chicago’s defense against the New York Giants, I expected to find some sort of systemic problem.
This great defense couldn’t possibly have allowed all those yards and points in the second half against the Giants’ inconsistent at best offense. They had to have been doing something completely out of character for the duration of the game.
It turns out that this was not the case. The Bears actually defended New York’s offensive attack fairly well. Khalil Mack constantly harassed Eli Manning, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman both had excellent games, the secondary covered tightly and made plays on the ball, and in general, the Bears contained Saquon Barkley.
Barkley’s stat line may look gaudy, at 24 carries for 125 yards, but that’s almost exclusively because of two huge plays, both of which I’ll discuss shortly. If both are subtracted, Barkley only averaged 3.36 yards per carry. He picked up a few chunks of 10-15 and a key third-down conversion late in the game, but you can live with those as long as you don’t give up the big plays.
But give up the big plays is exactly what Chicago did. So instead of discussing a variety of key aspects in detail, I decided this week to focus on three backbreaking plays that ultimately caused the Bears’ downfall.
Play number one
I don’t blame any player for one second. This one’s on Vic Fangio.
It’s on Matt Nagy as well for calling a nonsensical timeout before this play, but Fangio’s call paved the way for this play to work.
The Giants were coming off back to back sacks from Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks, respectively, and were facing third and 23. As he often does, Fangio went into a prevent set, with Floyd and Mack on the edges, Roy Robertson-Harris lined up as a nose tackle, and six defensive backs. This was a critical mistake. The Bears should have been in their base or at least nickel defense here because A. It was a predictable play call from New York and B. Barkley against a prevent D is more dangerous than Eli Manning against a regular one. If the Bears couldn’t stop Eli Manning on third and 23 against a normal defense, they wouldn’t be 8-4.
The number one thing that the Bears couldn’t afford to do all game was let Saquon Barkley get the ball in space. To do that, they had to maintain every gap at the line of scrimmage, which they did quite well for the majority of the afternoon. This prevents set, however, automatically opened up gaps for Barkley to get through. And no defense can be expected to tackle him if he’s just given open field like that.
Sure enough, Barkley makes magic happen. He’s gifted 10 yards right away because both B-gaps are empty and Robertson-Harris is driven back and pancaked because he is not a nose tackle. Neither linebacker has a chance because they have to face two OL each with a 10-yard head start, so it’s up to the secondary.
Prince Amukamara does his job, keeping Barkley on his inside shoulder (the Bears were great about this all game) so that he can’t bounce it outside. It’s at this point that most normal running backs would have just dove forward and take the yards, but Barkley is not a normal running back. He takes a step back and catches a seam out of the corner of his eye, then bolts through it for another 12 yards.
This put the Giants in position to hit a short out to set up a field goal, which Fangio gave them with a prevent set for reasons I will never understand. The Giants were gifted three points in this sequence, all because Fangio loves that prevent.
Play number two
Eddie Jackson has been doing some exceptional things lately. With that qualifier out of the way, he cost Chicago seven points on this play.
The Bears are in a cover-three, with (from the defense’s left to right) Kyle Fuller, Amukamara, and Jackson each in a deep zone. Jackson abandons him, however, because he wants to help in run support on a supposed end around to Odell Beckham Jr.
As Jackson found out once he reached the 35-yard line, Beckham intended to throw the ball. Jackson, knowing that covering his zone had gone out the window, desperately tried to latch onto the first receiver he saw and prayed that the ball was intended for the sidelines.
His prayer, as we know now, was not answered. Beckham hesitated in order to make the throw easier for a non-QB like himself and tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass. Jackson is going to be a first-team all pro this year, but this was on him.
Play number three
Finally, fourth and goal from the one-yard line. The Bears had made three consecutive crucial holds to try and keep the margin at three points, late in the third quarter, and were one stop away from getting the ball back. Unfortunately, a breakdown in coverage made it so that a touchdown was all but a given for the Giants.
The Bears’ first red flag that something is up is that Barkley doesn’t line up in the backfield, instead positioning himself as the inside man in the bunch to the right. Given tendencies and what the Giants like to do in the end zone, this screams pick play to get Barkley uncovered in the flat.
To counter this, the Bears go zone for the majority of the field and leave Amukamara one-on-one against the isolated receiver to the offense’s left. Adrian Amos had the middle, Danny Trevathan had underneath, Jackson had the right corner, and Fuller took Barkley in the flat.
As it turned out, everybody on the Bears did their jobs. Nobody vacated their zone or left their man uncovered. The defensive play just never accounted for a throw back across the field to Beckham, who was left completely uncovered in the right corner. This was purely a case of Giants head coach Pat Shurmur outsmarting Vic Fangio, and the Bears paid dearly for it.
However, that wasn’t even Fangio’s biggest mistake on that play. Take a closer look at each of the 11 Bears on the field, and you’ll discover that none of them wear number 52.
Why was the Bears’ best player, for whom they gave two first round picks to acquire, not in the game for the most important play of the day? That’s another question that Fangio has to answer.
This was the Miami game all over again. Generally a well-played game, but a few crucial mistakes in key junctures from the head coach, the defensive coordinator, and the secondary cost the Bears a 9-3 record. And these are mistakes that can’t happen again if the Bears have any aspirations for a playoff run.
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