Football

Daaaaaaa Bears are back at Halas Hall and practicing this week after the long week off following the loss in London. They’re not whole, though. Kyle Long was mercifully decommissioned on Monday, hitting IR without a designated to return rider. Akiem Hicks isn’t on IR, but Matt Nagy casually said he hopes to see his disruptive DT back THIS SEASON…so, uhh, maybe we’ll see him by Turkey Day?

Mitchell Trubisky, Taylor Gabriel and Bilal Nichols were all back, though, so it’s not all bad. And the Bears look out at an odd, changing NFC that still holds a path to the postseason if they can navigate it all well from here.

Where we left off

The Bears are 3-2, good for third in the division. They lost two games they probably should have won, but won at least one they shouldn’t have, so we’ll call it even. The fairy tale of a near injury-free 2018 has turned into a crowded trainer’s room in 2019: Trubs, Gabriel, Nichols, Hicks, Trey Burton, half or more of the O-Line…all missing time through five games.

The off week comes at a good time getting a good amount of that list back for Week 7, and while the loss of Long may actually end up being a positive (more on that later) the arm injury to Hicks is a major blow. Nichols will need to step in and contribute right away and more is needed from the already pleasant surprise of Roy Robertson-Harris. Hey, it’s not all bad. They still have Khalil Mack.

Trubs back under center remains an uncertainty, but anyone that wants to argue they’re better with Chase Daniel is lying to you and themselves. Mitch is the guy, for better or worse. Nagy getting the best out of him and the offense is still the key to the way this team is built. The revamped offensive line helping to open up the run game is probably what helps Mitch and Nagy more than just getting the QB1 back.

Dan Durkin at the Athletic penned a massive article you can go read if you want, but it basically boils down to the big bodies up front getting to the second level and giving the backs something to work with. There’s more to it than that, but it boils down to better play in the trenches going a long way to offensive success.

State of the NFC…and path to the playoffs? 

The NFC North is incredibly tight. The Packers are in control at 5-1 after a very, um, oddly officiated MNF win over the Lions last night. Detroit drops to 2-2-1, but they look better than expected thus far. Minnesota is going to look great and then awful week to week, but currently sit at 4-2 after a big win over Philadelphia. So the Pack sit in the driver’s seat, but they’re banged up on offense and might be carried by the defense for the first time in…ever? The division is still very much in play, but for a team that needs to create their own identity, the Bears should focus on winning each week one at a time.

That mentality starts now, with a home date and the 5-1 Saints ahead. Beyond that, games against the Eagles, Lions x2, and Rams will all hold bigger weight than a single win as they could come into play as tie-breakers in the NFC playoff picture. If the Bears aren’t at eight wins by December, that big SNF matchup with Dallas won’t be big at all. Can Nagy get it all going well enough to go 5-2 from now until December? A final month of games with the Cowboys, Packers, Chiefs and Vikings sets up for some real excitement if this team can get things sorted out.

That’s a very big “if” at the moment.

Football

Woof. I know. Let’s just move on.

As the Bears return from their off-week (Eric Zorn correctly pointed out that calling it a “bye” isn’t correct, and we have only the highest of standards here as you well know) they certainly aren’t without some news. And none of it is particularly good or up-lifting.

This morning head coach Matt Nagy made it clear that Akiem Hicks is going to be out a while, and quite possibly the rest of the season. When you’re saying you’re hopeful he can return before the end of the season, we can safely assume that nothing before Thanksgiving is a possibility and quite possibly a couple weeks after that. Whether Hicks can even be effective after so much time out and not really being able to use his arm the whole time is another question, though one we’d like to find out more than just seeing him not return at all.

We saw what the defensive line looked like without him last week, which was not life-affirming. Bilal Nichols‘s return helps a little, but he is not the Hot Gates that Hicks has been the past couple seasons. And while the win against the Vikings proved the Bears do have some depth, you don’t want to be pressing into that too much more before you don’t have that depth.

On the plus side, at least for one week, the Saints offensive line isn’t the mass of humanity that the Raiders’ one is, depending on more of the zone-blocking and nimbleness that the Bears cut through against Minnesota. On the downside, that Raiders game is now on film and whatever team can in any way emulate that is going to. And Sean Payton, despite being a world-class asshole, is also one of the brighter offensive minds around. Didn’t stop him from getting stonewalled by the Jaguars, so there’s that. Bite down on something and get through it is going to be the order of the day with the defensive line for the foreseeable future.

The less surprising, but in some ways more sad, was the report yesterday that Kyle Long will be IR’d. Long has looked awful all season, with the word “finished” becoming more and more often used to describe him. He has graded out as one of the worst linemen in the league each week, and it would appear that all the injuries he has dealt with in the past few years have completely caught up to him. He couldn’t get to the second-level, as his mobility that was once a feature is completely gone. He couldn’t even avoid getting blown off the line at the first level, run or pass, which has complicated what the Bears want to do and prevented them from either running the ball or getting it down the field in the air. Long wasn’t the only problem on the line, but he was not an insignificant one either.

The options behind him are either unappetizing or unknown but, and I take no pleasure in saying this, they almost certainly can’t be worse. Ted Larsen has his own injury issues, which would leave either Rashaad Coward or a promotion from the practice squad for Alex Bars. The latter holds some real promise, even if it comes in a very un-shapened mass of clay right now. He has the biggest upside, though to go from the practice squad to effective in games is a huge leap.

It’s hard not to feel that the biggest bummer of Long’s season ending is that it almost certainly ends his Bears career, if not his career altogether. Long will join the list of many, many Bears of recent vintage who were great players on only bad to mediocre teams. He got to play in one playoff game, which was last year. Most at the time greeted his drafting as a missed opportunity (or worse if you’re Hub Arkush), and then he went on to immediately be just about the only bright spot on the offensive line for years. He quickly became a team staple and leader, and it just sucks that he mostly won’t get to participate in what we still hope is the top part of the cycle for the Bears. The dude is like half bionic now, and yet he kept getting out there and until this year was mostly very good at his job.

He deserved better than this, but football has a tendency to not really care about that sort of thing. Time catches up to you hard in the NFL, and it appears it snagged another captive in Long.

Football

The “Black and Blue” division, a title that Bears fans have worn with pride for decades. My dad used to love to talk about how tough and gritty a team needed to be to win in the former NFC Central division, and that shit’s goofy. Sure, toughness is important in a physically demanding and violent sport, but the “three yards and a cloud of dust” adage is kind of tired in 2019.

Needless to say, our dads are gonna LOVE the Bears/Vikings game this Sunday, because the trenches will be a war. Minnesota comes to Soldier Field planning on running the ball. They’ve rushed the ball 103 times in three games thus far, and average 193.7 yards a game. Holy shit. That sort of commitment to the run is something the suburban dads who listen to The Score salivate over, so I hope they enjoy it. Minnesota has opened some almost unbelievably wide lanes for Dalvin Cook, and as the NFL’s leading rusher this season, he’s got the juice to take the ball all the way damn near every time he touches it. Needless to say, the matchups between Minnesota’s rushing attack and Chicago’s run defense look like the most likely factor in the outcome of Sunday’s tilt, so let’s get into it. For the dads.

Minnesota Run Offense: A kickass running attack needs two things: a killer line and a running back who can make people miss at the second level. Minnesota has both. Their line has the 4th best Adjusted Line Yards on the season thus far (a Football Outsiders metric attempting to quantify how much of a runner’s success is due to good blocking), and Dalvin Cook has the highest yards per carry average for any runs broken at least 11 yards from the line of scrimmage. These dudes can ball. Right Guard Josh Kline is in concussion protocol, and though it would make the Bears’ task easier on Sunday, it would be a bummer if the Hoffman Estates kid missed his chance to play in Chicago. Also, I’m sure he told everyone he grew up in the city when he made it to the NFL. Look for Minnesota to run left frequently, since they rank second in the NFL in success rate for runs to the left (also a Football Outsiders metric).

Chicago Run Defense: So much of what the Bears are trying to do up front is reliant on Akiem Hicks being an actual bear and wrecking plays in the backfield, so it’s with great anxiety that Bears fans wait to see if he’ll suit up on Sunday (as of this writing, he’s expected to be a game-time decision). The run defense with Hicks in so far has been dominant through three games: the defense has literally allowed a 0% success rate on runs that take place on 3rd/4th down with two yards to go or less, and they allow a measly 0.11 yards in the open field, a testament to the fast, swarming linebackers the Bears employ. If Hicks is indeed out, and since the thought is that the Bears will also potentially be missing Bilal Nichols, the defensive line will need to demonstrate their depth. Nick Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris, and Eddie Goldman will have a mammoth task ahead of them.

I fear the Bears defensive line might be too banged up to keep this Minnesota rushing attack to around the 69 yards a game they’re currently allowing (nice), but expect Chuck Pagano to load up the box to contain Dalvin Cook. Start Roquan Smith in fantasy if you play an IDP league, since I expect him to be around the ball early and often. Look for the Bears to drop HaHa into the box to hopefully stifle those big play opportunities before they get started, because if Cook gets a lane, it’s really just a matter of what angle Eddie Jackson takes to see if he goes to the house or not.

I’ll close this piece by speaking directly to the suburban dads in the audience. Dads, this game was made for you. It’s got everything that will remind you of the football of your childhood:
-Inept QB play
-Playcalling that YOU would do if given the chance (Payton left, Payton right, Payton middle, Punt)
-Hard nosed, smash-mouth football
-Most likely a lot of punts
-Grit
-A “glory boy” wide receiver on the other team for you to root against
-A white, small-school wide receiver on the other team for you to wish the Bears signed
-An early fall game where you can toggle the thermostat once or twice without any wise talk from the wife or kids

Final Prediction:

Dalvin Cook puts up a good fantasy football day, going for 121 and a touchdown, but Kirk Cousins is sacked five times and turns the ball over twice en route to a Bears win.

Bears win, 17-13.