LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Chicago Bears are staring down at the rest of the NFC North for the first time in five years.
The view from the top is quite a change for a franchise stuck at the bottom the past few seasons.
The Bears meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in a matchup between unlikely division leaders, with Chicago in sole possession of first place for the first time since Marc Trestman was the coach and Jay Cutler the quarterback.
“Just says we’re in the right direction,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We’re in the right place. Goes to show that we’re still working hard. It’s tough out here to stack them wins, but we’re up for it.”
Tampa Bay (2-1) is tied with New Orleans and Carolina for the NFC South lead, a bit of a change for a franchise with one winning season since 2010. The Buccaneers are coming off a 30-27 loss to Pittsburgh in which they fell behind by 20 and fell short after holding the Steelers scoreless in the second half.
Now, they have to decide if they’ll stick with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick or go with Jameis Winston at quarterback. Winston’s three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy is over.
“I’m impressed because no one thought we’d be here,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “But I’m also disappointed at the same time because I feel like we had a real opportunity to be 3-0 instead of 2-1.”
The Bears (2-1) came into the season expecting more after four straight last-place finishes in their division, though first place seemed like a stretch even after the blockbuster trade with Oakland for Khalil Mack on Sept. 1. But here they are with sole possession of the NFC North lead for the first time since Week 16 in 2013.
They’ve won two in a row after a 16-14 nail-biter at Arizona last week. And if they beat Tampa Bay, they’ll match their longest run since a 3-0 start in 2013.
Here are some things to know:
The Bucs remain mum on whether Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick will start against the Bears. Fitzpatrick has thrown for a league-leading 1,230 yards and 11 TDs and is the first in NFL history to top 400 yards passing in three consecutive games. Koetter informed both QBs who will take the first snap Sunday, however he’s in no hurry to let the Bears or the rest of the world know.
“Hope everybody can appreciate that it doesn’t do us any good to tell our opponents what we’re going to do,” Koetter said.Dominant ‘D’
Mack has been everything the Bears could have wanted when they made the trade with Oakland just before the start of the season. The two-time All-Pro is tied for the league lead with four sacks and has at least one in each game, including two last week. He is also tops in the NFL with three forced fumbles.
But he has hardly been the lone contributor on defense.
Trevathan and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks each have two sacks. Hicks also has two forced fumbles.
Making their points
Tampa Bay has the NFL’s No. 1 ranked offense with 1,420 yards, seventh-most in league history through three games. The team’s 1,202 yards passing are the second-most at this point in a season. New England had 1,313 yards passing through three games in 2011.
The Bucs are averaging 34 points per game, tied for third among league leaders. Their 102 points are a team record through three games.
With four trips to the end zone, the Bears are struggling to get touchdowns from their offense. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has been shaky, and coach Matt Nagy might reduce the playbook this week.
But he insists it’s just a matter of the offense needing time to come together rather than a personnel problem.
“We know right now offensively we’re not where we want to be,” Nagy said. “But we’re not in any type of panic mode because we understand that part of the process, but we’re going to do everything we can to try to get better.”
Trubisky will be making his 16th career start and will have the equivalent of a full NFL season under him after this game.
His 77.8 rating is barely better than the 77.5 he had in 12 games as a rookie under John Fox last season. He has more interceptions (three) than touchdown passes (two).
But he’s also adjusting to his second system in as many seasons after being drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.
“I’m still getting better,” Trubisky said. “We still have to look at the improvements I have been making and not mistakes I have been making.”
As the challenges become more difficult, the Falcons elevate their play to greater heights. They have entered games with a do-or-die mindset for several weeks now. From coping with a hostile environment in New Orleans to engaging in a hard-fought battle against Carolina, Dan Quinn’s squad has encountered playoff-like settings since Christmas Eve. A trip to Los Angeles appeared to be even more problematic on paper. The NFC darlings looked sensational for most of the season. Most coaching staffs were left befuddled after trying to out-coach Sean McVay and Wade Phillips.
With Quinn under scrutiny for some questionable clock management decisions in recent weeks, this was a massive stage for him. The same applied to Steve Sarkisian, who Quinn brought in two days after the Super Bowl debacle. How would the embattled offensive coordinator fare against the best defensive coordinator in the league? Could Quinn and Marquand Manuel slow down the NFL’s most creative offense? While there were plenty of enticing individual matchups on both sides of the ball, the coaching battle was ultimately going to be the deciding factor. That’s usually the case between two extremely talented teams. To some surprise, it was the Falcons who emerged victorious.
A consistent top-tier defense is upon us in Atlanta
There will always be some pessimism in regards to the Falcons’ defense. When something is labeled as mediocre to below average for over a decade, you become accustomed to them never being able to ascend past it. The Falcons were either considered as a “bend but don’t break” defense or simply one of the worst units in the league. They always looked a step behind on passing plays. If it weren’t for John Abraham, the pass rush would essentially become non-existent. Between underachieving defensive tackles and overwhelmed linebackers, the list is endless.
Those dreary days appear to be long gone. After two impressive performances against divisional foes in high-pressure situations, Quinn’s young hungry defense faced their biggest assignment yet. Attempting to stop an offense averaging 30 points per game is a difficult task in itself. To do it against a coach that does some of his finest work against Cover 3 defenses should be viewed as a remarkable achievement. According to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, the Falcons played Cover 3 on 52 percent of their snaps this season. What seemed like a favorable matchup for the Rams turned into a feast for the Falcons.
They did a superb job handling their run fits and playing stout coverage on the back end. Limiting Todd Gurley was clearly their main objective. By preventing him from getting into the open field, he didn’t have a huge impact on the game. His final stat line ended up being slightly inflated. If you exclude two consecutive runs of 14 and 33 in the fourth quarter, Gurley had 12 carries for 54 yards. Deion Jones led the charge once again with another masterful showing. The second-year player is quickly establishing himself as one of the premier middle linebackers.
How the Falcons neutralized Gurley in the passing game played a significant role in their success. After torching defenses all season, the Rams couldn’t execute their signature misdirection screens. Gurley had nearly as many drops (three) as catches (four). Jones repeatedly closed him down to force the stellar running back into gaining only ten yards on ten targets. While Jones shined, there were plenty of other contributions behind hindering Gurley. It involved making open field tackles.
Facing the likes of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey in prior games proved to be beneficial in this matchup. Brian Poole and Keanu Neal made several tackles to stop Gurley from picking up yards after contact. It was essential to keep the league leader in yards after catch from finding space to flourish in the open field. Taking away a special player’s best avenue for success is how you prevail in a pivotal matchup. Not allowing the MVP candidate any opportunities to create something after the catch made for a successful night.
To allow a mere 13 points reveals how they excelled in other major areas. Gurley isn’t the sole reason behind the Rams’ excellence after the catch. They finished fourth in that category. McVay’s offense has a wide variety of weapons that can make explosive plays. As Quinn alluded to in the post game press conference, the back seven made open field tackles all game long. It forced Jared Goff into more third and long situations, which played right into their hands. Dialing up well-timed blitzes with De’Vondre Campbell bursting through the A-Gap produced a third down stop and huge sack in the red zone during the fourth quarter.
Despite not dealing with a major amount of pressure, Goff started pressing as the game wore on. The young quarterback didn’t have to play from behind very often this season. Quinn knew how important it was to make him play fast. With assistance from the offense’s time of possession domination, Goff looked rattled and couldn’t make the required big-time throws. His supporting cast let him down at times, but the Falcons’ secondary didn’t allow many clear openings.
The trio of Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal has garnered most of the headlines. While all three studs continue to play at a high level, one steady veteran is playing his best football at an opportune time. Robert Alford was lights out for the second consecutive game. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed two receptions on eight targets along with two pass breakups. The under-appreciated cornerback shouldn’t be forgotten amongst a defense filled with tremendous young talent. Opposite Desmond Trufant on the right side, he was immense in forcing the Rams to go five for fourteen on third down. They combined for five of the ten passes defensed to do their share for what must be considered a top-ten defense.
A memorable gutsy effort from Matt Ryan
While analysts are changing their perception regarding the Falcons’ defense, they will look to do the same about Ryan. The constant discussion about statistical regression overshadowed a major improvement to his game. His pocket movement has been sensational at times this season. Top quarterbacks know how to sense pressure, maneuver in the pocket, and keep their eyes looking downfield. Ryan hasn’t always been comfortable handling pressure. It showed earlier this season when Ryan Schraeder was sidelined for two games. Times have drastically changed with Ryan showing tremendous poise under dire circumstances.
Aaron Donald’s onslaught forced Ryan to throw practically every pass on the move during the first half. The near-unstoppable destroyer made Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer look like they never played football before. Things could have gone south quickly, yet Ryan remained as composed as ever. Finding Julio Jones proved to be the winning recipe. After struggling to connect for most of December, Atlanta’s all-time most reliable connection delivered. When targeting Jones, the franchise quarterback’s passer rating was 147.2.
It started with Ryan escaping the pocket to hit him on a deep comeback. Due to Donald affecting nearly every play, they had to work mostly underneath. That doesn’t faze Jones, who embraces contact and looks to pick up yards after the catch at every opportunity. The superstar wide receiver turned eight-yard completions into 12-16 yard gains. When everything started to click, they faced one final roadblock.
Scoring in the red zone is still a persistent problem following a two for four effort on Saturday. That didn’t stop Ryan from floating a beautiful ball over the top to Jones on a well-designed play action fake. How the reigning MVP made a picture-perfect throw, while losing balance due to awful field conditions was extraordinary. It ended up being one of many successful off-balance throws that helped Ryan secure his first ever playoff win on the road.
Sarkisian’s stamp of approval
On the same day former Falcons’ offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey won the most important game of his career, the current Falcons offensive coordinator did brilliantly in the most important game of his young NFL career. One of the major criticisms behind Sarkisian’s approach is his inability to make adjustments. The Falcons struggled mightily in the second half of games this season. Sarkisian merited most of the blame based on his inability to exploit an opposing defense’s flaws and devise plays to create space for an array of explosive playmakers.
As the Falcons started losing momentum heading into halftime, they needed an immediate strong response. A 16-play drive featuring 12 runs proved to be effective. The first three drives of the second half went for eight plays or more, which translated into 13 points. Behind a much-improved offensive line in the second half, Sarkisian leaned on his dynamic running back duo. When it was time to mix it up, he called numerous quick high-percentage passing plays to minimize Donald’s impact. A well-timed 52-yard screen to Mohamed Sanu became a major turning point. Two plays later, Sarkisian solved the Julio Jones red zone conundrum with a fantastic play design to get him on the move.
After witnessing a ridiculous first half where Ryan was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury, Sarkisian made astute adjustments to stop Donald from single-handily wrecking the game. His incisive play calling allowed the Falcons to control the ball for most of the second half. For them to have 37 minutes of possession is the mark of a well-drawn out, well-executed game plan. It tired out the Rams’ ultra aggressive front seven and kept the NFL’s most explosive offense off the field for lengthy periods of time.
Following two consecutive convincing victories over the Panthers and Rams, the Falcons have put the entire league on notice. The defense is making explosive offenses look ordinary. Ryan continues to make wise decisions and sharp throws. Surviving the NFL’s most dominant player should give them confidence heading into Philadelphia. Other than Jacksonville, no front four is more lethal than the Eagles’ deep rotation. A well-rounded defense and strong running game will make them difficult to beat on the road. As Quinn channels his inner Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Falcons aren’t thinking about a return to the Super Bowl yet. They are preparing to continue their playoff road trip beyond Philadelphia.