The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 6 seed) and Chicago Bears (No. 3 seed) are set to play on Sunday at Soldier Field. In order to preview this Wild Card weekend matchup, I reached out to our enemies over at Windy City Gridiron. The judicious Jeff Berckes (@gridironborn) took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming game. Let’s take a look at his answers.
1 - Do you think the Bears made the right call to beat the Vikings and let the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles into the playoffs instead of just angling to play Minnesota a third time?
Short Answer: Yes
Painfully long answer: I get the argument on paper. Why would you want to face off against the defending Super Bowl champs? They’re on a roll. They’ve got their savior back under center, throwing up prayers downfield that Alshon Jeffery is answering. They’re getting healthy at the right time. They’ve got all this battle-tested experience. The Bears should’ve lost and let the Vikings come to Soldier Field!
I say bah – that’s not the way to approach it. The Vikings are a divisional rival. They’re not as hated as the Packers, sure, but a divisional rival nonetheless. Being able to end their season in such a convincing fashion was a nice cherry on top of the sundae. There is plenty of panic in Vikings-land this offseason and it sets a clear course for who the top dog will be coming into 2019. If they sneak into the playoffs, maybe they bring some of that confidence back next year. I loved that they went for it because this team is hungry and likes to win football games. In 2010, the Bears had a chance to knock out the hated Packers in week 17. The Bears failed to do so and eventually, the Bears lost at home to the Packers in the NFC Championship game before the Packers won the Super Bowl. It was a heartbreaking turn of events that I honestly believe led to the destruction of Lovie Smith’s tenure in Chicago and removed the fan base’s faith in Jay Cutler forever. Losing in the playoffs sucks, but tempting fate to invite the possibility of getting beat at home by a division rival – however strong of a favorite you might be – is not a good practice.
The obvious benefit to going for it was the outside chance of getting the #2 seed if the Rams dropped their finale to the 49ers. That didn’t work out, obviously, and while the Bears kept in a lot of starters through the 3rd quarter, they did rest a couple key players (Allen Robinson II and Eddie Jackson) to nurse injuries and did a great job of getting reps while protecting much of the key defensive personnel. If you watched the last part of that game, the Bears second string defense was shutting down the Vikings late too. There’s no guarantee that the Vikings would have come back in that one if the Bears called off the dogs earlier. The Bears didn’t empty the playbook and show anything that hasn’t been on film already and I don’t think there will be any lingering issues from this game.
Plus, this Bears team is really good and I quite frankly don’t think they care who they face. Are the Eagles a good football team? Sure. But there are a lot of good football teams in the playoffs. If the Bears can’t beat the Eagles, then they probably wouldn’t be able to go on the road and win in LA or New Orleans either. I say play the games with the mentality that you want to win them all and play whoever comes at you next.
2 - How did the Bears improve from being 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018? How has Matt Nagy’s addition specifically helped?
Let’s start at the top with General Manager Ryan Pace, the likely Executive of the Year. Pace absolutely killed it this off-season, landing key free agents, hitting on draft picks, and pulling off a franchise-defining trade. Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, and Anthony Miller give the Bears an actual, professional cadre of pass catchers – something that hasn’t been around since Alshon Jeffery left town. Rookies Roquan Smith, James Daniels, the aforementioned Miller, and Bilal Nichols have played well. Last year’s class has stepped up, highlighted by Eddie Jackson’s emergence as a star and Tarik Cohen’s playmaking ability. Finally, pulling the trigger on the trade for Khalil Mack and signing him to a big money extension has been worth all the draft capital and contract money invested in the All-Pro. We’ll get into the defense more later on, but having the fortitude to pull off a trade like this should be recognized.
However, the first thing he did in 2018 was fire John Fox and subsequently brought in Matt Nagy. Nagy was able to retain Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, which was his first victory, and brought in some creative offensive minds to help craft his offensive system. The Andy Reid disciple has completely remolded this franchise in his image. He has installed a system tailored to the strengths of Mitchell Trubisky, put the young quarterback in a position to succeed on a weekly basis, and has deployed a fun, creative play-calling approach that keeps a lot of players involved. There are times when Trubisky will throw to the 3rd string Tight End or hands off to the 3rd string Running Back and you think – what are we doing?! – but it has kept players involved and the team chemistry of this squad is through the roof. Some of the most creative play calls have involved defensive players on offense, including the TD carry by Akiem Hicks earlier this season or that 2-point conversion throw to backup linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski last week. There was one play where Trubisky was the only non-lineman on the field! When the defensive guys get on the field, they are incredibly excited to contribute. Keeping so many players involved has helped everybody buy in. This isn’t one of those squads where the offense and defense bicker and snipe at each other – it’s a true team concept. This guy is fun.
In following some of the Doug Pederson coverage from the last year, there are a lot of similarities between the two coaches and they reportedly have a good relationship with each other. Matt Nagy has the words “Be You” on the bottom corner of his call sheet to remind him to call the plays that he thinks will work. So far, it’s worked, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch.
3 - Mitchell Trubisky ranks around league average in a number of passing categories. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most), what’s the level of confidence in him going into the playoffs?
I’d say 7 based on the infrastructure around him and the number of good games that he’s put on tape this year. He’s far from a perfect product – it’s simply too early to know if he’s going to be an elite quarterback in this league or not – but he’s been very good in some tight spots this year. His worst game was against the Rams coming off a shoulder injury. Other than that, he’s steadily improved throughout the season and has managed to play within himself. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles defend him as he has the ability to beat you with his legs and has shown a lot of success making good throws against basic zone coverages. If the Bears offensive line can continue their impressive showing, I’m very confident that Trubisky can have success down the field against the depleted Eagles secondary.
4 - What makes the Bears’ defense so dang good?
The Bears boast three, maybe even four blue chip players and there really isn’t a weak spot on this unit. Everyone knows about Khalil Mack, but the biggest benefit of Mack is his unselfish nature and freeing up other players along the front 7 to take advantage of one on one match ups and running stunts with his line-mates. Akiem Hicks is an absolute force of nature that has emerged as a top-end playmaker in his own right. He was the best player on this defense a year ago but is probably now 3rd to Mack and Eddie Jackson. The Free Safety Jackson has emerged as an elite player and his range has allowed corners Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller to play more aggressive in coverage. Roquan Smith, the aforementioned rookie, has played incredibly well and looks the part of the blue chip player Bears fans thought they were getting with the 8th overall pick this year.
Vic Fangio and his staff have been able to slow down a lot of different offensive attacks throughout the season, including the big statement game against the Rams. They’ve stayed incredibly healthy and play together well as a unit. They like to take the ball away and get after the quarterback with and without blitzing. Oh, and they’re incredibly good at stopping the run. For the modern NFL, it’s hard to imagine a better defense.
5 - How have former Eagles players (Trey Burton, Cody Parkey, Chase Daniel) contributed to the Bears this season?
Burton has been great. I know there are some that question the size of the contract relative to the statistics but he’s been sure-handed and by all accounts a leader on the field. Burton emerged as the Bears candidate for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award and it’s impossible to imagine another team taking that particular prize more seriously than the Chicago Bears. I really like him, A+ signing.
Chase Daniel’s impact is probably not visible as he was brought in primarily to help Trubisky learn the system and be a mentor. Daniel played well enough to get a road win against the Lions on Thanksgiving but was pretty bad against the Giants. The takeaway there is that he’s probably good enough to help you in a pinch, but no one is going to yearn for him to take snaps over Trubisky.
Cody Parkey… ugh. Parkey has missed a lot of kicks, including what has to be a record number that have bounced off the uprights. It’s like the guy has a homing beacon tuned to them because a lot of the kicks he does make are flirting with that upright. I believe the Original Sin of the Ryan Pace administration was cutting ties with Robbie Gould in his first offseason. I understand Gould struggled in his last year in Chicago, but without a real replacement, the Bears have been searching for a kicker ever since and all Robbie has done is put together impressive campaigns in tough places to kick (Meadowlands and San Francisco). He’s my biggest worry headed into the postseason.
6 - Is there a revenge factor here for the Bears after the Eagles blew out Philly last year and danced a bunched (see: the Electric Slide)? Or no extra bitterness?
The what? When? Who?
If there’s bitterness as a Bears fan, it’s for things that actually mattered. Like the Hugh Douglas late hit on Jim Miller in the 2001 playoffs or hiring away Buddy Ryan. I like the current iteration of the Eagles and there are a number of similarities between the two squads. The Eagles are easily my favorite NFC East squad and I was happy for your championship last year. Great city, passionate fans, amazing cheesesteaks. Hopefully, Philly fans will cheer on the Bears this year if Chicago prevails on Sunday.
7 - If you could steal one player from the Eagles’ roster, who would it be?
As much as I love Alshon Jeffery, and it would allow me to wear his jersey again, the answer is Fletcher Cox. Sure, some might consider that overkill to add strength to strength, but can you really have enough pass rushers? Fletcher Cox is one of my favorite non-Bears players to begin with and letting him work on a defensive line with Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack? Forget about it.
8 - If you had to game plan against the Bears’ defense, how would you attack them?
You want to empty the playbook and use all of the tricks and misdirection you have. You’re going to want to get at least one long score by using their aggressiveness against them. The Giants scored on a throw from Odell Beckham Jr. to a backup Tight End, for example. Otherwise, you’re going to have to use a quick passing game and deliberately work your way down the field. Screens can be effective but run the screens away from Khalil Mack as he’s very good at breaking off his rush to blow everything up. I know Golden Tate hasn’t been a major factor yet, but he’ll need to step up and give the Bears something to think about in addition to Zach Ertz.
If you let Foles sit back in the pocket too long, he’s going to get beat up by the rush and a strip sack is likely. Throwing downfield has plenty of dangers with the Bears leading the league in interceptions. I have a lot of respect for the Eagles offensive line, but I’m not sure they’ll find success running the ball against this unit either, who led the league against the run. Short passing game with a few creative shot plays on misdirection might get it done.
9 - If you had to game plan against the Bears’ offense, how would you try to stop them?
I’d run every exotic coverage and formation that I could think of to try and confuse Trubisky. Do you have a creative blitz package you’ve been saving? Use it. Do you have some interesting ways to drop lineman into coverage or bring a corner on a blitz? Call it. If you get predictable, Nagy and Trubisky are going to find something that works and eat you up. If you can keep Trubisky off balance and confused, he’s probably going to throw a couple your way. I’d also find a way to pay close attention to Tarik Cohen. When the Bears need a big play, they often look to Cohen to provide the spark. The Eagles have some good linebackers, but Cohen will certainly challenge them in coverage.
The other thing I’d make sure to do is play a lot of zone coverages and/or dedicate an athletic player to spy Trubisky. Some of his best plays all year have been drive-extending scrambles. If those aren’t there, he may force one into coverage. Just be sure to mix up the zones enough to not allow easy reads. He can make all the throws on the field, but he hasn’t mastered reading the field yet.
10 - What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
I think the Bears win this one. I hopped on the Eagles bandwagon early last year as I was impressed by Wentz in his rookie year and Alshon Jeffery is still one of my favorite players, so I say this with all due respect. I just don’t think the Eagles are good enough to match up with the Bears in Soldier Field this year. The Bears have played well down the stretch and have won 9 of their last 10. The opening line was 5.5 and I think the Bears win and cover on the shoulders of a dominant defensive performance. I think the Bears defense takes the ball away from Foles multiple times, setting up short fields for Trubisky. I also have a feeling this is not the last time our teams will meet in the playoffs and that Wentz – Trubisky could be a fun watch for years to come. Here’s to a good game and good luck in the future.