With the first four games in the books for the Chicago Bears, it’s time to gauge the team’s progress.
After opening up 0-3 with one of the more daunting starts in recent history, the Bears were able to get their first win in Week 4 against the Raiders. The development, especially from the defensive side, has been noticeable and should continue as the year goes on.
The team’s biggest issue so far are injuries. After losing first-round pick Kevin White to a shin fracture for at least half of the year, the bad news has not stopped.
Primary receiver Alshon Jeffery has played just one game, while quarterback Jay Cutler has played just two and a half games under center. Outside of that, the team has lost starting center Will Montgomery for the year, Jeremiah Ratliff is still recovering from an ankle injury after being suspended for the opening three games and now they will be without Antrell Rolle for an extended period of time.
Outside of injuries, there have been some negatives but also some encouraging signs have emerged. Let’s take a look at the first quarter report card.
As addressed in the opening, this offensive unit has been stung by the injury bug and it has impacted their top weapons, starting with Cutler, Jeffery and White, and has now moved to the team’s offensive line with Montgomery done for the season and left tackle Jermon Bushrod battling back and concussion issues.
Outside of the injuries, this unit has performed surprisingly well. Heading into Week 3, the unit ranked seventh in total offense but that rank took a dramatic hit with Jimmy Clausen against the Seahawks.
The offensive line is a mess but with a continued commitment to the run, they have controlled time of possession and continued to keep their defense off the field while averaging 123.5 rushing yards per game – 11th in the NFL.
The production of Chicago’s offense should increase with improved health, and outside of Clausen’s goose-egg in Week 3, they have been productive enough to win games.
For a unit that was ranked in the bottom five the past two years in nearly every statistical category, one learning a new 3-4 scheme, the transition is going smoother than most thought.
Through four games, Chicago’s defense ranks ninth in total yards. That’s slightly deceiving, due mainly to the 100-plus yards in pass interference calls that have gone against them. Overall though, this relatively talent-deprived unit is playing well above expectations.
Although the team has given up a total of 125 points thus far – which is 32st in the NFL - 21 of those came from kick/punt returns, seven from a pick-six, and 38 of those points have come from short fields of 55-yard drives or less.
Outside of the group performance, there have been a few standouts.
Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee has been everything the team hoped for and more. With 17 pressures, 13 stops (per Pro Football Focus) and 2.0 sacks, McPhee has been the “dog” he said he would be. His presence as a pass rusher has been consistent, while his aggressiveness and impact against the run has been superb.
Following not too far behind McPhee is Jarvis Jenkins, the former second-round pick who recently signed a one-year “prove it” deal for the veteran minimum. So far Jenkins has a team-high 3.0 sacks, eight stops (per PFF) and has been the team’s best defensive lineman.
Rookies Adrian Amos and Eddie Goldman have also played consistently well. Both have cracked the starting lineup and continue to develop, particularly Goldman, who picked up his first career sack last week.
With the secondary and inside linebackers loaded with question marks, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done a tremendous job building schemes that have held three of four opposing quarterbacks below 200 passing yards.
This unit is still figuring out this new scheme but after four games, sizable development has been obvious
For the third straight year, this has been a troubled unit. The coverage teams have given up three return touchdowns and rank dead last in kick return yardage (38.6 yards per return).
On the flipside, the Bears’ return game has been average (24.8 yards per kick return) but lacks the explosive big-play ability and overall blocking up front to create holes consistently.
The team’s saving grace has been kicker Robbie Gould, who is 9-for-9 in field goal attempts and is one of only four kickers in the league that is perfect with more than eight field goal attempts. Punter Patrick O’Donnell ranks ninth in overall punting average (47.6).
Although two of the three specialists have been well above average in terms of performance, the unit as a whole has simply not been up-to-par.
Through the first four games of the season, the team’s overall product has been defined by coaching.
Whether it’s John Fox’s conservative approach, offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s ability to control the play clock and build game plans around the strengths of his player, or Vic Fangio’s job of turning a talent-starved defense into a respectable unit, it has become apparent that Chicago’s staff has this team moving in the right direction.
Coming out of a daunting three game-stint in which the Bears faced three playoff teams from the 2014 season, two of which will likely play in the NFC Championship game this year, the club’s first-quarter results have been as many expected: 1-3.
It’s been simple, really. Health has been a major issue and this is just not a very talented team.
Even without good health or a workable amount of talent, this new coaching staff has put the Bears in a position to compete in each game. Obviously, this team is a work in progress and there will be no quick fix in 2015 but if the first four games have shown anything, it’s that they will play hard and compete to the end of the game, something that hasn’t been true the past two years.
Looking ahead to the next four games, the Bears face a pair of 1-3 teams before their Wee 7 bye week and finish with a pair of 2-2 teams. With improved health and continued development, they just might steal a game or two in the second quarter of the season to help build some confidence moving into the final half of the campaign.