It’s how you finish: Bears, defense, must close better to cap first playoff season since 2010
By Robert Zeglinski
As the adage goes, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. For the Bears and their still elite defense, they’ve had trouble on the latter throughout the 2018 season.
You saw it on Sunday when a receiver in the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. uncorked a 50-yard touchdown pass to a completely uncovered target, Russell Shepard. You saw when it Beckham himself, one of the NFL’s best offensive playmakers, was left completely covered on a later touchdown. You saw it when Saquon Barkley continually ran up and down the field to the tune of 125 rushing yards.
None of these problems are new or unfamiliar to the Bears in the last three months. While they’re at or near the top in most relevant statistics like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, takeaways, and rushing defense, there’s been an occasional curious lack of an edge when it comes to the final stanzas of games. As great and talented as the Bears are defensively at every level, they’ve had issues closing and letting opponents hang around when they shouldn’t. A defense that prides itself on being the catalyst for the rest of the team instead offering little resistance when it matters most.
If the Bears are to get into the postseason dance for the first time since 2010, let alone do any damage once they get there, it’s time they develop more of a collective killer instinct.
The genius at the heart of this issue is of course, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fangio is a good defensive coordinator. Sometimes, he’s even a great defensive coordinator. As NBC’s Peter King reported last week, he should be a head coaching candidate this January, which speaks volumes of how the NFL views him: “When we hear the candidates for the 2019 class of the new head coaches, the only defensive coach I hear consistently is Vic Fangio.”
Before his future in Chicago could ever be reasonably discussed, Fangio’s defense has entirely too many lapses as a top, elite unit, and especially in the clutch. One moment the Bears are attacking and ravenous, and look like they can’t be beat. The next, they’re consistently gashed downfield and are entirely incapable of getting off of it.
Through 12 games, the Bears have averaged allowing 13.3 points per second half: good enough for ninth most in the NFL. In each of their four defeats to the Packers, Dolphins, Patriots, and Giants, they’ve averaged allowing 20 points in those respective second halves. They allowed Green Bay, Miami, New England, and New York to convert a collective 15 of 30 third downs: a horrendous 50 percent efficiency rate which would rank third worst in pro football.
For perspective, on the entire year the Bears allow 20.1 points per game: fourth least in the NFL. On the whole, they allow a mere 35.1 percent of third down conversions, also fourth least in the NFL. In each of their losses, they essentially have matched their entire game point marks over the course of 30 minutes, and let teams continue drives on half of their opportunities.
When they’ve had to get off the field in the clutch, they haven’t. When they’ve had to shut the door on scoring drives, they’ve kicked the door open.
To chalk it up to garbage time and prevent defense would be mistaken too, as games like against the Giants on Sunday or poor Vikings on Sunday Night Football a few weeks ago all had their outcomes still well in doubt when the Bears’ floodgates opened. There’s letting the foot off the gas, and there’s stepping on the opposition’s throat like good teams do. The Bears not only let their foot off the gas, they stop the car and decide to park.
By every respective measure, the Bears have the NFL’s best defense. Just … not when it comes to finishing opponents off when they’re lying on the mat. If not for incredible individual plays by Prince Amukamara against the Seahawks way back in Week 2, or Eddie Jackson’s back-to-back pick-sixes against Minnesota and the Lions in November, this Chicago defense is viewed under an entirely different prism. One that isn’t favorable to their overall success that’s driven Bears’ resurgence.
The Bears’ defensive second half struggles are a real shame considering that the offense has actually performed particularly well at the close of games, even with backup Chase Daniel starting at quarterback the last two weeks.
Over the course of the entire 2018 season, Chicago’s offense is scoring 13.4 points per game in second halves. A little off the Bears’ game mark of 28.7 points per game, but essentially the same level of production from break to break. There have been moments where the Bears offense has faced lulls and put the defense in a less than ideal position, no doubt. Those have still been farther and fewer in between than you’d evidently expect.
“You can never blame a game on one play, on one thing, it’s cumulative,” Hicks said after the Bears’ disappointing loss in New Jersey. “It’s everything that happened today.”
Better said, it’s everything that happened once the Bears defense was forced to and failed to finish in the second half.
With four games to go, it doesn’t get any easier for this defense struggling to finish. In come the 11-1 Rams this Sunday, who score effortlessly and at will. There is not a better offense at scoring second half points than Los Angeles at a blistering 17.6 points per game in the final 30 minutes. If the Bears don’t perk their ears up and get on their toes defensively, they could be in for yet another brutal finish. Something they’ll have to avoid if they want to get back into the thick of the NFC playoff race.
“From here on out, no matter who we’re playing, every game is going to be the biggest game of the season,” head coach Matt Nagy said.
The Bears defense would be wise to treat them that way.
Robert is an editor, writer, producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.