The Chicago Bears have struggled defending No. 1 wide receivers this year
When teams prepare gameplans at the beginning of the week, one of the first things they do is to search for tendencies. Among the first on that list: what and whom do they target on third downs? For the Chicago Bears, that makes Sunday’s defensive strategy in the 35-16 loss to the Green Bay Packers all the more mind-boggling.
Soon-to-be All-Pro wideout Davante Adams finished the season tied for the second-most receptions on third down (24), with nearly a fourth of those coming against Chicago, backbreaking the Bears’ soft zone coverages and conservative, defenses on the way to potential scores.
It’s difficult to pick one prevailing reason to be nervous about the Bears being just mediocre enough to stumble into the NFC’s No. 7 seed, thus setting a date with the New Orleans Saints. But the first one that immediately comes to mind?
A matchup with the 2019 AP Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas.
Do you want to gauge a fan’s knowledge of football? Ask them what they think about Thomas. Contrary to popular belief, he was among the most dynamic receivers against both zone and man coverage and was the NFL’s most productive threat on just about any short-to-intermediate route.
The Sunday schedule opens the door for Alvin Kamara to play. But personally, Thomas should be regarded as the most dangerous man on the field.
Knowing what we know about the Bears’ defensive scheme doesn’t help. Thomas feeds his family through routes mostly within the boundaries, as either a slot receiver or through in-breaking routes. In his most recent game against Chicago, he drew multiple different matchups.
But how much confidence can one have in either the slot corner or linebackers covering Thomas? Among the ten linebackers dropping into coverage the most in 2020-21, the Bears own two of them.
Third downs, in my eyes, will be the great equalizer. How many times last Sunday did the Bears give themselves a favorable situation with a chance to get off the field, only to fall short? Rodgers was 4-of-6 for 105 yards and a score in such scenarios, hitting Adams twice for two crucial conversions.
And now, thinking of Thomas — PFF’s No. 1 graded wideout on third downs not long ago in this very system — he’s gotten the better of this very Bears defense on pivotal downs in the past. One play immediately comes to mind.
The Saints have Thomas motion across the formation, but notice how no one attempts to jam or stop his momentum. By this point, it’s a dead giveaway that the Chicago Bears are in zone, and that point is further proven by, well … HaHa Clinton-Dix’s point that lets his teammates know he’s leaving his zone. It almost looks like a zone match coverage from the broadcast view.
Regardless, it boils down to a singular point: it’s hard to trust the Bears on third downs against excellent receivers. We’ve seen the likes of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Davante Adams, and A.J. Brown expose Pagano’s third-down plans.
Now, the Bears are preparing to battle a receiver who had an NFL-high 27 third-down snags in 2019, and had been the No. 1 most targeted receiver on third-and-short?
If there’s a blueprint to stopping it, the Chicago Bears would be among the first to find it. In the 2019 game, Chicago tried Kyle Fuller’s off-coverage, keeping linebackers in the middle, and bail technique looks at the line of scrimmage, encouraging him to take the inside. The end result? A nine-catch, 131-yard performance.
Injuries have sidelined him, but at full health, he’s in my eyes, the best wide receiver in football. He’s been resting since Week 15, started just five games, and still was on pace for a 1,000-yard season when adjusted to a 16-game schedule.
How the Bears manage that matchup will be where my eyes fall on Sunday. And unless the Bears’ secondary grows a few inches by Sunday, or comes up with a creative way to bottle up such an efficient playmaker, it could get ugly.