Bears film study: Defensive scheme has covered up past mistakes
This week's victory by the Bears came with a deep mystery.
The previous two seasons the defense fell apart when tackle Akiem Hicks was out with injuries. But with Hicks sidelined by a groin strain, the defense delivered a high-level performance in Sunday's 20-9 win over the Raiders.
How and why did this happen? Let's check the film:
Filling the gaps: The pass rush has picked up some juice this season. Robert Quinn promised to be better and he is. Trevis Gipson has come a long way in his second season and Angelo Blackson has been a great addition.
A lot of this can probably also be attributed to new defensive coordinator Sean Desai. He's done a nice job of closing up the weak spots.
The last couple of years, the Bears gave up too many long runs, often because Roquan Smith charged into the wrong gap or the two linebackers got in each other's way. That's not happening this year.
There were also times when teams would put together entire touchdown drives just by picking on linebacker Danny Trevathan or nickel Buster Skrine in coverage. I doubt if Duke Shelley is any significant upgrade over Skrine, but Desai is not putting him in vulnerable spots. They seem to have a better plan for covering the running backs out of the backfield or the tight end running across the formation.
Desai's defense has been aggressive without being stupid aggressive. Many times, the Bears crowded the line of scrimmage, sometimes with 10 defenders, but rarely blitzed. They've been content to give up short completions, then swarm to the ball.
There's an element of "bend but don't break" in this system, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not every team will implode in the red zone like the Lions and Raiders, but the Bears are also building confidence in the new scheme.
Needless to say, Aaron Rodgers, Devante Adams and friends will present a much different challenge Sunday. But considering the most significant personnel change on defense was releasing CB Kyle Fuller, this defense has been a pleasant surprise.
Three Bars a winner: Using an extra offensive lineman is a plan the Bears have used a few times in past seasons, and Alex Bars was the featured bonus blocker in Las Vegas.
Combined with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's more creative game plan, the Bears made nice use of Bars. On the first play they ran to the opposite side of Bars. Several times his presence signaled a likely run, but the Bears threw the ball. They used Ryan Nall as a fullback once.
My pick for the Bears' best play of this game was the final snap of the first quarter. They used Darnell Mooney in jet sweep action to move a defender, then ran Damien Williams around left end while Bars and Jason Peters just crumbled that side of the Raiders' defense. Williams also got a nice block from Allen Robinson and picked up 14 yards.
The run game worked out perfectly because Justin Fields didn't have to do anything out of the ordinary, until back-to-back beautiful completions to Mooney and Cole Kmet in the fourth quarter.
With the offensive line, it's starting to feel like the end of last season when the middle three of Bars, Sam Mustipher and Cody Whitehair built nice chemistry. Now James Daniels is in Bars' old spot at right guard. Daniels isn't much of a masher, but is very good on the move, so they're starting to figure out a plan that works, with Daniels often releasing to chase down a linebacker.
Raider disclaimer: This was a good performance by the Bears defense, but obviously this could have been a different game without some astonishing Las Vegas miscues. Last year, the Bears were making the big mistakes, so maybe it's a positive sign.
Fields day: This game should be a vote against more running plays for Fields. He takes enough big hits as is it. No need to shorten his season.
Worst play: Two weeks in a row Matt Nagy challenged a play he had no chance to win, but who's counting?