Chicago Bears vs. L.A. Rams how to watch, stream: Preview, pick, statistics to know for 'Sunday Night Football'
Everything you need to know about the showdown of NFC contenders
This week's edition of Sunday Night Football (8:15 p.m., NBC) pits two NFC heavyweights against each other.
For one of the two contenders, actually being a contender is not much of a surprise. The Los Angeles Rams were last year's surprise team, running off an 11-5 record on their way to winning the NFC West in the first year of the Sean McVay era. But after they lost in the first round of the playoffs, the Rams went out and had the most aggressive offseason of any team in the NFL. They traded for Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. They signed Ndamukong Suh. And so, they were widely expected to be one of the best teams in the NFC, which is exactly what they are.
The Chicago Bears got some dark-horse buzz as a "this year's Rams" type. The comparison made sense on the surface. The Bears had a second-year quarterback who had been terrible as a rookie but was getting what was perceived as a massive coaching upgrade from an older, out-of-touch coach (John Fox) to a young, offensive whiz kid (Matt Nagy). They now had a quarterback being put in better position to succeed, some new weapons (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Anthony Miller) to work with, and the existing infrastructure of a good defense and an experienced coordinator (Vic Fangio). Still, there was some pushback to the idea that the Bears could be the next Rams because, well, a team doing what last year's Rams did is just really rare. And yet, here the Bears are, sitting in first place in the NFC North and looking like a legitimate contender. Their offense did not become quite the machine the Rams' did last season, but it's a whole lot better than it was last year. And the defense is legit.
Now, we get to see these two teams do battle on a big stage. This should be fun.
When the Bears have the ball
The widespread expectation is that the Bears will get Mitchell Trubisky back on the field for this game after the quarterback sat out each of the past two weeks with a shoulder injury. The Chase Daniel Era was a mildly successful one for Chicago, with the Bears going 1-1 against two also-ran teams (Lions, Giants) but maintaining their strong hold on their NFC North lead. Still, it does not make much sense to dig into what happened in those two games, as they will likely hold little significance for Sunday.
Instead, let's look at what the Bears did during their first 10 games, with Trubisky under center. Much like the Rams did in 2017, the 2018 Bears under Trubisky took massive offensive jumps across the board. They went from 30th in yards and 29th in points last year to 16th in yards and sixth in points during the first 11 weeks of this season. And they went from 28th in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA, to 14th. Again, these are not quite 2017 Rams-level leaps but they are pretty damn close, and enough to take the Bears from the offensive basement to the realm of respectable. And they've also shown throughout this season that when they really get rolling, they have an incredibly high ceiling. (The Bears are one of just five teams that have scored 40 or more points multiple times this season.)
The most obvious improvement this season has come from Trubisky. That's not to say he's been perfect, as he has still struggled with inaccuracy, turnovers, and bone-headed plays, but last year he was barely playable, and this year he has for the most part been average or better every week. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the jump he has made from Year 1 to Year 2. It seems safe to say that he is simply better at everything.
Having Nagy scheme him into position to succeed helps, as does having weapons more capable of making plays on the perimeter and over the middle of the field. Trubisky has been under pressure on 27 percent of his drop backs this season, per Pro Football Focus, which represents a steep drop from last year's 36 percent rate. His pass-catchers have dropped only seven of 321 throws (2.2 percent) as opposed to the 19 of 330 (5.8 percent) they dropped a year ago. Nagy is having him push the ball farther downfield, as his average depth of throw this season is 9.83 yards (fifth out of 35 qualified passers) compared to just 8.1 yards last season (30th out of 40).
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One thing that's helped immensely is adjusting the usage of the team's running backs. Last year, Tarik Cohen was on the field for only 389 of the Bears' 934 offensive plays. That's a 41.6 percent snap rate. This season, he's been on the field for 375 of 766 plays, a 49.0 percent rate. Not only that but he has been used more often. Cohen averaged 5.4 rushes and 3.3 catches per game last season, but this year those figures are up to 6.2 and 4.9 per game, respectively. And he's doing more with his touches, spiking from 5.2 to 7.3 yards per touch. Jordan Howard, conversely, has seen his snap-share decline along with his effectiveness. After averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie and 4.1 per carry last year, he's all the way down at 3.4 per carry this season. His passing-game role has been heavily reduced, as Cohen is simply a better fit for the kinds of things the Bears want to do offensively.
And the things they want to do offensively should at least work fairly well against the Rams. L.A. is able to get pressure up front with Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler, but they've been vulnerable through the air all season and their run defense has been dreadful for much of the year. Peters' acquisition came with a ton of hype but he has been one of the NFL's most-burned cornerbacks this year, allowing a 126.0 passer rating on throws in his direction. That's like turning every quarterback into Drew Brees, but better.
The Rams as a whole have struggled to contain No. 1 wideouts (Allen Robinson) and slot men (Anthony Miller), as well as deep throws (Taylor Gabriel) and throws over the middle (Trey Burton). Just about the only things they've done well in the passing game are cover short passes and running backs, which makes it seem like Cohen could struggle to make an impact, but then you remember that the Rams' run defense has been dreadful and, well, that seems somewhat less likely. What the Rams are instead banking on here is Trubisky being rusty come off a nearly three-week break, the cold weather affecting the pass game, and the pressure up front getting the better of Chicago's offensive line.
When the Rams have the ball
The Rams, one of the best offensive teams in the NFL, are coming off a muted performance against the Lions, in what may have been their worst offensive game of the year. The Rams poured in 30 points, sure, but they gained just 344 yards, their second-lowest total of the season, and also turned the ball over twice. After reeling off 54 points in the Game of the Year against the Chiefs prior to their bye, last week's output was a bit of a letdown.
And if they think the Lions defense was tough last week, well ... just wait. The Bears rank third in the NFL in yards allowed per game and fifth in points allowed per game, as well as first (by a significant margin) in defensive DVOA. They rank first in DVOA against both the run and the pass. They generate a ton of pressure with Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, and Akiem Hicks. Their corners (Prince Amukamara, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan) are all strong in coverage and their safeties (Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos) are some of the best playmakers in the league. Their linebackers (Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan) make plays all over the field. They do not have very many weaknesses.
The one thing the few quarterbacks who have had success against the Bears this year have in common is that they've done so using a heavy mixture of short passes and screen plays. Brock Osweiler went 28 of 44 for 380 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks in Miami's surprising win over the Bears in Week 6. Of his 28 completions, five were behind the line of scrimmage and another 18 -- including all three touchdowns -- came on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The following week, Tom Brady went 25 of 36 for 277 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick against the Bears. Of his 25 completions, five were behind the line of scrimmage and another 16 were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. All three of his touchdowns fit those criteria as well.
Luckily for the Rams, they excel on short passes and screens. They've gained 363 yards on screens this season, per Sports Info Solutions, fifth-most in the NFL. And that's not just volume. They've thrown only 40 screen passes, good for 17th in the league. And on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Jared Goff is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. He's completed 128 of 201 such throws, for 1,289 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. That's a 103.8 passer rating that ranks fourth-best in the NFL. Using running back screens and smoke screens to the outside and jet sweeps may be necessary in this game to keep the Bears' pass-rushers at bay -- especially in the cold weather, which Goff and company aren't used to. They've played just one cold-weather game this season and it was arguably their worst game of the year.
As in that game, there will be some intriguing passing-game matchups to watch out for. The Bears play sides with their cornerbacks and have not shadowed this year. Amukamara mans the right corner slot while Kyle Fuller plays on the left and Bryce Callahan stays in the slot. That means both Amukamara and Fuller will see plenty of both Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds, though the Rams could align one of them on one side of the field more often if there's a certain matchup they want. Knowing how Sean McVay operates, though, that seems somewhat unlikely to happen. Even though he keeps the same personnel on the field at almost all times, he likes to move them around to create confusion even while showing the same personnel package and post-snap look. On the inside, Robert Woods will likely do battle with Callahan for much of the evening, as he has spent the majority of his time in the slot since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL.
The Rams love to get their receivers (and tight ends and Todd Gurley) moving on crossers and to flood zones with multiple receivers at different levels of the field, allowing Goff to make simple reads and fire the ball into wide windows. Their offense is as well-designed as any in all of football. They make things as easy as possible for everyone involved and then they all execute everything at an extremely high level. Everything flows from the danger of Todd Gurley and the run game, which is somewhat unusual for a modern NFL team, but works for the Rams because of A) how damn good Gurley is running the football; B) the strength of their offensive line; and C) their proficiency on play-action plays.
Their run game does not really consist of much more than inside zone and outside zone, but good luck trying to stop either of those plays with all the bells and whistles McVay puts on them to distract from the fact that they mostly just want to run the ball down your throat. Rarely does a play go by without some sort of motion or play-fake, even if it's just designed to hold one guy on the back side so Gurley can cut back if he wants to. Gurley has incredible feet, balance, vision, and quick-strike ability, and he can score from literally anywhere, at any time. Add in the fact that he is a marvelous blocker and pass-catcher, and you can see why he rarely comes off the field. Just the threat that Goff might hand the ball to Gurley is often enough to terrify opposing defenses, and that's why the Rams run more play-action than any team in the league, and why Goff is so good at it.
This Bears defense is as good as it gets. They're unlikely to get smoked off the field the way the Chiefs defense did when the played the Rams. But they may just not have enough to really shut these guys down.
Prediction: Rams 24, Bears 20
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