By Dan Durkin—
(CBS) After hiring coach John Fox this past January, Bears general manager Ryan Pace turned his focus to filling out the coaching staff and likened those decisions to free-agent acquisitions. This was a sharp and prescient point made by the rookie general manager.READ MORE: Obama Presidential Center Groundbreaking Underway In Jackson Park Tuesday Afternoon
Given the state of the roster when Pace took over, one offseason wasn’t enough time to cure the personnel ills of an organization that has so frequently failed in the draft. Thus, the most immediate and impactful changes he could make to help change the course of a franchise lost at sea were in fact coaching related.
Changing the office door name plates at Halas Hall from Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Mel Tucker to Fox, Adam Gase and Vic Fangio was a coup for Pace and the Bears. Despite dropping the season opener to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the coaching upgrades made at Halas Hall were on display during the Bears’ 31-23 loss.
Gase and Fangio had a larger impact on the game than any of the newly acquired players, which is encouraging yet speaks to the larger issue at hand – while the Bears have closed the coaching gap in the NFC North, the talent gap remains. The best playmakers on both sides of the football were wearing green and gold – quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Competent coaching is a step in the right direction and also a sobering reminder of how much the bar was lowered by the previous regime.
Offensively, the Bears were able to play keep away with their run game for a half. Defensively, they were able to limit the Packers offense to three explosive passes (defined as 18 or more yards) and forced Rodgers to make throws that only he can.
Football is the ultimate team game, but most games — especially those decided by one score — are defined by a few individual plays and performances in crucial game situations like the red zone and third down. The Bears missed opportunities in these situations, while the Packers capitalized, as they have often in 10 of the last 11 meetings between these two teams.
The Packers converted four of their five trips into the Bears’ red zone into touchdowns. The Bears, on the other hand, scored only one touchdown on their three trips into the Packers’ red zone. They also committed two drive-killing plays inside the Packers’ 30-yard line in the second half — a first-down penalty (Matt Slauson holding) and a first-down turnover (Jay Cutler interception), which resulted in only three points.
Unlike their predecessors, Gase and Fox wisely fed the team’s best offensive weapon (and player) Matt Forte on a steady diet of outside zone runs. In 11 games last season, Forte had 17 or fewer total carries. He had 16 at halftime against the Packers.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they were unable to get the bootleg, play-action passing game going off of those runs. Assuming the commitment to the outside zone plays continues, there will be opportunities for Cutler to generate some explosive passes throughout the season.
The Packers’ base personnel package is their 2-4-5 nickel look, which affords them more speed on the field and creativity with their coverages. Gase utilized several heavy (three-tight end) sets, forcing the Packers to play more traditional 3-4 fronts.READ MORE: No New States Added To Chicago's Travel Advisory
In their heavy sets, the Bears successfully reached and sealed off the perimeter to clear alleyways for Forte, who was decisive and quick to get north and south. Heading into a contract year, Forte is incentivized to have a strong season. His training regiment is legendary, and his body has proved to be durable, but Gase must get Jacquizz Rodgers and Jeremy Langford more involved in the game plan.
The Bears played with more tempo offensively, frequently going no-huddle. This is a testament to Gase’s ability to successfully install his offense in one offseason, as Cutler was able to coordinate the offense at the line and back off when needed.
As is the case with most losses, there were coaching decisions worth scrutinizing. Gase’s decision to throw the ball on four straight plays in a goal-to-go situation from the Packers’ 6-yard line with the Bears trailing 24-16 midway through the fourth quarter was the turning point in the game.
The Bears’ offensive line looked like what they were — a group starting together for the first time. There were mental and physical breakdowns. The coaching staff must wear their failed evaluation of Charles Leno and Jordan Mills as potential solutions at right tackle. Valuable game-condition reps were lost for Kyle Long at right tackle during the preseason.
Defensively, the Bears played nickel almost exclusively in a 2-4-5 alignment, with split safeties over the top. Fangio pressed with his corners to challenge the releases of Packers’ receivers off the line of scrimmage and kept a top on the defense to limit explosive plays.
The Bears’ preferred coverage was Cover-2 man, which is five underneath man defenders with two safeties over the top splitting deep-half responsibilities. This defense affords bracketed coverage, but there is a drawback. With the underneath defenders manned up, their backs are turned to the quarterback. Twice in the second half, Rodgers climbed in the pocket and saw names on the backs of Bear defenders’ jerseys and scrambled for first downs.
The defensive line slanted at times but didn’t stunt or twist much. Later in the third quarter, Fangio started to dial up more inside pressures and switched up player alignments. Rodgers was occasionally moved off of his launch point, but in the end, he wasn’t sacked or hit, and no turnovers were forced. It’s been a common theme against the Packers.
Nursing a three-point lead to start the second half, the Bears defense surrendered touchdowns on the Packers’ first two drives. In what turned out to be the game-deciding drive, the Bears had four chances to get off the field on third down, yet didn’t.
An early Fox-ism is football is a “results-driven business.” Cosmetically, this game had a different look and slightly different feel to it, but in the end the results were the same.
As NFL fans, we consume the product in one-week bites. Each week, the lens is narrowly focused in on the outcome of a game. Bears fans must remember to widen their lens after each game during the 2015 season, as this is but the first year in a multi-year rebuild. The coaching foundation exists, but now the hard part begins — finding talented playmakers to consistently execute.MORE NEWS: Transgender Attorney Says Judges And Clerks Have Harassed Her; Fights For Change
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.