Key Matchups To Watch: Bears Vs Rams
Sean McVay vs Matt Nagy/ New Defensive Coordinators.
Sunday night will mark the fourth meeting between Sean McVay and Matt Nagy in as many seasons. While both are offensive minded head coaches, the three previous games have been defensive slugfests with the losing team being held to just over 7 points per game and the winner scoring just under 19 points per game. This scoring total is about half of the league average of 49.4 points per game. It must also be pointed out that a total of 22 points have been scored after a defense created a turnover, a turnover on downs, or a safety. Which means only 56 points have been scored after a punt or a kickoff in three games.
The defensive tie that binds these two teams heading into Sunday’s tilt is Vic Fangio. Fangio was the defensive coordinator in 2018 when his defense derailed the Rams supercharged offensive freight train. Long story short; The Bears defense held a team that averaged over 30 points a game to just six points. For his efforts in 2018 Fangio was rewarded with a head coaching job and the Bears hired Chuck Pagano who has since retired and have promoted Fangio acolyte Sean Desai to head the defense this season.
For the Rams they moved on from Wade Phillips after 2019 and hired another Fangio acolyte in Brandon Staley. His version of Fangio’s light box/two high safety defense vaulted the Rams defense to an elite level and he was rewarded with a head coaching job for his efforts. Enter Raheem Morris. Morris will try to replicate what Staley did last season, which is no small feat given the players he lost on defense and the propensity for defensive regression from year to year.
For Desai, his job will be to restore the Bears defense to its Fangio level performance. The first order of business will be getting the Bears pass rush back to it’s 2018 level. Since then the Bears have seen a year over year decline in pressure rate according to Football Outsiders. (They went from 33.4%, to 29.6%, to 22.8% in 2020.)
Keep in mind the team still has Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith, so a return to form is not beyond the pale if Desai is playing his cards right. Heading into this game the defensive line will be affected by injuries to Eddie Goldman and Danny Trevathan, but they do have solid depth in, a former Ram, Robert Quinn as well as 2020 standout Bilal Nichols.
The Bears will be relying heavily on the success of the defensive front against the Rams. Their secondary remains middling although Jaylon Johnson had a stand-out rookie season.
Sean McVay will have to counter a heavy pass rush by making them pay with short passes and yards after the catch early in the game. This passing attack won’t be new to the Rams as it pretty much was all they could do last season and it also isn’t what fans will want to see out of their new shiny quarterback, Matthew Stafford. But this will force the Bears to send less pressure, then Stafford can utilize Desean Jackson or Tutu Atwell to stretch the field. That is of course if Stafford can evade that pressure. His first line of defense will be the offensive line and his left tackle, Andrew Whitworth
For Nagy and the Bears the path to success isn’t as clear, especially with Andy Dalton at quarterback. The offenses that beat the Rams last season were ones that could exploit the holes in the Staley defense. Whether that was with a running back like Aaron Jones or a YAC monster like Deebo Samuel. The Bears will be without their best rusher, Tarik Cohen and their best receivers are more deep threats than producers after the catch. Darnell Mooney was the leading receiver with 4.2 yards after the catch per reception, good for 106th in the league. The addition of Breshad Perriman is a step in the right direction. He was 62nd in the league last season. Nagy will have to find a way to move the ball and try to put points on the board. This will start with keeping pressure off Andy Dalton, so that he can try to get targets down field.
Khalil Mack vs Andrew Whitworth
The reports of Khalil Mack regression are a bit exaggerated. He hasn’t been a top sack producer lately, but he remains a problem for offensive lines for two reasons. One: he creates mismatches, which allows other defenders to get pressure. And two: he still gets a disproportionate amount of pressure on quarterbacks. PFF’s wins above replacement metric ranked him the most valuable edge rusher in the league last season. His 31 pressures accounted for 22.6% of the team’s pressures and the team blitzed third fewest times in the NFL. Which means Khalil Mack is dominating and doing it efficiently.
Opposite him will be lining up Andrew Whitworth, who is 39 years old entering his 16th season. Whitworth has held up well against Mack. Mack has managed just two sacks and three pressures over the last three meetings and Whitworth will need to keep that streak going this Sunday.
And it isn’t just to defend Stafford’s blind side, but it is to prevent pressure in the middle where the Rams are less sound. The Bears managed to get pressure even though the Rams had better protection at guard and center last season than this season.
Losing Austin Blythe in the offseason and not addressing the position in the draft means they are left with Brian Allen playing center. Allen didn’t play a snap in 2020, but started at center in 2019 before a serious knee injury sidelined him. In that season, Pro Football Focus graded him a 58.6.
The interior of the line will have their hands full with Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith, so the more Whitworth can slow Mack down on the perimeter the more likely Stafford will be able to get the pass rush on its heels.
This contest is a bit of a misnomer given how the Rams use Jalen Ramsey in the secondary, which is to say Ramsey covers who Ramsey covers when Ramsey needs to cover them. But nonetheless, the wide receiver vs cornerback matchup is the best mano-y-mano in football and when two guys like this go toe-to-toe it is worth watching.
Ramsey has had the upper hand in both of their meetings. He has been targeted 12 times, for four receptions and 67 yards. 42 of those yards came in one throw to Allen Robinson. That accounts for about half of Robinson’s production in the two games. He has caught 85 yards on 10 targets. While Ramsey does move around, his primary duty will be to continue to corral Robinson.
Shutting down Chicago’s top pass catcher will go a long way in shutting the Bears down, but Dalton will have other quality pass catching options. Both Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney had a good game in 2020 and had Nick Foles been able to connect with them on a few open throws, the result of that game might have looked different. Dalton will need to capitalize on Ramsey’s focus on Robinson to move the ball.
This will be a test for a young and revamped secondary. The Rams lost Troy Hill and John Johnson, which means that sophomores Jordan Fuller and Terrell Burgess will be asked to do a lot more this go around. The Rams secondary is really relying on each of the “next man ups” to take on more responsibility this season and this will be the first test to see who rises to the occasion.
New Quarterback vs New Quarterback
Both teams will get first looks at their new quarterback. The big difference is that the Rams know exactly who that will be, Matthew Stafford. For Chicago, it’s a bit more murky. Matt Nagy has stated that Andy Dalton is their starting quarterback, but for how long will the Bears first-round pick be waiting in the wings.
Justin Fields looked impressive in his preseason debut, but struggled the next game. That said, Andy Dalton hasn’t turned any heads thus far. He threw one touchdown in nine possessions along with an interception and five three-and-outs. He went 13-of-21 for 164 yards.
The push-pull between starting rookie quarterbacks is always a fraught conversation, but in the case of the Bears starting Dalton it seems like they are trying what they tried last season. Nagy will once again stick a replacement level quarterback behind a bad offensive line, with only a few competent offensive playmakers to move the ball. And this week he will do so with Aaron Donald.
Last season, Dalton, Mitch Trubisky, and Nick Foles had very similar seasons from a playmaking stance. Trubisky had the best completion percentage with 66.6% which ranked 14th. Foles completion percentage was 64.7 and Dalton at 61.9%. They achieved these mediocre results while throwing mainly short high probability passes. Their completed air yards per pass attempts were at or below 3.5 yards. For reference, Staffords was 6.9.
If Fields were to play, he would at least offer the ability to pick up yards with his legs or get out of the pocket and most importantly, run away from Donald and Leonard Floyd.
With the Rams, we know who will be the quarterback, but the question is what will this offense look like with him at the helm. McVay doesn’t give too many glimpses into his plans in the preseason, but what we do know is that Stafford brings with him a few skills that the Rams were lacking last season. The biggest difference will be his deep ball. Stafford threw for 4,609 intended air yards which was seventh best in the league and over 1,200 more yards than Jared Goff. The Rams also brought on a few pass catchers that can stretch the field in Tutu Atwell and DeSean Jackson.
Not only does Stafford come into LA with a cannon, but he also comes with a chip on his shoulder. Stafford has had a good career with 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns so far. He is also the winningest quarterback in Lions history, but with playoff success eluding him and the unfortunate weight of recency bias on his shoulders, he will likely come into this something to prove. That’s essentially why Stafford asked for a trade. He didn’t just want to get out of Detroit, he wanted a chance to win. This can be inferred by the teams he was willing to be traded to. The Colts, The 49ers, The Rams. All rosters that can make a deep playoff run if they have a good quarterback on the roster.
In LA, Stafford will get a chance to change his legacy as well as win in the playoffs and it all starts on Sunday night against the Bears.