Emma: Behind Bears' 3-1 Start Is A Firm Foundation

October 05, 2018 - 2:45 pm
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(670 The Score) From the moment that Khalil Mack joined the Bears on Sept. 1, with billboards popping up around the city and jerseys flying off the sales racks, everything seemed to change for the franchise.

No longer are the Bears viewed as a bottom-dwelling bunch, the Browns of the NFC as they were the last three seasons. On Aug. 31, they were viewed as a young team with the talent to surprise. They woke up a day later legitimized by the addition of Mack and are now off to a 3-1 start, in first place in the NFC North and trending toward greater success.

The Bears' early Week 5 bye week allows the chance to pause and reflect on what has been a whirlwind first quarter of the regular season in Chicago, starting with the team's brutal loss to the Packers that was followed by three straight victories. The Bears' 48-10 win against the Buccaneers at Solider Field last Sunday put quite the stamp on September.

So what does this season have in store for the Bears? Can this team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010? The context of the first four games offers some suggestions of what's to come.

Mack impact

There isn't much banter as to whether the Bears paid the Raiders too much in their franchise-altering move for Mack. Trades that include two first-round picks for a player are rare in the NFL, but this one was a no-brainer for general manager Ryan Pace.

In a sense, the Bears traded one first-round pick for Mack and the other for his ability to elevate the rest of this young defense. That coach Jon Gruden and the Raiders were willing to part with a 2020 second-round pick back to Chicago is a column for someone in Oakland to write.

Mack earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in September after posting 17 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and a pick-six. He became the first player since 2005 to record a sack and forced fumble in four consecutive games.

But Mack's impact is felt more than just in the individual numbers. The Bears lead the NFL in sacks with 18 and are second in the league with 11 takeaways, with their eight interceptions being recorded by seven different players. In each of the last three years, Chicago managed just eight interceptions in each season.

How have the Bears seen such an uptick in sacks and takeaways? The play and presence of Mack has made a tremendous difference. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hasn't needed to make as aggressive of calls, because the dominant pass rush of Mack requires the offense's attention on each play, creating openings for the other Bears defenders and havoc for the offense.

"What he’s done is completely elevated everybody else on that defense," coach Matt Nagy said recently. "And across the board, you can see these guys and how all their game has elevated. When that happens, that’s rare, to have one guy affect a team like that."

Mitch-a-palooza

With all the reps the Bears had put in with their new-look offense dating back to this past spring, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and his teammates could recognize that a breakthrough was coming. Sure enough, it came in historic fashion Sunday.

The Bears hung 48 points on the Buccaneers, and Trubisky became the first Bears quarterback with six touchdown passes since Johnny Lujack in 1949. While the rout came against a horrid Buccaneers pass defense that had players falling down, what was most important from this game was the growth Trubisky showed.

Trubisky finally displayed comfort with his assignments in leading the offense and in his mechanics of delivering the football. The internal clock of Trubisky was beating at the right speed, which allowed him to work through the progressions properly, buy his targets time and lead them in stride. 

Certainly the confidence of Trubisky, maligned throughout Chicago after the first three weeks, has to be sky-high after etching his name next to Lujack. 

"I never set out to break any records or do anything like that," Trubisky said after the game. "It was just a great team win, great team execution.

"That's what I know I'm capable of."

Err Jordan?

As Bears players discussed the role that almost everybody shared in their 38-point triumph last Sunday, running back Jordan Howard had no interest in talking.

Howard left the victorious locker room in a hurry, declining to speak with reporters before going on his way. It was curious given the nature of this Bears victory and the minimal impact he had. 

Howard had just 11 carries for 25 yards this past Sunday, with one target and zero receptions. On the season, he has 64 carries for 203 yards and one touchdown, good for an average of 3.2 yards per carry and 50.8 yards per game. He isn't the focal point of this offense like he was in the last two seasons, and it appeared on the surface that he's not happy about that.

Nagy has dialed up rushing plays for Howard only once to a premium workload, with 24 carries in the Week 3 win at Arizona. He has rushed 15, 14 and 11 times, respectively, in the other three contests. Meanwhile, backup Tarik Cohen has been featured in a more prominent role as the pass-catching back while lining up out wide as a receiver often.

The fit of Howard within this offense was a storyline of the offseason, predicated on questions about his weaknesses. He has caught 10 of 12 targets this season, the byproduct of his hard work this offseason. But why isn't Howard a bigger part of this offense? After all, Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing with Nagy's offense in Kansas City last season.

Howard has thrived in the past working off a volume of rushes throughout a game, seemingly becoming more effective by the carry. Nagy downplayed that notion, pointing to the team-first attitude that he sees from Howard. Of course, that was before Sunday as he stormed out of the locker room.

Greater involvement for Howard would add yet another element to an offense finding its form.

NagyBall

The concept of a culture inside NFL locker rooms is often discussed by eager coaches and rarely executed to a degree in which it matters. The Bears know this well from the words of their previous two head coaches, each preaching culture before ultimately being shown the door.

Nagy appears to be executing the implementation of a healthy culture through nine months on the job and with four games under his belt. 

Mantras like "Be you" were brought in by Nagy and were aimed at revealing the best of each player by first addressing their personalities. He created a lively atmosphere at practice, with music pumping throughout, because it allows players to operate more comfortably.

The locker room at Halas Hall has mini-basketball hoops for one-on-one games before practice and new sets of couches for players to enjoy their downtime. It's all by design.

Nagy has allowed players to put their fingerprints on the playbook, too. The creation of "Willy Wonka" -- the two-quarterback formation that led to a touchdown last Sunday -- was the effort of Trubisky and backup quarterback Chase Daniel along with assistant coaches.

Ultimately, winning is what defines a culture, and the Bears hope to make that a consistent practice. What's clear after a long offseason and a 3-1 start is that this team is enjoying its early success.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​​