As long as the New England Patriots lose another game, the Chiefs are still in contention for a bye week, so they should be packing their A game for the trip to the Windy City. The Bears, however, are coming off a difficult, last-second loss to the Green Bay Packers that eliminated them from playoff contention — and they are dealing with more than a couple of injuries. The Bears may be in for a letdown week.
Even though they’ve returned to the mean in their ability to force turnovers, the strength of the Bears team is their top-10 defense, which has given up more than 24 points just once this season — and that was nine weeks ago. Since the Bears have scored more than 24 points just three times this year, the math is clear: if the Chiefs offense can put more than 24 points on the board, they’ll likely come away with a victory.
So let’s dive into the Bears defense — and see how the Chiefs might be able to score those 24 points.
The Bears defense starts up front. Khalil Mack — one of the NFL’s elite defensive ends — leads the charge. This season, however, injuries along the defensive line have resulted in more attention being focused on Mack, so he hasn’t been producing at the same level as he did last year.
But last week, the Bears got Akiem Hicks back from his injury, which added a solid pass rusher to the interior of the line. Mack and Hicks are joined by a rotation of run stoppers led by Eddie Goldman. Like Mack, Leonard Floyd technically plays outside linebacker, but he’s more of a pass rusher than an off-ball player. Floyd, Hicks and Mack form a very formidable pass rush that could give the Chiefs some trouble.
The second level has been riddled with injuries; the Bears have lost starting linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Behind them, Nick Kwiatowski has been a solid player but doesn’t quite possess the same level of athleticism. Joining him is ex-Chief Kevin Pierre-Paul. Both can easily be fooled by misdirection and play-action.
The Bears secondary has a lot of talent; individually, there isn’t a major weakness. Kyle Fuller is one of the NFL’s best zone corners, but playing a lot more man-to-man coverage this season has revealed a few of his weaker points and held back his turnover rate. He’s joined by Prince Amukamara — a late add to the injury report — and Buster Skrine. All three of these players have talent, but can be exploited; combined, they’ve allowed a 50% catch rate when targeted.
Under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears showed a lot of different looks in the secondary but defaulted to zone coverage. That played to the strengths of their corners. With Chuck Pagano at the helm, they continue to show lots of looks but tend to use more man coverage. While still sticky in coverage, all three Bears cornerbacks don’t locate the ball well vertically; they can be beaten at the catch point.
But behind them, safeties Eddie Jackson and Haha Clinton-Dix are a top-five safety duo. Jackson is a do-it-all, ballhawking safety, while Clinton-Dix can turn the tide of a game with dynamic plays. One of them is often tasked with man coverage on a tight end or slot receiver while the other covers the deep middle. The Bears rotate them, but Jackson is the predominant deep man — which plays to his ball skills very well.
Handling man free coverage
Since man coverage was a problem for the Chiefs early in the season — and the Bears use a lot of it — should Kansas City be concerned. Maybe not. Since Tyreek Hill has returned, very few teams have tried man coverage across the board against the Chiefs — but the Bears might give it a go with Man Free (Cover 1) coverage.
The Chicago Bears play a lot of Man Free (Cover 1) this year and allow you to challenge CBs that teams have had success attacking this year.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 20, 2019
Aligning in 3x1 persuades them to play man & mobile QBs force the hook defender into a spy role as well. CB are asked to win on an island pic.twitter.com/lx0VHhDEVN
It’s one of the NFL’s most basic coverage concepts — but when executed well, it’s hard to overcome.
Here we see how it works: five pass defenders — all in one-on-one matchups with receivers — plus a single-deep zone defender reading the quarterback’s eyes and a single underneath zone defender looking to undercut crossing routes.
There’s a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to stay with their receivers — and on the four-man rush to pressure the quarterback and force a mistake. Against a mobile quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, the underneath hook defender will also spy the quarterback to prevent a scramble.
There are plenty of ways to attack this coverage as long as you can identify it, so the Bears will do their best to disguise it. The Chiefs can use pre-snap motion and alignment to counter. Going into 3x1 or bunched sets will force the Bears to show their hand earlier than they’d prefer. Then it’s just up to Mahomes to read any post-snap shifts.
The Chiefs should use route combinations with switch releases and mesh concepts that force cornerbacks to work through traffic and pass off their assigned receivers. Using Hill and Mecole Hardman’s speed on crossing routes — and Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce’s size on in-breaking routes — should provide some favorable matchups.
But even when the coverage looks tough, the Chiefs should not be afraid to attack the cornerbacks. There will be susceptibility at the catch point; Bears cornerbacks should be challenged to turn and locate the football. And with a single help defender deep, there should be plenty of space to attack downfield — as long as Mahomes sees the whole field.
The bottom line
Unlike some of the more recent Chiefs opponents — and Bears teams of the past — this game could have the Chiefs matched up against more man coverage. So instead of trying to identify zones or find the soft spots, the main challenge for Chiefs receivers will be winning at the line of scrimmage against physical cornerback play; they’ll be put in a position to attack players rather than spaces. The Bears have a lot of defensive talent, but this year, they haven’t been playing as soundly in the secondary. The Chiefs should be able to take advantage of that.
The Chiefs should be able to find success with typical man-beating routes like mesh concepts, slants and switch releases — but they shouldn’t shy away from attacking what seems like solid vertical coverage. Hill and Hardman’s speed should stretch the Bears’ single-high defender — or they’ll risk giving up the big play. That will often leave Kelce, Watkins and Demarcus Robinson on islands.