The Philadelphia Eagles travel to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon, and the Eagles will be looking to recapture their playoff magic while the Bears attempt to begin a similar run of their own.
The Eagles have all the big-game experience in this one, but the matchups do not favor them on either side of the ball. If they’re going to win, it’s going to have to be because Nick Foles recaptures whatever spirit inhabited his body during last year’s miraculous run, and Doug Pederson out-coaches his former colleague Matt Nagy, who would have to struggle against Jim Schwartz’s tough-minded defense.
Whether any or all of that can happen is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, this is what you should be looking out for when the teams actually take the field.
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Eagles defensive schemes vs. Mitchell Trubisky’s decision-making
If the Eagles are going to pull an upset out of their collective hats, it seems like it’s going to have to be the defense that gets it done. Chicago’s defense has held down every opposing offense this year, and it doesn’t seem all that likely the Eagles will be the ones to break that trend. So in order to advance to the next round, Philly is going to have to be just as dominant when Chicago has the ball.
They key here will be rattling Mitchell Trubisky and forcing him to make mistakes. In the games where Chicago’s offense was really humming this season, Trubisky played mistake-free football, continually took the easy throws, and the combination of Matt Nagy’s scheme, the Bears’ strong pass-blocking, and the ability of their playmakers to make hay after the catch carried the team to monster performances. In the games where Chicago struggled, Trubisky forced the issue when he got impatient, trying to fit passes into tight windows or make throws across his body that he was not equipped to make, and he seemingly vomited turnovers. (He ended the year with four multi-interception games. Incredibly, the Bears went 3-1 in those contests. They went 5-1, though, in the six games where Trubisky had a passer rating of 100 or better.)
The best way to rattle Trubisky is to get pressure in his face, and on that front, the Eagles are well-equipped to make things happen. Philadelphia finished only 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate this season, per Football Outsiders, but the Eagles actually excelled at getting hits and hurries. Their pressure rate of 40.1 percent, per Pro Football Focus, was one of the best in the league. Brandon Graham had 70 pressures, second-most among defensive ends. Michael Bennett had 64 pressures, seventh-most among defensive ends.
And Fletcher Cox had a ridiculous 95 pressures, the highest figure among defensive tackles. That trio is among the best group of pass rushers in the league, and they hold the key to getting after Trubisky, who saw his completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and passer rating plummet when under pressure. (His performance did not drop off against the blitz, however, but that’s just fine for the Eagles, who at 17.9 percent had one of the lowest blitz rates in the NFL. That’s a staple of Jim Schwartz’s defenses, as he prefers to pressure with just his front four.)
Trubisky’s 36 scrambles, alluded to in the chart above, gained 320 yards, one of the best figures for any quarterback in the league this season. But although Trubisky has a reputation for taking off as soon as his first read isn’t there, that’s not actually the case. An average of 5.51 seconds elapsed between the snap and the average Trubisky scramble run, per Pro Football Focus. That was the fourth-longest time among qualified quarterbacks. Trubisky tended to run around behind the line of scrimmage for a while looking for a passing lane, which he did not find as often as he thought he could. The reason it seems like he was always running is because when he did decide to run, he was actually able to escape and gain some yards, which is not as common for other quarterbacks.
That tendency to hold onto the ball, though, often came back to bite Trubisky. On throws where he held the ball for 2.5 seconds or more before release, his passer rating fell off by 24.6 points, the fifth-largest gap among 30 qualified passers. He was also far more likely to be intercepted when holding onto the ball, throwing a pick on 3.8 percent of his passes compared to just 2.2 percent when he got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds.
Those quick-hitter passes are more likely to be the ones where Nagy has schemed Trubisky a large window through which to throw, a tendency which helped Trubisky complete 1.4 percent more of his passes than expected based on the average depth of his tosses, per NFL.com’s NextGen Stats. Trubisky completed 68 of 76 passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage, for example, gaining 292 yards, four touchdowns, and a pick on those plays. Those throws accounted for 17.6 percent of his overall total, which is a high number these days.
But Trubisky wasn’t all about dump-offs. He also attacked the deep part of the field more often than almost any quarterback in the league. He attempted 16.8 percent of his passes at least 20 yards downfield, per PFF, the second-highest rate in football behind only Josh Allen. Trubisky was very hit or miss on those throws, though, tossing eight touchdowns and seven picks and generating an 80.7 passer rating that was far worse than his mark on short and intermediate throws.
And it’s there where he should be able to make the most hay against the Eagles, particularly when targeting Tarik Cohen. Philly ranked 24th in DVOA on passes to opposing running backs, and Cohen is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. He can operate out of the backfield or when split out wide, and he’s a nice release valve for Trubisky when he gets into trouble. If Cohen has a big game, the Eagles are probably not going to come away with a win.
They’re not quite the Monsters of the Midway, but the Chicago Bears have the NFL’s best defense. Chicago finished the season third in yards allowed, first in points allowed, and first in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. They were the only team in the league to finished inside the top five in DVOA against both the run (second) and the pass (first). Their 4.8 yards allowed per play figure was the best in the NFL; they allowed a score on a lower percentage of their opponents drives’ than any team in the league (28.6 percent) and forced a turnover on a greater percentage of their opponents’ drives (19.5 percent) than any team in the league.
Given the strengths of the Chicago defense and the Eagles’ own struggles throughout the season, it seems incredibly unlikely that Philly will be able to lean on the running game in order to score an upset in Chicago. Instead, the responsibility for directing the team to victory will likely fall on the right shoulder — and injured ribs — of quarterback Nick Foles. Foles, of course, is no stranger to winning as an underdog in the playoffs. He did it three times en route to the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory last season, seemingly looking better with each successive game.
This Bears defense is likely the best unit Foles has faced since he tore up the Vikings in last year’s NFC title game. Foles went 26 of 33 for 352 yards and three touchdowns in that contest, beating the Vikes by attacking their greatest strengths. Against a Minnesota defense that ranked second in DVOA against tight ends, Foles attempted 10 passes to his tight ends, completing nine of them for 105 yards. Against a team that allowed a 75.5 passer rating on deep throws during the regular season, Foles completed four of six deep throws for 172 yards, two scores, and a 149.2 passer rating. Foles will have to pull a similar magic act against another NFC North pass defense that has scant few weaknesses.
The Bears finished the regular season ranked first in DVOA against No. 1 receivers (Alshon Jeffery), fifth against No. 2 receivers (Nelson Agholor), fifth against slot receivers (Golden Tate), third against tight ends (Zach Ertz), and 10th against running backs (Darren Sproles). The Bears ranked first against both short passes and deep passes, fourth on passes to the left side of the field and first on passes to the right. Again: no weaknesses.
Chicago’s main coverage players were all fantastic throughout the entire season. Left corner Kyle Fuller allowed a passer rating of just 64.5 on throws in his direction, per Pro Football Focus. Right corner Prince Amukamara allowed a 77.6 rating. Safeties Eddie Jackson (52.8) and Adrian Amos (76.5) were terrific as well. That quarter combined to yield 12 touchdowns while picking off 18 passes. Slot corner Bryce Callahan was terrific throughout the season as well, but he went on Injured Reserve after breaking his foot in Week 16 and has been replaced by Sherrick McManis. McManis has been largely untested throughout the season, but even he allowed a hilariously low 67.6 passer rating when targeted in coverage.
McManis is likely the player Foles will want to target, simply because he’s the most untested and least reliably elite. Testing McManis in the slot, though, likely means funneling targets to Golden Tate, and Tate has not exactly lit the world on fire since landing in Philadelphia. The Eagles can flex Ertz into the slot and hope the Bears cover him with McManis, or better yet, linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the Bears’ one true weak cover guy, allowing 553 yards, five touchdowns, and a 115.9 passer rating on throws in his direction.
Looking at Foles’ pass distribution since taking over as the starter in Week 15, though, it seems unlikely that the slot matchup will be his favorite. He has primarily preferred to get the ball to Ertz, Jeffery, or one of his running backs.
Making things even more difficult is Chicago’s pass rush. The Bears ranked 13th in Adjusted Sack Rate on the season, but they have two elite pressure guys in Khalil Mack (69 pressures, per PFF) and Akiem Hicks (51), as well as Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, and Eddie Goldman chipping in. Chicago generated pressure on 36.9 percent of opponent drop backs when rushing four, an above-average rate. Foles, like most quarterbacks, performs better when throwing from a clean pocket than when he’s under pressure, so being able to push defenders in his face will be key.
The one thing the Bears shouldn’t do, though, is resort to blitzing Foles. Not that they blitz often anyway. The Bears sent an additional rusher on just 21 percent of opponent passing plays, well below the league average of 27.7 percent. Foles didn’t see very many blitzes this season, but the ones he did see, he absolutely destroyed. His passer rating was 42.2 points better against the blitz than it was when defenses defended him straight up.
Forcing Foles to sit in the pocket, navigate the rush, and pick apart one of the league’s best coverage units is the correct play here. That’s how the Bears generally play things anyway, and they shouldn’t necessarily junk their typical game plan because Foles happened to have an incredible run last year.