Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. The Bears’ surprising run this season couldn’t have ended in more heartbreaking fashion. Now the question that will hang over Chicago this offseason is how Matt Nagy’s team can stay atop the NFC North in 2019. I think I can speak for all Bears fans when I say that every time I think about Cody Parkey’s final field goal attempt from Sunday afternoon, it feels like I’m being drop-kicked in the chest. If Philly’s Treyvon Hester didn’t get a finger on that kick, the Bears would be headed to Los Angeles this weekend, their shortcomings against the Eagles would be easier to explain away, and the most fun Bears team of the past 30 years would be one step closer to competing for the Super Bowl. Alas, now the Double Doinker is destined to haunt Bears fans for all time, and just like that, a truly thrilling season is over.
All year, Chicago leaned on the best defense in football, and Sunday’s loss was no exception. Nick Foles made several excellent throws in crucial moments, but for most of the day, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s guys made the plays necessary to keep the game close. Against a stellar Philly offensive line, Khalil Mack and the Bears pass rush didn’t have the sort of impact they’d had throughout the season (Foles was sacked just once in the game and hit five times total). But the Bears did intercept Foles twice, and they held the Eagles to just 1.8 yards per carry on 23 rushes. That side of the ball largely held up its end of the bargain.
Chicago finished no. 1 in scoring defense (17.7 points per game), takeaways (36), and DVOA this year. Fangio’s unit featured no clear weaknesses and achieved a level of dominance that few teams ever reach. That’s what makes the realities about next season and beyond so tough to face.
Building a team around a transcendent defense is a dicey plan because that level of defensive success just isn’t easy to replicate from season to season. This Bears defense was driven by a collection of factors that may be out of their control next year. First, they enjoyed a clean bill of health for a majority of 2018. Aside from losing stars like Mack and Eddie Jackson for two games each, the only true long-term injury suffered on that side of the ball was to slot cornerback Bryce Callahan. It’s unlikely that Chicago will enjoy that type of luck next season. And second, though most of the defense’s key pieces are set to return in 2019, both Callahan and safety Adrian Amos are hitting free agency. The Bears are projected to have about $19 million in cap space next season (which jumps to $25 million if they release little-used tight end Dion Sims, who ended the season on injured reserve). General manager Ryan Pace could bring one or both of those guys back next year, but Chicago is stretched thin financially compared to the rest of the league (currently ranked 23rd in projected cap space). Then there’s the fact the Bears’ absurd takeaway total will be almost impossible to replicate. Mack is a game wrecker and Jackson plays like a human football magnet, but interception numbers tend to regress. And the really crushing blow is that Fangio figures to be a red-hot head-coaching candidate this offseason. Most of the personnel may be on its way back, but replacing Fangio would be a tall order for anyone the Bears chose to hire or promote.
I don’t mean to sound like the Grim Reaper here. Saying that the Bears defense is going to decline a bit next season doesn’t mean that they’ll suddenly turn into a league-average unit. Chicago has enough talent to stick near the top of the league for years to come, but a fall from the top spot to, say, fifth or sixth in the league is easy to imagine. And even that small a regression can doom a team that has playoff expectations. Just ask the Jaguars.
Jacksonville finished 2017 ranked first in defensive DVOA, with a pass defense that was even more efficient than this year’s Bears. This season, the Jags fell to sixth in that metric, without any other units improving enough to make up for that slide. Blake Bortles continued to hold Jacksonville and its offense back. And based on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s performance on Sunday and at points throughout the season, becoming the 2018 Jaguars has to be Chicago’s biggest nightmare heading into next season.
Trubisky’s final line from Sunday’s loss—26-of-43 for 303 yards and a touchdown—doesn’t look too bad, but that doesn’t communicate just how poorly he played in stretches. The beautiful throws he made to Allen Robinson down the stretch followed several near interceptions and other maddening decisions. Chicago’s offense failed to generate first downs consistently, and the inability to capitalize on the defense’s performance doomed the Bears as much as Parkey’s tipped kick. The most important factor in the Bears’ long-term outlook will be whether Trubisky can improve in his second season under Nagy, surrounded by the same personnel he was this season. If Trubisky—and the offense as a whole—can make a leap in 2019, there’s a good chance that Chicago will be able to overcome whatever small step back the defense may take. If he can’t, the Bears will likely be looking at a disappointing follow-up to their best season in more than a decade.
It’s really that simple. The best teams from this era of the NFL (New England and Seattle, namely) have sustained success because each year their team is a slightly different version of the one that came before it. New players ascend, new units become the team’s strength, and stagnation never sits in. For the Bears to become a playoff fixture, they’ll have to do the same.
2. Much like the Bears, the Texans squandered an opportunity this weekend that they might not have again anytime soon. In a season when the Colts were supposed to be rebuilding, Indy came into Houston on Saturday and beat the favored Texans 21-7. Losing by that margin at home and getting thoroughly outplayed in the process is never fun, but Houston’s loss stings even more after considering what’s on the horizon for the Colts. Andrew Luck is playing great, Frank Reich is poised to win Coach of the Year, and with nearly $120 million in projected salary cap space plus an extra pick high in the second round of the draft thanks to last year’s trade with the Jets, Indianapolis is positioned to be better in future seasons than it was in 2018. For the Texans, Saturday’s performance pointed to just how much work there is to be done this offseason.
Houston’s first priority this spring will be determining what to do with the key players it has hitting free agency. The Texans are projected to have more than $72 million in salary cap space for 2019, but Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, and Jadeveon Clowney are all slated to hit the open market, and each was a key cog for a very good Texans defense this season. Clowney will likely land a considerable deal if he hits free agency, even if the demand at that position gets depressed by a loaded class of free-agent edge rushers. Since being drafted no. 1 overall in 2014, Clowney has never fulfilled the pass-rushing potential that made him a once-in-a-generation prospect, but he’s still a remarkable athlete who can do plenty of damage on stunts and against the run. And Mathieu has been a revelation for the Texans, both as a player and a locker-room presence. After coming into the season focused on playing free safety, he’s filled several different roles for Houston over the second half of the year, and he’s also emerged as an emotional leader for the team. Finding long-term deals for both parties will be a priority.
To complicate matters further, Houston also needs reinforcements in the secondary. After watching the Texans struggle with T.Y. Hilton and the Colts passing attack, it’s clear that this group needs an injection of youth and athleticism. Jackson is 30 years old and coming off one of the best seasons of his career; committing to a 30-something corner long term is a risk, but he was also the most steady presence Houston had at the position this season. Aaron Colvin, who signed a four-year, $34 million deal with the team this past spring, was a healthy scratch against Indy. Head coach Bill O’Brien said on Sunday that Colvin never fully recovered from the ankle injury that he suffered earlier this season, but whether it’s health or effectiveness, the Texans will need more out of Colvin in 2019. On the outside, stalwart cornerback Johnathan Joseph will turn 35 before the start of next season, and none of the $4.5 million on his deal in 2019 is guaranteed. The Texans could decide to move on from both Jackson and Joseph this spring (along with former first-round pick Kevin Johnson, who finished the season on IR and has about $9 million in guaranteed money left on his deal in 2019). The problem is that Houston’s cap space may not be much help in fixing the problem. Looking at the top defensive backs set to hit free agency this spring, two of them—Mathieu and Jackson—are currently on the Texans roster.
The best route to revamping the cornerback spots will likely be through the draft, which would be fine, if the Texans didn’t also need serious upgrades to their offensive line, especially at tackle. Free agency has recently been a wasteland at that spot, and the 2019 class is no exception. Guys like Ja’Wuan James and Trent Brown would represent upgrades over players that Houston trotted out this season, but paying either upward of $10 million a year in free agency wouldn’t be ideal. Armed with a relatively full stable of draft picks and plenty of cap space, general manager Brian Gaine has resources to supplement the area of needs on Houston’s roster—but those needs are piling up in a hurry.
3. The Cowboys have figured out who they want to be in the red zone, and their output in that area of the field looks like the best aspect of this offense. This season has come with mixed results for the Cowboys offense and coordinator Scott Linehan. The team’s route combinations and play design still leave plenty to be desired, but Saturday’s 24-22 win over Seattle did feature several elements that Dallas should be able to lean on moving forward.
Ezekiel Elliott was the focal point of the Cowboys offense, carrying the ball 26 times for 137 yards, and there were several moments when he showed what an important piece he is for this team. His 17-yard run off the right side late in the fourth quarter—one that required Elliott to shrug off cornerback Shaquill Griffin in the open field—helped set up the touchdown drive that gave Dallas a two-score lead. The drive was capped off by a fearless 16-yard run by Dak Prescott on a third-and-14 from the Seattle 17-yard line. On a called QB draw, Prescott kept the ball up the middle for a huge gain before somersaulting to the 1-yard line. When Dallas is able to get Prescott carries in the red zone, the Cowboys gain an immediate numbers advantage and life gets easier for the offensive line. With Elliott creating big plays, Prescott using his legs in the right moments, and both Tyron Smith and Zack Martin healthy and playing well up front, several of the features we’ve come to know from this version of the Cowboys have been on display as of late.
4. Philadelphia’s last-second win over the Bears was a team effort, but once again, Nick Foles made plenty of crucial throws in high-leverage situations. The Eagles’ Super Bowl run last season was fueled by the team’s ability to convert on third down, and against Chicago’s bruising defense, Foles made a handful of brilliant third- and fourth-down plays to sustain Philly drives. His fourth-down pass to Golden Tate for the game-winning touchdown, the completion to Alshon Jeffery that preceded it, and the comeback play to Tate for a 9-yard gain on a third-and-5 midway through the third quarter were all clutch plays, but Foles’s most impressive throw of the day came on third-and-6 from midfield with 6:40 remaining in the second quarter. With the Bears in a two-high-safety look, Tate beat slot corner Sherrick McManis off the line, and Foles fit a perfect touch throw over McManis and in front of both safeties for a 28-yard gain. Philly was far from spotless on Sunday, but Foles made several plays that left Bears fans shaking their heads.
5. Future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters is an ageless wonder, and he more than held his own against Khalil Mack on Sunday. The 36-year-old tackle spent most of Sunday’s game matched up with the All-Pro pass rusher, and Mack was almost entirely shut out on the day. Mack managed just two quarterback hits and didn’t generate many hurries, either. Watching a guy about to hit his late 30s work so effortlessly against the best edge rusher in football is surreal, but that’s the territory we’ve entered with Peters. He’s one of the most physically gifted left tackles in NFL history, and even at this stage in his career, he has the skills to stick with Mack for upward of 30 snaps in a game. Philly’s issues along the offensive line this season have been almost entirely about health. With both Peters and Lane Johnson back to (or close to) 100 percent, one of the Eagles’ most important advantages should be back in place.
6. The Chargers’ defensive front consistently got through Baltimore’s offensive line on Sunday by using the Ravens’ movements and alignments to determine how to attack certain plays. Pretty much every member of the Chargers’ front four played like they were being shot out of a cannon in the team’s 23-17 win on Sunday, and this play from Darius Philon on a second-and-10 with 4:56 left in the first quarter is an excellent example. As Baltimore lines up with two tight ends in a Pistol formation, Philon fills in as 3-technique tackle over the left guard. At the snap, guard James Hurst steps back and pulls to his right. Rather than follow Hurst in that direction and maintain his gap integrity, Philon bursts into the backfield and drops running back Gus Edwards for a 1-yard loss. The Chargers wanted to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage against Baltimore’s run-heavy offense, and they succeeded.
7. Sunday was my first time watching a game at AT&T Stadium, and also the first time I saw both Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith play in person. Seeing those guys traverse the entire field is staggering, and that athleticism at linebacker has helped carry this Dallas defense.
The Cowboys held the Seahawks to just 2.3 yards gained after close-in per carry, the lowest by the Seahawks in a game this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 6, 2019
LB Leighton Vander Esch (@VanderEsch38) led the charge for the Cowboys rush defense, racking up 10 tackles and 6 stops. #SEAvsDAL #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/k8dTZuoDdP
According to Next Gen Stats, Dallas allowed just 2.3 yards gained after close-in per carry, the lowest figure Seattle has tallied in that stat this season. Vander Esch’s ability to erase extra yardage with his final burst should be impossible for a linebacker pushing 260 pounds, but he finishes consistently on open-field plays. On Seattle’s final drive, the Seahawks faced a second-and-10 from the Dallas 13-yard line with 1:32 remaining. At the snap, Vander Esch tracked running back Mike Davis out of the backfield into the flat. The move took Vander Esch only a couple of steps to his right, but theoretically, the threat of Davis should have moved Vander Esch out of position in the middle of the field and freed up wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Instead, Vander Esch read Russell Wilson’s eyes, recovered, and nearly intercepted Wilson’s pass. For a linebacker of his size, Vander Esch possesses a rare ability to negotiate the field.
8. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on Monday that the Packers are hiring former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as the team’s head coach, after LaFleur spent just one season in Tennessee. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Sean McVay effect isn’t real. LaFleur was the Rams offensive coordinator under McVay in 2017, but his stint with the Titans was his first opportunity as a play caller. After guiding an offense that finished 22nd in DVOA and 27th in points per game, LaFleur has been tabbed as the man to take over one of the most storied franchises in football and guide the final seasons of Aaron Rodgers’s career.
Laying the blame for the Titans’ offensive struggles in 2018 squarely on LaFleur isn’t quite fair. Injuries to Marcus Mariota torpedoed Tennessee’s chances on that side of the ball. Still, LaFleur doesn’t have the most glowing résumé for an organization that likely had its pick of coaches. Green Bay reportedly wants a coach who can challenge Rodgers in a way that Mike McCarthy couldn’t near the end of his tenure; they’re getting a 39-year-old former coordinator who’s called just 16 games’ worth of plays in his NFL coaching career.
It’s certainly possible that LaFleur will do wonders for Rodgers by implementing an offense that more closely resembles those of LaFleur’s past two offensive bosses—McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan—but that offense will likely be a departure from what we’ve seen from the Packers in recent years. Green Bay lined up in shotgun on 71 percent of its plays last season; Tennessee, on the other hand, used that formation just 51 percent of the time. Look for that element of Green Bay’s offense to look a lot different in 2019. Rodgers used play-action on just 18.2 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 31st out of 37 qualified quarterbacks. Mariota finished fourth at 29.8 percent. In terms of LaFleur’s pedigree and his approach on that side of the ball, Green Bay is going in a drastically different direction than some might have expected, and time will tell whether this was the right decision.
9. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind, Part 1: Quenton Nelson is a bad, bad man.
I’m imagining Quenton Nelson screaming at Clowney here:— Kevin Bowen (@KBowen1070) January 6, 2019
“Darius Leonard should have been a Pro Bowler over you!!!” pic.twitter.com/2X5zAchylW
10. This week’s line play moment that made hit rewind, Part 2: Melvin Ingram was the best player on the field for the Chargers on Sunday. Ingram was everywhere for Gus Bradley’s defense, ruining several running plays from his alignment on the edge and consistently disrupting plays as a pass rusher. The play that made me leap out of my chair, though, came when Ingram was lined up as a 3-technique tackle over left guard James Hurst in the second quarter. Ingram hit such a nasty spin move on Hurst that running back Ty Montgomery didn’t even know how to react. Bradley does an excellent job of moving both Ingram and Joey Bosa (who also picked up a sack as a 3-technique on Sunday) around the formation, and his players often reward him.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Andrew Luck is positively ridiculous.