The New York Giants will travel to the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bears in Week 17. This game promises to be a cold and blustery one, with a forecasted high of 19 degrees (and a low of 9) and 15 mile per hour winds.
This is a showdown that was circled on the schedule back in May, after the Giants traded the 11th overall pick to the Bears, who used it to select quarterback Justin Fields. The Giants, meanwhile, used the Bears’ pick to select Kadarius Toney.
The shine has worn off this game, with the Bears at 5-10 and the Giants at 4-11. The Bears are riding just a bit higher after an upset 25-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15.
That said, this game is largely a battle over draft position, though both teams would like to see some growth from their young players.
So what can the Giants look forward to in the Bears’ defense?
The Bears’ weirdly efficient pass rush
This first section to our preview of the Bears’ defense was, rightly, going to be about EDGE Robert Quinn.
Frankly, Quinn is having an amazing season that has, somehow, largely flown under the radar. Quinn is rolling into this week boasting 17.0 sacks on the season, second in the NFL behind only T.J. Watt (17.5 sacks). He has gotten at least half a sack in 12 of 14 games played, has had 6.0 sacks in the last four weeks and 11.5 sacks since Week 8 (which is notable because Khalil Mack suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7). He also has 19 QB hits and 30 total pressures to go with 3 forced fumbles and 17 tackles for a loss.
Oh, and Quinn is doing this at the tender age of 31. This is, easily, his best season since his third season with the Los Angeles Rams (then St. Louis) all the way back in 2013.
But here’s where things got weird with the Bears’ defense: As great as Quinn is playing and as frequently as he is putting quarterbacks on the ground, they aren’t getting TO quarterbacks all that often.
Quinn ranks seventh in ESPN’s pass rush win rate with a win rate of 23 percent. However, the Bears’ win rate, as a team, ranks just 19th at 39 percent. The Bears have the second lowest rate of QB knockdowns in the NFL and the seventh-lowest rate of pressures and hurries in the NFL.
All that would lead you to believe that the Bears have a mediocre to bad pass rush as a whole, right?
Here’s the thing: Chicago has the fifth most sacks in the NFL, trailing the Steelers by one — almost entirely powered by Quinn. They also have the highest sack rate in the NFL, getting a sack on 8.6 percent of opposing passes. That’s 0.6 percent higher than the second-place Steelers.
The Bears haven’t had a lot of opportunities to rush the passer. Their defense has faced the fewest pass attempts in the NFL at 444, which is part of the reason why their sack rate is so good. Part of the reason why the Bears have faced so few pass attempts is their offense’s sloppy play. They’re fourth in the NFL with 25 turnovers lost (16 interceptions, 9 fumbles), which usually gives opposing offenses the ball in good (or great) field position.
All told, the Bears’ defense ranks 10th in the NFL in expected points, with a total of -99.19. For reference, the Giants’ defense is 12th at -81.07.
Note: When it comes to EPA, lower number is better for defense. Essentially they are making the opposing offense less efficient and less likely to score points.
So what should we take away from all of this?
Obviously, the first thing is that Quinn is absolutely capable of ruining the Giants’ whole day. Between the running game, double-teaming Quinn, chips, and quick passes, the Giants are going to need to do whatever they can to keep Quinn away from their quarterback.
The second is that while the potential is there for the Giants to move the ball and score points against the Bears’ defense, they don’t want to give the pass rush any more opportunities than necessary. If the Bears play a relatively clean game and score some points on offense, things could get ugly for the Giants.
The temptation is there to treat the Bears’ defense as a mediocre group based on their raw stats. But while they don’t get many splash plays, when they get the opportunity to make a play on the QB, there’s a good chance they are going to make it.
Can the Giants run the ball?
We don’t know who the Giants’ starting quarterback is (as of this writing), and frankly, I don’t think it really matters.
Just a minute ago I mentioned the running game as a way to (hopefully) keep Robert Quinn from wrecking the Giants’ game. And running the ball is a great way to keep pass rushers from sacking your quarterback or pressuring them into making bad mistakes. The trick is, of course, actually running the ball for positive yardage. That’s been something of a problem for the Giants.
Saquon Barkley took the majority of the handoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles, carrying the ball on 15 of 22 runs. Unfortunately, he only picked up 32 yards for an average of 2.1 yards per carry. With Jake Fromm and later Mike Glennon at quarterback, we’d expect that the Eagles stacked the box to take away the Giants’ running game. That wasn’t, however, the case. Barkley didn’t see a single eight-man box according to NFL NextGenStats.
The good news here is that the Bears’ run defense isn’t as good as what the Giants saw last week in Philadelphia.
Chicago ranks eighth in rushing yards per game given up with 124.1 rushing yards allowed. So the Giants should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Bears’ front, though the other aspects of their run defense is more middle-of-the-rad. They are 13th in yards per carry at 4.4 and they rank 14th in expected points.
There’s some good news and bad news in the personnel matchups. The good news for the Giants is that starting iDL Akeem Hicks is currently on the reserve/COVID list. Likewise, NT Eddie Goldman has been having a down year and was recently called out by Chicago’s defensive line coach.
That said, Goldman is capable of being a disruptive presence in the middle of the defense when he’s on his game.
The bad news for the Giants is that the Bears could still get Hicks back in time for the game. Likewise, they did get strong safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
The second level of the Bears’ defense is pretty athletic with linebackers Roquan Smith and (former Giant) Alec Ogletree — and the returning Gipson. That athleticism to flow to the ball and swarm runners is likely why the Bears’ yards per carry isn’t as high as their yards per game allowed would suggest.
Ogletree was picked up as a depth piece for the Bears’ defense, but moved into a starting role when Danny Trevathan was lost to injury. Since then he has been surprisingly serviceable for the Bears.
The Bears’ athletic potential at the second level might mean that it would make more sense for Devontae Booker to see the majority of the Giants’ carries. While Booker doesn’t have the home run potential that Barkley presents, Booker’s more efficient running style could allow him to exploit any running lanes before the Bears’ defenders are able to flow to the ball.
We already mentioned the return of Gipson at strong safety, but he isn’t the only DB returning from the COVID protocol for the Bears. They’re also getting starting corner Jaylon Johnson back as well.
Johnson was the Bears’ second round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and has been an effective corner since he was selected. He’s averaging less than percent completion allowed for the second year in a row, while improving his yards per target, completion, and average depth of target over his rookie season. Johnson also leads the Bears with 9 passes broken up — though they have five other defensive backs behind him with 4 passes defensed apiece.
The Bears primarily play Cover 3 — like the rest of the NFL — but they play a lower-than average rate of Cover 3 as compared to the rest of the league.
In exchange, they play a much higher rate of Cover 6 shells than other teams.
Cover 6 is a versatile defense that is easily disguised, blending aspects of Cover 2 and cover 4 shells. That versatility and ability to roll or disguise coverages, combined with the pressure Robert Quinn can bring to bear on passers, could spell trouble considering the Giants’ quarterback situation.
The Giants will almost certainly see a lot of nickel sets from the Bears. They primarily play a 2-4-5 defense, with the 3-4-4 personnel grouping being their primary alternative.
Both of these personnel groups allow the Bears to be relatively versatile in their alignment and disguising their blitz packages. Blitzing isn’t something the Bears do a lot of, with their 21.8 percent blitz rate coming in at 23rd in the NFL. The Bears have been a bit more aggressive on defense in recent weeks, and the Giants should probably expect to see some pressure packages brought to bear (no pun intended... Well, maybe a little) in an attempt to exploit the Giants’ weaknesses along the offensive line and quarterback.