First-and-10: Matt Nagy’s Bears in position to finish strong where others failed

At 5-3, the Bears are above .500 at mid-season for the first time in five years. But it’s not exactly uncharted waters. The Bears were 5-3 in 2013, 7-1 in 2012 and 5-3 in 2011. And they missed the playoffs each time.

Those teams couldn’t finish — each of them going 3-5 in the second half to miss the playoffs. In fact, the Bears have been above .500 in the second half of the season just once in 11 years since reaching the Super Bowl in 2006. In 2010, they went 6-2 to finish 11-5 and win the NFC North — the only playoff appearance since the 2006 season. Funny how that works.

What went wrong in those recent near misses?

In 2013, the Bears were riding an offensive wave under Marc Trestman. Jay Cutler’s 91.7 passer rating was 10 points higher than the previous season. The defense, with Lovie Smith’s handprints still on it, had 19 takeaways and four touchdowns in the first eight games.

But that defense was headed for a fall, as injuries and age took a toll. With Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman missing a combined 13 games, the Bears allowed an average of 408 yards and 31.4 points in the second half, with nine takeaways, and the Bears were doomed to an 8-8 finish.

In 2012, the Bears were a soft 7-1 at midseason under Lovie — six of their seven victories came against teams .500 or worse (a combined 34-61-1). The second half was a different story — their first six opponents were all playoff-bound teams (a combined 65-27) and the Bears lost five of them. By the time the Bears played the beatable Cardinals and Lions to finish the season, they needed help and didn’t get it.

In 2011, the Bears were victimized by the football gods — on a roll with five consecutive victories to move to 7-3 when Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb trying to make a tackle on an interception return in a victory over the Chargers. The Bears lost four straight games with Caleb Hanie at quarterback. By the time they turned to Josh McCown it was too late.

Despite that unpleasant history, this team under Matt Nagy looks like a good bet to break through and finish strong where those previous teams did not. Or stronger, anyway.

For one thing, it’s the best balanced team since 2006 — the defense ranks fifth in total yards and third in points allowed. The offense is 17th in total yards and 11th in points scored.

And both phases are heading in the right direction. The offense is maturing steadily in Nagy’s first year, with quarterback Mitch Trubisky developing on schedule. The defense has playmakers at all three levels and balance of its own — 10 players have interceptions this season, the most since 2008. Rookie Roquan Smith is improving noticeably. And — just a guess here — the return of linebacker Khalil Mack should provide a boost.

And perhaps most of all, this team looks like it’s in good hands with Nagy. While not infallible, he seems to have a good handle on what he has, where this team is at and where it’s headed, without expecting too much too soon. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: When it comes to guiding a team through the regular season, Andy Reid has taught him well.

2. The war of attrition still might be the toughest battle Nagy faces in the second half. So far, so good. The Bears have three players on injured reserve — guard Kyle Long, linebacker Sam Acho and tight end Adam Shaheen — and Shaheen could return this week. (A year ago at this time, they had six starters on IR). But with the bye week long gone, it’s going to be a long march to the finish. Nagy credits the training and conditioning staffs for the better health, but he might want to keep his fingers crossed over the next eight weeks.

3. Though the defense dominated the Bills in the Bears’ 41-9 victory on Sunday, the offense might have benefited the most from facing a challenging Bills defense. At this stage of Trubisky’s development, his 76.0 rating against the Bills is a better learning tool than the 124.3 against the porous Buccaneers defense in Week 4.

4. Trubisky ranks 16th in the NFL in passer rating (96.1 — 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions). But six of his games have come against defenses that rank in the top half of the league in passer rating, including the No. 4 Seahawks, No. 5 Jets, No. 7 Patriots and No. 8 Dolphins.

5. For what it’s worth, over the past 10 seasons, 35-of-60 teams (58.3 percent) that were 5-3 at mid-season have made the playoffs.

6. After babying his starters through the preseason at least in part to avoid injury, Nagy still had Trubisky in the game Sunday when the Bears were leading 34-9 with five minutes to play. When do you pull him?

“It depends,” Nagy said. “For whatever reason … the only time it crossed my mind was toward the end. It’s just a Catch-22 — you can always be, ‘Oh, you’re too conservative’ or ‘You’re too this, your too that.’ There is a balance to it. But I just went with my gut.”

7. To his credit, Nagy at least had Trubisky making real plays when he was in there late — including a deep ball that led to a 43-yard pass interference penalty and a two-yard touchdown pass to Trey Burton.

“We’re drilling into these guys, ‘Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive; finish, finish, finish,’” Nagy said. “If we don’t do that as coaches, then what are we teaching?”

8. Trubisky also drew a 47-yard pass interference call in the third quarter on a deep ball to Taylor Gabriel. The Bears have drawn seven pass interference penalties (second most in the NFL) for a league-high 177 yards. Last year they drew three DPI penalties (tied for 29th) for 30 yards (31st in the NFL) all season.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Panthers defensive end Mario Addison had three sacks and forced fumble in a 42-28 victory over the Buccaneers on Sunday. Addison has 7.5 sacks this season and 26.5 in his last 31 games — with at least a half-sack in 23 of them.

10. Bear-ometer: 10-6 — vs. Lions (W); vs. Vikings (W); at Lions (L); at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L).


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