Khalil Mack and the Chicago Bears‘ defense have already shut down some useful offenses en route to a surprising 5-1 start this season. They stopped Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 before stifling Teddy Bridgewater and the Carolina Panthers last week.
Mack and the Bears now have to contend with the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football. Sean McVay’s team is lacking consistency, but his offense has shown signs of its pre-Super Bowl LIII meltdown best.
Jared Goff is playing at a high level, while Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are as good a one-two punch at wide receiver as there is in the NFL. Slowing down those weapons is just one key the Bears must get right if they’re going to improve to 6-1.
Double Robert Woods
Kupp stretches the field more often, but Woods is the oil in the engine for the Rams’ offense. He’s made route running a sweet science and the 28-year-old is a demon after the catch.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) October 19, 2020
The Bears can’t let Woods run the show, so defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano must be willing to adjust his schemes and keep Woods doubled. Chicago’s secondary has the talent to match up in man coverage, but Woods needs to see a safety hovering over the top of any corner playing press.
McVay loves to send Woods over the middle, so linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan must ensure he pays a heavy price for any crossing routes. Swarming on Woods will force Goff to become overly reliant on Kupp. Then Mack and the rest of the Bears’ pass rush will be able to tee off on No. 16.
Overload the line to nullify Aaron Donald
Shutting down Woods is the key to stopping the Rams’ offense, just like nullifying Aaron Donald is essential for beating the L.A. defense. Keeping the most dominant interior D-lineman of his era quiet is no easy task, but the Bears can do it, provided they add some extra bodies in the trenches.
An obvious way to do this would be deploying some overloaded offensive lines. Playing six linemen would let the Bears double Donald and still go hat-on-hat with the rest of the Rams’ pass-rushers.
Alternatively, an unbalanced line with tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie together on Donald’s side of the formation. Using two tight ends to replace the tackle on the other side would ensure the Bears didn’t lose any strength along the front.
Loading up on tight ends has been a signature of Chicago’s offense through six games. Jimmy Graham played 45 snaps vs. the Panthers, while backups Demetrius Harris and Cole Kmet combined for 47.
Two- and three-tight end sets would give the Bears a numbers advantage along the line of scrimmage and the ability to make sure Donald always draws a crowd inside.
More Cordarrelle Patterson
One of the best things about the Bears’ 20-19 victory over Brady and the Bucs’ in Week 5 was how often head coach Matt Nagy got Cordarrelle Patterson involved in the offense. The return specialist is a big-play threat as a runner and a receiver, and he accounted for 45 yards on six touches against Tampa Bay.
Some of those touches were the kind of jet sweep-style long handoffs offenses are using to free explosive wide receivers as runners. The Rams had a tough time defending these types of plays against the 49ers.
Deebo Samuel can't stop, won't stop 😤pic.twitter.com/WHdRqVrIgK
— PFF (@PFF) October 19, 2020
Patterson will find joy with similar play designs, provided Nagy is committed to getting him the ball. He touched the ball twice for a mere nine yards on just 12 snaps against the Panthers.
Increasing those numbers completes the Bears’ to-do list, here are the Rams’ keys to victory:
Avoid Akiem Hicks
There isn’t a more intimidating monster in the middle than Chicago’s Akiem Hicks. The Rams must avoid the disruptive 347-pounder at all costs.
It will mean running the ball away from No. 96. McVay still loves the outside-zone running game, and stretch plays are the best way to avoid Hicks. He’s not nearly as effective when moving sideline to sideline.
The Rams use a lot of misdirection, and McVay doesn’t mind running Woods or even tight end Gerald Everett on a reverse or two. Keeping things moving laterally will wear Hicks out and slow the beating heart of the Chicago defense.
Have Jalen Ramsey shadow Allen Robinson
Jalen Ramsey covering Allen Robinson is this game’s marquee matchup. The Rams can’t afford to let anyone else try to keep Robinson under wraps.
Robinson’s too physical, too sure-handed, and too clever deciphering zone coverage. He’s Nick Foles’ safety net, and taking that away is a job for Ramsey.
Allen Robinson II this season:
🔸 Targets: 65 (1st)
🔸 Drops: 0 pic.twitter.com/w0qthlTiTn
— PFF (@PFF) October 20, 2020
The Rams’ premier cover man loves to intimidate receivers, but he’ll need to vary his game this week. Fortunately, there’s more to Ramsey’s game than simply playing beat ’em up.
He’s a shutdown corner at his best working the inside, exactly where Robinson makes his living.
Jalen Ramsey is playing at an extremely high level over the past 3 games, particularly when aligned inside at the slot in sub defense. His size, speed, quicks, physicality and play recognition are currently on a different level #NFL #Rams #MondayNightFootball
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) October 23, 2020
Kick away from Patterson
L.A.’s special teams unit isn’t quite at the level it was when John Fassel was the coordinator and Greg Zuerlein handled the kicking chores. The Bears may sense an opportunity, particularly if rookie kicker Sam Sloman doesn’t keep the ball away from Patterson.
Cordarrelle Patterson has been phenomenal as a kick returner for the #Bears this year.
Through 5 games:
• NFL-best 468 return yards (199 more than the 2nd-best)
• 31.2 yards per return (3rd-best in NFL)
• Chicago is top 10 in NFL in starting field position after a kickoff
— Jacob Infante (@jacobinfante24) October 18, 2020
Patterson’s ability to give Nagy’s offense short fields has been vital in the Bears’ fast start. One big return can swing the momentum Chicago’s way at any time, so the Rams need a plan for Patterson.
Dropping kickoffs a little shorter would force Patteson to run up under the ball and give his blockers less time to get set. Kicking the ball along the ground would guarantee somebody other than Patterson a chance to return, but it would also be another way for the Rams to lose the battle for field position.
The safest choice might be to tell Sloman to pick a spot five to six yards deep in the end zone and aim for it every time. Most returners, even one as dynamic as Patterson, won’t entertain bringing out a kick that lands so deep in the end zone.