Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 8:
1) CHICAGO BEARS: Commit to the run game.
When I read the Chicago Bears ran the ball a grand total of seven times in their disappointing loss to the shorthanded Saints last week, I thought it was a misprint. It wasn't. What would Papa Bear Halas think of this kind of football? Seven runs for 17 yards and two lost fumbles? Sheesh. I know last year's Coach of the Year, Matt Nagy, didn't forget how to coach in one offseason, and he reminded the football world that he's not the "idiot" I know he isn't. He's much the opposite.
However, the Bears need to be a better running football team, and you can't get better if you don't work at it. There were several times when Nagy could have "worked" on the run game in that loss to the Saints. Trailing 12-10 midway through the second quarter, the Bears faced a second-and-2 from their own 33-yard line. Both Saints safeties were 15 yards deep, setting up the perfect time to run the ball. Instead, Mitch Trubisky overthrew Anthony Miller on a go route. On the very next series, the Bears faced nearly the same situation -- second-and-2 at their own 40 with the Saints safeties playing deep -- and a Trubisky pass over the middle to Trey Burton was dropped.
I can point out four or five opportunities before the score got out of reach where the Bears could have -- and should have -- easily dialed up a run. I understand game-planning and what coaches feel gives them the best chance to win. Heck, when Tom Brady and those dastardly Patriots paid a visit to Rex Ryan's Bills in 2015, Brady dropped back 61 times that day and handed the rock off less than 10 times in a thrilling 40-32 victory. But comparing that game with last weekend's Bears' loss, Trubisky's 54 dropbacks to seven runs feels much differen't considering the Bears QB was making his comeback from a shoulder injury that had him playing with a harness to help support the shoulder. All the more reason to run the ball.
The Bears are struggling in the run game with both rookie David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen averaging a combined 3 yards per carry. Last season when the Bears sat at the top of the North, they averaged over 4 yards per carry, and that's where they need to get back to. Right now, they are severely imbalanced in throwing two-thirds of the time and running the other third -- the worst ratio in the league. The Bears have the personnel to run the ball well. In fact, their best run last week was a counter trey run to the right that netted 9 yards in the second quarter. To my surprise, they never called that play again. I would suggest that any good run of 4 yards or more should be repeated.
Secondly, it's important that the running backs and O-line get a feel for each other, meaning letting the line attack combo blocks and generate movement early in games. The offense has a lot of pre-snap motion, which brings extra defenders into the box and makes it difficult for the O-line to find a rhythm. Cutting back on some of the motions will allow the line to concentrate on getting movement without having to worry about defenders showing up late.
The season can still turn for the better with the Los Angeles Chargers limping into town. There is no reason the Bears can't have success running this week if they commit to the run, allow the offensive line and backs to gain some trust and cut down on some of the motions. At some point, if the Bears are to get into the playoff hunt, they must run the ball more often and more efficiently.
2) CAROLINA PANTHERS: Utilize unheralded tight end Chris Manhertz.
The Panthers, winners of four straight behind unheralded quarterback Kyle Allen, travel across the country to face the undefeated 49ers. On paper, this looks like a mismatch and another opportunity for the talented 49ers defensive line to have a shark feeding frenzy like they did a week ago against the Redskins. The 49ers dressed eight defensive linemen and all eight made plays to land on the stat sheet. Fortunately, games aren't played on paper and all reports have the Panthers showing up Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
Norv Turner may have a partial solution to the problems the heavily publicized 49ers defensive front presents. The solution is perhaps more unheralded than Allen -- tight end Chris Manhertz, who has yet to touch the ball for the Panthers' offense. If fact, he didn't even play football for the first 22 years of his life as his talents on the basketball court took him to Canisius College where he was a very good hoopster and three-time captain.
We've seen a slow matriculation of basketball players enter the NFL over the last 20 years -- Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates come to mind. Both have been elite pass catchers and have earned numerous Pro Bowl votes during their tenures. Manhertz is different. He isn't a pass catcher. Well, if you don't count five career receptions and a touchdown (a pass from Christian McCaffrey on a deceptive play) as being a pass catcher. Manhertz has another, more valuable specialty in Turner's creative offense as strictly a blocker. If you want to get more specific, he acts as a personal protector for Allen.
His role as a personal protector was never larger than in Carolina's latest victory over the Bucs. He logged a season-high 36 snaps and could be found in a two-point stance on either side of Allen with his sole intention to clean up any leakage from any pass rusher. Manhertz was free to scan the defense on many plays and when the league's leading sack artist Shaq Barrett began to turn the corner toward Allen, the tight end would shuffle, slide and use his long arms to push Barrett aside. This allowed Allen time to find playmakers downfield for chunk plays.
I think Manhertz could have his biggest role yet on Sunday against a ferocious 49ers D. Watch for Manhertz to scan for leakage in the line -- in some cases, whichever defensive player is having a good game -- and pick up extra blocks. He could be assigned to help against a number of players with Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford or any of the aforementioned linemen that found their way to onto Week 6's stat sheet.
The best part of Turner's strategy is Manhertz's location. His vantage point, either to the left or right of Allen, allows him to move quickly to the area that needs the most help. If Turner utilizes Allen's personal protector against the undefeated 49ers, Manhertz might not be so unheralded for long.
3) ARIZONA CARDINALS: Continue to limit offensive turnovers.
I am thoroughly enjoying the steady development of Kyler Murray, and with it, the growth of an entire football team. The cynics out there point to this three-game win streak against teams with a combined record of 3-18 as a big "so what?!" I remind our friendly cynics that the Arizona Cardinals have undergone a major turnaround over the last 10 months. They finished dead last in 10 offensive categories last season, including scoring, but after seven games this season, Kliff Kingsbury's offense is 17th in scoring and riding a three-game win streak.
The biggest reason for this turnaround is their ability to hang onto the football. They have committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL with a total of four in seven games. Murray has been amazing at protecting the football as he has yet to lose a fumble -- he has fumbled once so far -- and the rookie passer hasn't thrown an interception since Jadeveon Clowney jumped in front of a screen pass intended for David Johnson in the first quarter of Arizona's Week 4 loss to Seattle. Murray has tossed 118 passes since that pick. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit because Murray has only been sacked three times in October. Murray also deserves some of the credit as his growing ability to understand coverage and emphasis on getting the ball out quicker has also benefited his sack totals. Murray's ability to extend plays, keep his eyes down the field and run as a last resort is remarkable. And when he does run, he doesn't get caught from behind thanks to his elusive speed, and his baseball days have taught him to slide to protect himself.
Kliff and Kyler face their biggest test so far when they make their first trip to New Orleans, where one of the NFL's hottest teams awaits. The Saints, winners of five straight, rank in the bottom half of the league in takeaways, so there's reason to believe the Cards can keep it competitive. The other factor that has helped Murray and the Cardinals is they have haven't fallen far behind or if at all. They haven't been forced to play catch-up like they did in Week 1. The Cardinals can keep climbing if their unique ability to possess the football continues Sunday.