The Jets continue the NFC North stretch of their schedule with their first game against the Bears at Soldier field in eight years. Jeremy Bates remembers the setting well.
"Great city, great fans, great tradition, great ownership," said Bates, the Jets offensive coordinator who was the Bears' QBs coach in 2012. "It's old-school football. They take it seriously. It reminds me of the SEC, that kind of tradition. I'm looking forward to going back and playing in Chicago."
Head coach Todd Bowles also has a connection to the Windy City and it's Bears first-year head coach Matt Nagy.
"Matt's dad was my high school defensive line coach when I was at Elizabeth," Bowles said. "I watched Matt grow up. We coached together in Philadelphia. So I've known Matt pretty much his whole life. ... Outstanding coach, very intelligent."
Of course, the main goal is not reuniting with an old coaching buddy or an old home. The Jets are fighting to return to .500 at 4-4 after their home loss to Minnesota while the Bears are fighting to go over .500 at 4-3 after their home loss to New England. The Green & White also are sorting through a rash of recent injuries. But Bowles said his team is not in "woe is us" mode.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "It's a road trip for us coming off a loss. ... We'll be ready to play."
Here are seven more points of interest for Sunday's Jets-Bears clash (1 p.m. ET kickoff):
1. Bear-ly a Rivalry
This is almost an opposite interconference rivalry from last week's Jets opponent. Against Chicago, the Green & White are 3-8 all-time, with two of those wins coming at Soldier Field — in 1974 with Joe Namath at the helm and 1997, when Neil O'Donnell replaced an injured Glenn Foley to hold off Chi relief pitcher Erik Kramer. The Jets have lost their last four in the series and their last two on the road. And they're 1-6 in their last seven against the NFC North, a slump that began with the 38-34 shootout loss between Mark Sanchez and then-Bears signalcaller Jay Cutler in 2010. Now it's Sam Darnold's and Mitch Trubisky's turn to duel.
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2. Sam's New Week
Darnold's rookie rollercoaster hit season lows vs. Minny with three interceptions, six three-and-out drives and a 34.4 passer rating. First ingredient in his recipe for Chicago success, he said: "Really just understanding it's a new week. You've just got to move on." Then protect the ball (the Bears are No. 2 in the NFL with 15 takeaways), emphasize quick releases to beat Khalil Mack to the punch (see below), extend drives (Darnold's 4.62 plays/drive is third-lowest among qualifying QBs), and find healthy receivers — old reliables Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson, new veteran WR Rishard Matthews, and his four-pack of TEs led by rookie Chris Herndon.
3. Running Man
Who leads NFL quarterbacks this year in rushing average? Cam Newton? Russell Wilson? Blake Bortles? Marcus Mariota? Actually, it’s Trubisky, who’s packing a 7.90 yards/carry average. There’s no question Tru has to be accounted for as a runner in the Bears’ sixth-ranked rushing attack. On the other hand, critics fault him for sometimes running before passing. And he’s masking a ground game led by Jordan Howard that, when only RBs are counted, falls from sixth to 19th in rushing yards/game and 12th to 25th in yards/carry. But if he hooks up with versatile RB Tarik Cohen, WR Taylor Gabriel or TE Trey Burton, watch out.
4. "It's Thirrrd Dowwwn!"
S Jamal Adams has been on fire defensively. He leads the Jets not just in patter and TFLs but also with a team-high seven tackles to prevent third/fourth-down conversions. Other crunch-down leaders: Henry Anderson with 2.5 sacks, Darryl Roberts and Morris Claiborne with three PDs, Darron Lee with two INTs. Third down could be a key battleground hard by Lake Michigan: The Jets' defense, after posting seven three-and-outs vs. Minnesota — their most in a game since 2011 — has allowed opponents a 33.0% conversion rate, fifth-best in the NFL. The Bears' offense has converted at a 46.8% rate, fourth in the league. Something's got to give.
5. Mack Attack
Which Khalil Mack will Darnold and the Jets' protectors be facing? The LB who arrived in trade from Oakland to tear up opponents with four sacks and three forced fumbles in four September games? Or the sore-ankled defender who has three tackles, no sacks, no QB hits and no FFs in two October tilts? Further, as Mack goes, so goes "da Bears" — 18 sacks in the first four games, one in the last two. Bowles expects the former Mack truck coming from either side: "He can run around you, he can run over you, he can strip the ball, he can catch the ball, he can drop in coverage. He's more complete than a lot of players today."
6. Get Well, Bilal
The newest injury test will be to the Jets' ground game after RB Bilal Powell went on IR this week. Bowles' latest on Powell's neck injury: It's similar to WR Quincy Enunwa's last summer and Bilal "is expected to recover fully." Bates on BP: "What a great team player. We're definitely going to miss him." Isaiah Crowell and Powell split the workload in the first seven games (Powell led in offensive plays, 208-191, and offensive touches, 91-90, Crowell in yards/touch, 5.9-5.0). Now the ball's in Isaiah's court, with rookie Trenton Cannon in a supporting role. Will the Jets go into Chicago with two RBs? "It's been done before," said Bowles, adding, "It would be a little risky."
7. Special Circumstances?
The Jets lost the field position game to Vikes with a minus-14-yard differential in average drive start (more on that in Saturday's Inside the Numbers), an imbalance based in part on some special teams issues. The Jets can make amends Sunday by revving up Andre Roberts (the NFL leader with 644 yards on combined kickoff and punt returns) against Bears kick coverage that yielded a KR TD to New England. Also, Chicago punter Pat O'Donnell had a punt blocked and returned for a TD by the Patriots, and Kevin Pierre-Louis, who had the Jets' semi-punt block at Cleveland, could return to action to help apply some kick blowback in the Windy City.