Kyler has played 100% of the Bears defensive snaps through three weeks. While that shows great stamina and durability, he’s also given up some big plays.
By Herb Howard
Chicago Bears rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon had a really impressive offseason. The Bears top pick in the 2022 draft met and then exceeded expectations throughout minicamp, training camp and preseason.
Drafted to fill a huge need as the starting CB opposite Jaylon Johnson, Bears coaches initially thought Kyler would only play outside corner. In the spring I asked defensive coordinator Alan Williams if they would cross-train Gordon, meaning they would also have him learn to play inside as the slot corner or nickleback. At that time coach Williams said no, stating that they view him as an outside corner and want him to focus his attention on learning that position.
Kyler excelled at learning to play outside corner. He proved himself to be physically and mentally capable of handling the workload of that position. In fact, he handled it so well that the coaches decided to add to his responsibilities. We began to see Gordon practicing as a slot corner, in addition to his duties as an outside corner.
Head coach Matt Eberflus also told me that moving Kyler inside in their nickel package was also about getting their best three cornerbacks -Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon, and Kindle Vildor- on the field.
Everyone knew that this was high praise being heaped upon the rookie. He was being trusted to be the Bears starting corner on the outside in their base defense, and then move inside to the slot corner in their nickel defense. These two positions are not the same and an ability to do one is not evidence that you can do the other.
Cornerback is the most difficult position on defense for a rookie to learn. Unlike some positions on defense, when a cornerback gets beaten, everybody notices and it usually goes for a big play. Digesting the vast array of complex defensive calls and understanding the diverse offensive schemes, all while trying to cover the extremely gifted athletes that play wide receiver in the National Football League is a huge task. And that’s just at one position. It’s extremely ambitious to ask a rookie cornerback to be effective at multiple positions.
Nickelback is even tougher to learn than outside corner. On the inside things happen much faster, there is a lot more traffic, and you have to be more aware of other defender’s responsibilities. It is more difficult for the nickel defender to know where he does and does not have help in pass coverage. The slot corner also has to be more involved in the run defense, because they are often playing “in the box”.
I have no doubt that Kyler Gordon has the tools to succeed at either position. He’s a great athlete, a physical defender and an intelligent football player. One day he’ll be able to seamlessly transition between those two uniquely different spots. But that day hasn’t come yet. He is struggling, mentally, to switch back and forth in game action. Kyler has been targeted 20 times by opposing quarterbacks in the first three games. 15 of those passes have been completed for 210 yards. With a completion percentage of 75, and a quarterback rating of 125, it’s a wonder opposing QBs don’t throw at him every play.
#6 Kyler Gordon / by John L. Alexander
Believe it or not, I’m not making an indictment on Kyler Gordon. Again, I think he’s going to be a really good player for the Bears but perhaps it’s time for the coaches to reconsider his workload. According to Pro Football Reference, Kyler has played 100% of the Bears defensive snaps through three weeks. While that shows great stamina and durability, he’s also given up some big plays.
In reviewing the tape, most of his breakdowns in coverage have been mental errors. On the 52 yard pass he surrendered on Sunday that led to the Houston Texans first touchdown of the game, Gordon believed he had help coming from the middle of the field. He did not. On Monday, Coach Eberflus said the Bears were in a single high safety look and that Kyler has to stick with the receiver on that play.
I’m beginning to wonder if the rapid changes from outside to inside on a play to play basis are confusing Kyler. It’s reasonable to think that perhaps there are times where he mixes up his responsibilities. Again, what he’s asked to do in the slot is completely different from what he’s asked to do outside. On the 52 yard play I just mentioned, if he were playing outside, I could understand why he thought he had help across the middle. But inside he was all alone to cover a lot of grass.
Physically, I know Kyler would’ve been able to keep up with the WR on that play. He’s fast enough to run with him but his mental error caused him to be badly beaten on a huge play. It was 3rd & 7 and Houston was pinned deep in their own territory. The Bears were leading by 10 pts and had all the momentum. If the defense is able to get that stop on 3rd down, the Bears have a real opportunity to go up 17-0 in the 1st qtr. Instead, the Texans scored and the Bears were in a dog fight.
Unfortunately there have been several similar plays for Gordon at this early point in the season, especially when playing in the slot, which Coach Eberflus calls a “hot spot” in the Bears defense. He calls it that because a lot of responsibility is placed on that position and if there is a breakdown there, it could result in a big play for the opposing offense. Perhaps that is why Eberflus has personally taken on the responsibility of working with Kyler. Lovie Smith did the same thing with his nickelbacks when he was head coach of the Bears, running a very similar defense.
I’ve asked Coach Williams and Coach Eberflus if they believe that Kyler may be mentally overwhelmed by playing two positions. Both coaches, though understanding of the question, said no. They said they like where Kyler is in his development.
I’m worried about the overall success of the defense, and the short-term confidence of Kyler. You don’t want him to begin to doubt his ability. I don’t think that has happened yet. He seems to be a very confident young man but if he continues to be beaten, it’s only natural that some doubt could creep into his mind. Once a corner loses his confidence, it’s really over for him. Not necessarily for the long haul, but certainly in the short term.
The Chicago Bears need their defense to carry them right now. They can’t continue to be burned by the mental lapses of their top draft pick. It’s time to reconsider Kyler’s workload. You tried him at both spots, it hasn’t worked. Now choose one -preferably nickel- and let the kid be able to play fast without doing as much thinking.