Bears

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5. 

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.