Bears

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

CINCINNATI — If the Bears pull off a Los Angeles Rams-esque turnaround in 2018, their future offensive success might look a little like what went down in Sunday’s 33-7 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mitchell Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over while operating more aggressive offensive gameplan. Jordan Howard rumbled for 147 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns, and Tarik Cohen provided a spark with 80 yards on 12 carries. Adam Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards and reeled in a touchdown. The Bears’ offensive line, despite a rash of first-half penalties, largely kept Trubisky upright and paved the way for Howard and Cohen to account for more rushing yards (227) than team had total offensive yards a week ago (147).  

“What’s been frustrating for me and the coaches is that a lot of us have had our day in the sun, but to see young guys come in and work hard and not reap those benefits,” coach John Fox said. “I thought Mitch Trubisky played very well last week. When you don’t experience the end result that’s a W, it’s hard to put much into that. I’ve seen him grow every week he’s been out there since all the way back to Minnesota. It’s just kind of nice to see some of those young guys experience the benefits of all the hard work.”

Kendall Wright, who’s due to hit free agency, had a massive game (11 targets, 10 catches, 107 yards) and said he won’t focus on where he’ll wind up signing until after the season. But he did add: “If they want me, I’m here. I’m cool with it.”

The Bears’ exact blueprint on Sunday won’t necessarily be easy to follow in 2018, let alone these last three games, given the Bengals’ defense was 1) missing a number of key players, like linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and 2) didn’t appear to give a very good effort. But more important than Howard bludgeoning the Bengals into submission over the course of a lackluster afternoon was the Bears, for the first time in 2017, scoring a touchdown on their first offensive possession.

“That was big for us,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “It was just a confidence thing. We’re capable of doing it, we just got to do it.”

The Bears’ gameplan from that point on felt more aggressive, with Trubisky slinging passes toward nine different teammates while looking comfortable going through his progressions in the pocket. This was a far cry from what the Bears did after getting an early lead against the Carolina Panthers back in October, with Trubisky taking a bunch of sacks and barely throwing the ball in an uninspiring offensive performance.  

The Bears jumped ahead Sunday and, instead of conservatively trying to protect the lead, aggressively tried to grow it. The result was the franchise’s biggest margin of victory in half a decade.

“Everybody wanted the ball,” Trubisky said. “The linemen wanted the ball to run behind them, the receivers wanted the ball in their eyes, and the running backs wanted (to run). When everybody has that hunger, that desire to want to go out and execute the next play, it makes it fun on offense.”

Perhaps the biggest question about Sunday’s game is where this gameplan was all season. But getting in the end zone on that first drive not only boosted the confidence of the players, it could’ve boosted the confidence of Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to open things up.

“(We were) making some of those plays that we maybe didn’t make earlier in the year,” Wright said. “But when you’re making those plays and having fun, it makes it easier for Mitch to find whoever, it makes it easier for Dowell to call whatever plays he wants.”

The story of the 2017 season, though, was written before Sunday’s win ended a five-game losing streak that included duds against the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. All the Bears can do in these final weeks of the season is work to build a foundation for 2018, and that starts with validating that the work they’ve put in this year hasn’t been for nothing.

For Trubisky, it’s not necessarily about personal validation — he’s been confident in his growth even without the wins to back it up. But for the Bears’ young core that played so well on Sunday, it counts for something right now — and may count for something next fall.

“(The losing streak) felt like s***,” Massie said. “You’re getting your ass kicked all the time — it doesn’t feel good to lose. All the work we put in, we deserve this win. We came out, did what we were supposed to do and we got it.”

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

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USA Today

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

A decade ago, die-hard football fans — at least those who weren’t also big into Conference USA football — were introduced to a running back from Tulane named Matt Forte at the 2008 Senior Bowl. Forte, who rushed for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year at Tulane, was the 2008 Senior Bowl MVP; the Bears went on to draft him with the 44th overall pick a few months later. 

(The Bears also drafted the 1999 Senior Bowl MVP — Cade McNown — and that pick didn’t work out as well as Forte, to say the least.)

John Fox and the Bears’ coaching staff coached the North team in last year’s Senior Bowl, and from that roster wound up selecting D-II offensive lineman Jordan Morgan in the fifth round. The coaching staffs this year are from the Denver Broncos (Vance Joseph) and Houston Texans (Bill O’Brien), but the Bears will still have a significant presence in Mobile, Ala. to scout prospects this week. 

So as practices begin leading up to Saturday’s game, here are six players for the Bears to watch down in Alabama:

WR Tre’Quan Smith (Central Florida/South Team)

Smith seems to fit the profile of what the Bears lack at wide receiver as the offseason begins: He’s a 6-foot-1, 210 pound explosive playmaker who caught only 59 passes last year…but for 1,171 yards with 13 touchdowns. He may not be a Day 1 or Day 2 guy right now, but if the Bears’ plan winds up being to address their dearth of wide receivers via free agency and the middle rounds of the draft — where value and playmakers can certainly be found — Smith could be someone to circle. 

OLB Garret Dooley (Wisconsin/North Team) 

The Rochester, Ill native doesn’t explode off the stat sheet like fellow ex-Badger T.J. Watt did a year ago (11 1/2 sacks), but Dooley did notch 7 1/2 sacks in 2017. Worth noting here: Wisconsin runs a 3-4, as do the Bears. Getting an up-close look at the 6-foot-3, 246 pound Dooley could begin to show the Bears if he’s worth a late-round flier to help address some of the team’s issues at outside linebacker. 

WR J’Mon Moore (Missouri/South Team)

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Moore has similar size to Meredith (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and turned in a productive 2017 for the Tigers: 65 receptions, 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns. If the Bears like what they see in him, he could give them a later-round spin of the wheel at receiver — which could be valuable if they were to pick a receiver in the first or second round. 

CB JaMarcus King (South Carolina/North Team)

The 6-foot-2 King is listed as the tallest corner (along with San Diego State’s Kameron Kelly) at the Senior Bowl, and while he only had five interceptions at South Carolina, he did total 21 pass break-ups in 26 games. As the Bears begin scouting cornerbacks — one of their biggest positions of need — they can begin to find out this week if King’s length could translate into him being a mid-round sleeper in this year’s draft. 

PK Michael Badgley (Miami, North Team) & PK Daniel Carlson (Auburn, South Team)

Both kickers from last year’s Senior Bowl — Zane Gonzalez and Jake Elliott — found regular roles as rookies, with Elliott going to the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bears whiffed in their evaluation of Connor Barth, only bringing in Roberto Aguayo for a short-lived competition during training camp, while Elliott was available in September after being waived by the Cincinnati Bengals on cut-down day. The more immediate issue here: Badgley and Carlson each made fewer than 75 percent of their field goals as seniors; Elliott and Gonzalez hit 80 and 92 percent of their field goals in their final collegiate seasons. This may not be as good a pair of kickers in this year’s Senior Bowl, but they’re still worth an early scouting evaluation for a team that needs to get its placekicking situation sorted out. 

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

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USA TODAY

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

The next-to-last weekend of NFL football for the 2017 season (Pro Bowl doesn’t count) and a handful of notelets present themselves with varying degrees of relevance for the Bears...

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As noted here on more than one occasion, winning football isn’t contingent solely on pristine football from an elite quarterback, but it does turn so often on quarterbacks making or not making a play at a tipping point (which, come to think of it, establishes a quarterback as “elite” or not). The Bears believe they have something special in Mitch Trubisky, but they did not see enough “special” in Trubisky’s late-starting rookie year. To wit:

The New England Patriots are going to another Super Bowl because their quarterback was just a little better than the Jacksonville Jaguars’ when it mattered most. Blake Bortles, who played an otherwise thoroughly stellar game on the biggest stage of his career to date, unable to execute second-, third- and fourth-down throws on the final three Jacksonville Jaguars possessions in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ 24-20 loss to the Patriots. Tom Brady threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

GM Ryan Pace traded up for in the last draft because he sees those kinds of fourth quarters in Mitch Trubisky. It’s about an intangible on top of a baseline of ability, and it’s unclear whether Trubisky has that “It” factor. In 12 starts, with a 4-8 Bears record over those games, Trubisky directed one game-winning drive (for the winning OT field goal at Baltimore) but has zero fourth-quarter comebacks on his young and brief resume’.

For (very) loose comparison’s sake, and perhaps a distant foreshadowing: Brady had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives in the 15 games of his de facto rookie season of 2001 (he’d appeared in mop-up duty in one blowout Patriots loss in 2000). Bortles did have one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback in his otherwise dismal rookie season.

Brett Favre delivered seven of each in his first two Green Bay seasons. Peyton Manning had one of each his 3-13 rookie season but six fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives his 13-3 second season.

Not comparing Trubisky to Brady, Favre or Manning, but fourth quarters are where careers are made and the demarcation line lies between “good” and “great.” Fourth quarters will be perhaps the defining measure of Trubisky’s first year under his new coaching staff.

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It isn’t a right-away priority for this Bears offseason but an obvious need is for a backup quarterback, assuming that Mark Sanchez’s services as QB caddy are no longer desired. Mike Glennon’s big money is done but his 2017 revealed that he is a not-ready-for-prime-time player. GM Ryan Pace took a flyer on Glennon in a gamble for some hoped-for upside in Glennon, and with that not happening, so presumably is Glennon.

Regardless, stocking the quarterback shelf behind Mitch Trubisky is a requirement. Josh McCown is available (again) but that option got away a while ago. So are Case Keenum (maybe after Sunday), Kirk Cousins and hey, why not Jimmy Garoppolo. Seriously, though, someone will want a job and the money, but it won’t be an attractive sell, backing up a young franchise quarterback for a team coming off four straight double-digit-loss seasons.

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Get used to the “run-pass option” (RPO) phrase. Coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich speak in those terms, referring loosely to the quarterback having the option of handing off on a called run play, or reading the defensive reaction and taking the ball out and going to a pass play on the fly. Nick Foles executed it effectively, so did Blake Bortles.

Incoming Bears coaches inherit a Mitch Trubisky who has met the NFL and achieved ball security, which impressed his new coaches because of what’s needed – good decisions under pressure – to do that. “I think watching Mitchell, his decision-making, there’s a lot of good stuff there,” Helfrich said.

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Expect the Bears to go best-available at No. 8 (before Ryan Pace makes his third straight first-round trade, that is), and for Pace to address some combination of offensive line, receiver, cornerback and linebacker in free agency ahead of draft weekend. Whatever the personnel end result, an upgrade to the pass rush is an offseason must-have absolute.

The 50-yard pick-six by Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson traced to pressure from Eagles defensive end Chris Long that forced Case Keenum to jury-rig his throwing motion. A potential scoring drive was aborted by a strip-sack by Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, with Long recovering the fumble.