Bears

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

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USA TODAY

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

A month ago, the Bears could reasonably describe their depth at inside linebacker as strong, and maybe as the strongest unit on the team. 

But on Monday, the Bears will be without the trio of players who comprised that depth: Jerrell Freeman is on injured reserve with a pectoral tear; Nick Kwiatkoski’s pec injury isn’t as serious but will keep him sidelined; and Danny Trevathan will serve his one-game suspension for the helmet-to-helmet hit he leveled on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams last week. 

Trevathan will be back next week and Kwiatkoski appears to have avoided injured reserve, meaning he can be expected back at some point this season. But without them, the Bears will roll with Christian Jones, John Timu and Jonathan Anderson (the latter two began the season on the practice squad) against the Minnesota Vikings. 

“It's a concern, but at least we're playing with guys that were here that were in camp,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “That was the one position on defense, when we went to the 53 and practice squad where we did have guys, we had four active and two on practice squad and now all six of them have played, so (we) feel good about that in that we're not having somebody in off the street having to learn a new system and I think they'll all do fine.”

Jones and Timu have seen a decent amount of snaps alongside Trevathan this year: In the last three weeks, Jones’ defensive snap counts are 47, 36 and 28 while Timu played 17 snaps against Pittsburgh and 19 against Green Bay (Anderson has not played a defensive snap since Week 2). 

Timu, who’s played in 20 games over the last three years, will handle the defensive calls on Monday.

“We’re confident in John,” Fangio said. “John knows our defense. He’s been here for three years. The game’s not too big for him. He loves to play. He is instinctive and smart. So we think he’ll go in there and do fine.”

Added linebacker Pernell McPhee: “Timu’s a very good player, a very smart player, a very patient player. I think his play on the field shows how much he’s studying and how much he’s really locked in throughout the week.”

The Bears may be without two other starters, too: Saturday’s final injury report listed outside linebacker Willie Young (tricep) as doubtful, while cornerback Marcus Cooper is questionable with back spasms. Going back further, the Bears are also without veteran safety Quintin Demps, who handled a lot of the communication duties for this defense. 

But the Vikings will be without rookie Dalvin Cook (74 carries, 354 yards, 2 TDs), who tore his ACL last week. Backups Jerick McKinnon (2.6 yards/attempt) and Latavius Murray (2.7 yards/attempt) haven’t inspired much fear in 2017. And the expectation at Halas Hall is that quarterback Sam Bradford will start, though he’s listed as questionable on the Vikings’ final injury report. 

So in the matchup of the Bears' defense against the Vikings' offense, the group that gets the most out of its depth guys may be the one that swings that battle on Monday. 

“Any time you lose a starter — I think there's a reason they're the starter — but you know I feel good about our backups,” coach John Fox said. “I feel good about the replacement people we've had in there. We've got more depth this season than we've had in the past so I feel confident in the people we'll have out there and the options we have.”

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.

Has Adam Shaheen actually lived up to expectations in 2017?

Has Adam Shaheen actually lived up to expectations in 2017?

If the broad expectation for Adam Shaheen on July 26, when the Bears reported to training camp in Bourbonnais, was that he would be mostly deployed as a red zone threat and catch a handful of touchdowns in his rookie year…is it fair to say he’s met that expectation?

With three games remaining in the 2017 season, Shaheen has 12 catches on 14 targets for 127 yards with three touchdowns. He may not have the volume of receptions and yards to match how high the Bears drafted him in April, but he has proven to be difficult to cover in the end zone. 

There’s more to it than the numbers — while Zach Miller and Dion Sims were healthy in the first half of the season, Shaheen was primarily used as a blocking tight end (50 of his 100 snaps in the Bears’ first eight games were in three-tight-end sets, for example). And he had some missteps as a run blocker after Miller’s injury, like this one against the Philadelphia Eagles

But statistically, Shaheen’s numbers stack up somewhat favorably to those of recent rookie tight ends. 

There have been 144 tight ends to play as rookies in the last 10 years. Of those, only 24 (17 percent) have caught at least three touchdowns. Among those 24 tight ends, Shaheen currently has the highest catch percentage (85.7 percent) and the sixth highest average yards per target (9.07), though those are perhaps skewed by a small sample size (14 targets). 

With three games to go, let’s say Shaheen catches one more touchdown and eight more passes (that may be a conservative estimate, given how well he played against Cincinnati). But that would give Shaheen 20 receptions and four touchdowns; only 12 rookie tight ends have hit those benchmarks in the last decade. 

Comparatively, in the last 10 years, there have been 24 second-year tight ends to have at least 20 receptions and at least four touchdowns. The players to hit those marks in each of their first two seasons: Mychal Rivera, Aaron Hernandez, Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Gresham, Jimmy Graham and John Carlson. For the most part, that's an impressive list. 

It’s still too early to tell what direction Shaheen’s career is taking. Even as he wasn’t doing much of anything in the first half of 2017 — he only was targeted twice — it was always too soon to label him a “bust” given the rarity of tight ends making a significant impact in their rookie seasons.

“So much of it is the blocking,” coach John Fox said why the adjustment to the NFL takes time for a tight end. “In this league, a lot of 4-3 teams, it’s a big defensive end, not some smallish linebacker type. So the blocking element, they’re like an offensive tackle. Technique-wise, especially when they’re 250 to 260, blocking a guy that’s real athletic, maybe at that weight or more, can be problematic.

“In the NFL the tight ends are involved a little bit more in protection, so there’s pass protection things—how you fit, where your help is—aside from the route running and the hot reads and all the stuff … I think NFL defenses are pretty complex as far as the things that they do. You have third-down defenses, you have first and second down defenses. There’s just a lot to learn for a college guy coming into the NFL.”

The best-case for the Bears is Shaheen will exit 2017 with a solid foundation on which to build in his second year in the league. We've seen signs that could be the case both as a run blocker and pass catcher, and it'll be interesting to see if he continues progressing over these final three games.