Bears

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.

Bears grades: Dominant win generates straight A's for offense, defense

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USA Today

Bears grades: Dominant win generates straight A's for offense, defense

QUARTERBACKS: A

Mitchell Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and a passer rating of 112.4, and also rushed for a touchdown on a read option in the third quarter. It was easily his best game as a pro; beyond his impressive stat line, the offense had a different feel to it on Sunday than it did in any of the previous eight games Trubisky started. Trubisky was calm and comfortable in the pocket, and did well to click through his progressions and remain patient for his receivers to get open. He perhaps could’ve been more accurate on a pass to Adam Shaheen in the end zone in the second quarter that was broken up by safety William Jackson, and he took a sack with about 20 seconds left in the first half that he shouldn’t have taken. But those feels like nitpicking after such a strong overall afternoon. 

RUNNING BACKS: A+

Jordan Howard exerted his will on a banged-up, uninspired Bengals defense, rushing 23 times for 147 yards with two touchdowns. Howard ran tough, or in his own words: “I feel like I got back to my violent ways a little bit.” Tarik Cohen provided a spark with 80 yards on 12 carries, too, combining with Howard for 227 rushing yards. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: A-

Kendall Wright caught 10 of his 11 targets for 107 yards and consistently got open in a way no Bears received had up to this point. Josh Bellamy provided an early spark, with his two receptions for 52 yards coming on the Bears’ first three drives.  Strangely, Dontrelle Inman — who had shown the best and most reliable connection with Trubisky over the last few weeks — was not targeted. But Wright’s huge day was enough to prop this unit up with its highest grade of the season. 

TIGHT ENDS: A-

Shaheen caught four of his five targets for 44 yards and a touchdown, and drew a pass interference flag in the end zone too. Dion Sims and Daniel Brown combined for four catches on five targets for 41 yards, too, and Sims in particular did some good things in the run blocking game to pave the way for Howard and Cohen. Shaheen still had a few blocking issues, but his contributions in the passing game — like his 16-yard reception on a fourth-and-three play — more than covered for them. 

OFFENSIVE LINE: A-

There were still too many penalties (four) on this group, but the run blocking was solid — even without Kyle Long — and one of the two Bengals’ sacks was more the fault of Trubisky than the offensive line. The Bears averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and this unit had plenty to do with it.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A-

The absences of Eddie Goldman and Mitch Unrein were noticeable in this unit, and the Bengals were able to make sure Akiem Hicks (one tackle) didn’t make much of an impact. But Roy Robertson-Harris did notch a sack, and as with every other defensive unit, this grade is boosted by the Bengals managing only seven points and 234 yards on 53 plays (4.4 yards/play). 

LINEBACKERS: A-

Danny Trevathan led the Bears with 10 tackles and broke up a pass, while Nick Kwiatkoski broke up a pair of passes as well. And the Bears’ ragtag group of outside linebackers — missing Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young — turned in two sacks, with Lamarr Houston and Howard Jones accounting for those two. 

SECONDARY: A

Kyle Fuller had another outstanding game, with Pro Football Focus putting together these numbers:

Eddie Jackson picked off a deflected pass and impressively stripped A.J. Green near the sideline for a fumble the Bears recovered. What kept this unit from an A+ was Deon Bush getting beat by Brandon LaFell on a corner route for the Bengals’ only touchdown of the game. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-

Mike Nugent missed a PAT — his first kick in a Bears uniform — but rebounded to connect on a pair of chip-shot field goals from 34 and 27 yards. Cohen admitted he was a little too passive in not fielding some punts, which led to the Bears being backed up a couple of tomes. And John Timu and Marcus Cooper were both guilty of holding penalties on returns, with Cooper’s coming on a punt on which Cohen called for a fair catch. 

COACHING: B

Give John Fox and Dowell Loggains some credit for opening up the Bears’ offense and scheming to expand, not maintain, a lead in the second half. Still, why Fox challenged a play on which Trubisky clearly threw beyond the line of scrimmage was a head-scratcher, and the Bears were heavily penalized (10 for 74 yards), though the play of both the offense and defense was enough to cover for that sloppiness. 

Bears play 'designer' game in mauling of Bengals, now what does it mean for the big picture?

Bears play 'designer' game in mauling of Bengals, now what does it mean for the big picture?

A week after playing the kind of football game that gets coaches fired, the Bears almost inexplicably produced one that ranks as exactly the type their organization has wanted to see from players and coaches in a season on the employment brink for John Fox.

The Bears’ 33-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals was an afternoon rife with signs of progress, particularly notable because it came from a team with nothing to play for and came at the expense of a team that actually did have at least a mathematical something at stake.

Not to even remotely say that this was a game that changed the job forecast for Fox, which still has time to play out, only that if the Bears somehow manage to string together a closing four games like this… well, no point getting that hypothetical at this juncture. But one team played on Sunday like it wanted its coach gone and the other like it wants its coach back, and they weren’t as expected.

(Just for sake of argument: If the Bears now play this kind of game against the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, how will you feel about John Fox coaching Chicago for the fourth and final year of his contract? Just sayin’…)

All of this came at the expense of a Cincinnati team missing virtually the entire back end of its defense and with All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins hobbled. But this is what you are supposed to do to a shaky, shaken team, and it is what the Bears didn’t do to a San Francisco or a Green Bay. You can only beat the team in front of you that day and the Bears, for the third time against a team from the powerful AFC North division this year, did that. Emphatically.

What the organization does with this in evaluating Fox is still weeks away and not really worth the analysis exercise right now. But it was a statement game, one where the Bears played well and hard for 60 minutes, for any number of individuals, beginning with Mitch Trubisky as the rookie evinced the kind of development that the franchise has prayed for from its young quarterback ever since GM Ryan Pace deemed him worth trading up on draft day to ensure landing.

Call this a “designer” game – a 100-yard rusher (Jordan Howard with two touchdowns and 147 yards, pushing him past 1,000 yards for the season), a 100-yard receiver (Kendall Wright, 10 catches for 107 yards, and a quarterback who both managed the game and shredded the defense (Trubisky, 25 for 32, 271 yards, a touchdown pass and touchdown run, no interceptions and a rating of 112.4.

The 482 yards of offense are the second-highest output (after 522 in a 2016 loss at Indianapolis) in the Fox era.

The defense collected two takeaways (an interception and fumble grab by rookie safety Eddie Jackson) while the offense had zero turnovers. That second part has been of marginal value this season, with the Bears an undistinguished 2-2 in games when they’ve managed no giveaways. But ball security has been a prime directive for Trubisky since coaches turned the game over to him and Sunday’s effort left him with just those four interceptions in 225 attempts, a pick percentage of 1.8 and completion percentage climbing to 58 percent.

Game plan pyrotechnics

The game plan and result do make for an interesting dichotomy for critics. The Bears have to run the football to win, and yet when O-coordinator Dowell Loggains runs the football, he’s pilloried for being too conservative and shackling Trubisky.

This time Loggains was able to formulate and direct a game plan that had balance – 38 runs, 34 pass plays – and a complete spectrum of formations that included a wildcat run by Tarik Cohen, a read-option touchdown run by Trubisky, and passes to open six of the Bears 11 possessions.

The Bears piled up 256 yards in the first half after a combined total of 287 for the last two games. 

What had to be concerning is that, while Trubisky had thrown just four interceptions over the span of his first eight starts, he also had connected on just five touchdown passes (six if the Zach Miller non-catch travesty is included). And as WBBM and WSCR observer Zach Zaidman compiled, the offense had gotten into the red zone only nine – nine – times in eight games under Trubisky.

This time the Bears drove into the red zone five times and came away with points three of those times. Add in Howard’s first touchdown run for 21 yards and the overall is the sort of sustained consistent offense that wins football games.

The Bears didn’t go a possession without notching at least one first down until deep into the fourth quarter when they were up 33-7.

Six different players had plays gaining 10 yards or more and the Bears had 10 plays longer than 15 yards. Last week, the Bears had one play longer than 15 yards. Against Philadelphia, three. Against Detroit, one of the only three other times they scored 20-plus points this season, six.

“We put the past behind us and [focused on] one drive at a time,” Trubisky said. “We had a great week of practice, and I feel like that just trickled [down] throughout the week with positive energy. The guys just came together and we were able to make a lot of plays today.

“We weren’t going to dwell on the past and what we didn’t do. We can learn from our mistakes, and it allowed us to be more effective today.”

And it all means…what?

The positives speak for themselves, but mean precious little if this game, with its largest Bears winning margin since they beat Jacksonville by 38 and Tennessee by 31 in 2012, isn’t followed by another progress game, then another, and then one more at Minnesota.

The Bears have delivered false positives on multiple occasions this season, in the form of wins over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Carolina, none of which ultimately meant much of anything because of what followed. The Carolina win was followed by five straight losses that rocked the franchise just as it felt as if a turnaround might be starting.

Now, no one really knows what to expect.

“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,” Fox said. “I thought Mitch Trubisky played very well last week [vs. San Francisco]. 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 that hard work.”