Bears face nightmare turnaround scenario with Seahawks in Seattle


Bears face nightmare turnaround scenario with Seahawks in Seattle

SEATTLE – One overlooked reality of the Bears’ 2015 schedule is that they could have played reasonably well and still opened 0-2 or, after Sunday’s meeting with the Seattle Seahawks, presumably 0-3. Games against three straight playoff teams can do that.

And while expectations of the new offense were generally positive if only because of veteran talent at skill positions, both coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio alluded to at least some sort of learning curve due to the change to a 3-4 scheme on defense.

But the “curve” has been steeper than anticipated, and may not look any better against the Seattle Seahawks, the 2014 NFC Super Bowl representatives who are determined to put the brakes on their own 0-2 start. Indeed, the Seahawks rightfully are anything but in crisis mode, given a pair of Super Bowl appearances in the past two seasons.

“This is not a world-is-coming-to-an-end moment for us,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “We’ve been here before. We know how to fight out of these predicaments. We’ve lost two games in a row before. It’s no different. We’re the same confident bunch. We keep it one game at a time. We don’t let anything that happens in the past dictate or future.”

Sunday’s game against the Seahawks isn’t exactly a world-at-an-end moment for the Bears, either. But for an organization and new coaching staff seeking to eradicate the  losing culture that grew over recent seasons, the Bears need a positive, and soon.

[RELATED: Complete Bears-Seahawks coverage Sunday on CSN]

Problem is, the Bears don’t have quite the successful experience of extricating themselves from dire situations. Fox, Fangio and some others on the staffs and in the locker room may individually, but the events of the past four seasons, beginning with the 2011 collapse after Jay Cutler fractured his thumb, leave gaping questions about the resiliency within one of the NFL’s charter franchises.

And bad coincidence perhaps, the chance to establish resiliency as part of the new Fox-era Bears character could not encounter a more difficult hurdle than the Seattle Seahawks.

For a team (offense, defense and special teams, all three areas) reeling from giving up 79 points in two games, the Seahawks may be the most difficult of the first three early season opponents.

In the loudest and toughest-to-win-in venues in the NFL, the offense is faced with a starting Jimmy Clausen at quarterback and not having Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) for him to throw to. The Bears have outgained each of their first two opponents but failed to take control of either game against Green Bay or Arizona.

But the sense of need for impact arguably hangs heaviest over the defense, which has zero sacks through two games and allows nearly 58 percent conversions on third downs. Now that phase is tasked now with coping with running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. History against Wilson is not promising.

The current downward spiral for the Bears that has not ever been successfully reversed arguably began against the Seahawks and specifically because of Wilson. The 2012 Bears missed the postseason and cost Lovie Smith his job when they could not contain Wilson in a 23-17 loss in 2012. That followed regular-season losses to the Seahawks in 2010 and 2011, interrupted by a divisional-playoff Bears win in 2010.

[MORE: Adam Gase, not Jimmy Clausen, the key for Bears against Seahawks]

That 2012 game, however, was part of a dramatic coming-out season for Wilson, who as a third-round rookie took the starting job away from Matt Flynn after the Seahawks had wasted major contract money on the former Green Bay backup.

“He’s a magician,” Fangio said. “He’s extremely fast, extremely quick, extremely instinctive. And very confident with the ball, sees the field, has a feel for what’s around him. He doesn’t get hit very hard even when he carries the ball as much as he does.

“He’s a good passer. This guy was 15th in the NFL in rushing yards and that’s with all the running backs mixed in there. He’s a dual threat obviously. They do a good job with him, their scheme has been tailored to him and it’s become a good offense.”

Chances of getting to Wilson with any impact appear minimal. Albeit that most have only played the Seahawks once if at all, only one current Bear has ever sacked a quarterback, that being Lamarr Houston as an Oakland Raider. But the matter may turn as much on the Bears’ mental state as anything specific to Seattle.

“Right now all of our focus and energy is directed at the Seattle Seahawks,” Fox said. “I don’t want them thinking about 0-2.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.