Bears Grades: Fox and Co. do all the right things


Bears Grades: Fox and Co. do all the right things

The offense scored 15 unanswered points over the final 19 minutes; the defense shut out the Kansas City Chiefs for the second half; and special teams shut down the Chief on punt and kickoff returns while blocking a critical second-half field goal that saved potentially game-changing points.

Starting three rookies created a built-in difficulty factor for a first-year coaching staff. Yet maybe the results should not totally surprise, particularly on defense. The Bears started rookie safeties, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio annually sent safeties to Pro Bowls while in charge of the San Francisco 49ers defense.

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Fangio also unveiled an unorthodox package with Willie Young at OLB to start the game before going to what has long been expected to be the bedrock of the 3-4: Eddie Goldman at nose tackle, and Jeremiah Ratliff and Jarvis Jenkins as ends. The defense also lost middle linebacker Shea McClellin in the second half but was able to win with Christian Jones taking over McClellin’s signal-caller duties and subbing newcomer LaRoy Reynolds into the scheme seamlessly.

“Coach Vic has done a great job of calling the right calls he know the guys that are in are going to be able to execute,” Reynolds said. “That is what he’s doing with the defense.”

Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal, offensive coordinator Adam Gase trotted out some “wildcat” work for Matt Forte, with limited success but at least it was forcing the Chiefs to adjust to different looks.

Gase appeared to be in a conservative mode similar to the game plan of the loss to the Seattle Seahawks, but then the offense opened up more in the second half and scored 15 unanswered points over the final 19 minutes.

“In the second half we mixed it up a bit,” said running back Matt Forte. “The passing game opened up. It worked a little bit and then our two-minute offense took over at the end. It’s just a testament to our coaches.”

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Gase said he’d called only one two-minute drive in his career before last Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders. He effectively called two on Sunday, with scoring drives of 88 and 67 yards for the winning two touchdowns.

Special teams continued to eliminate its disasters in kick coverage, allowing one 19-yard kickoff return and one punt return of 10 yards for the closest things to breakaways. The effort by the field-goal-block team delivered a block by Pernell McPhee, lined up to shoot the “A” gap to one side of the long snapper, of a 27-yard field goal at the end of the Chiefs' first possession of the third quarter, a turning point in the game.

Moon's Grade: A

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.