Bears Grades: Offense responds to Jay Cutler return in win over Vikings

Bears Grades: Offense responds to Jay Cutler return in win over Vikings

Over the five weeks that Jay Cutler was out due to an injured thumb, the Bears put up yardage and even occasionally some points. On Monday night against what was the NFL’s best defense, the offense delivered its best all-around performance, and teammates on all sides of the football “blamed” Cutler.

Getting Cutler back “was huge,” said linebacker Sam Acho. “Obviously we’re a team but defensively we have a mission and offensively we have a mission. We can’t be phased by what happens good or bad on the other side of the football.

“But seeing him out there and seeing him execute fueled us, got us [on defense] feeling, ‘Ok, now we got to go out there and execute.’ And then that fuels [the offense], too.”

The Vikings brought to Soldier Field a defense, allowing 14 points per game. The Bears nearly equaled that in just the first half (13) and piled up 234 yards in two quarters against a unit that was allowing an NFL-best 279.5 per full game. Three of the five longest plays allowed by the Vikings were put on them Monday night by the Bears – a 69-yard run by Jordan Howard and 34-yard receptions by Howard and Alshon Jeffery.

Quarterback: A

Jay Cutler came out with obvious rust after missing five games and made some shaky throws and decisions. He threw into coverage a few too many times but escaped without an interception.

But the overall was a dramatic infusion of energy as well as basic production that sparked the offense, and arguably the defense as well, as defensive players talked last week about the feeling at getting one’s No. 1 quarterback back.

“He’s the emotion on the football field,” said tight end Zach Miller. “Our ace is back. You get a playmaker back who makes plays.”

Cutler finished with 20-of-31 passing for 252 yards, one TD, no turnovers and a passer rating of 100.5. Cutler also showed poise and mobility, sliding away from pressure, moving up in the pocket, then dropping a shovel pass off to Jordan Howard for 34 yards.

His play fake on the third-quarter touchdown pass froze the Vikings secondary and linebackers and allowed Alshon Jeffery to gain a step inside his defender for the score.

“It was an unbelievably well-designed play,” Cutler said. “We kind of buried the fake in there and ‘22’ [safety Harrison Smith] came flying down and Al ran a great slant right behind him.”

Running back: A

The offense did get the football into the hands of three different running backs but Jordan Howard established himself as the “chairman” of the Bears’ running-back committee, with his third 100-yard rushing game (153), with pass receptions for another 49 and a total of 202 yards from scrimmage.

Howard’s 69-yard burst on the Bears’ second snap was a tone-setter, even if the offense (again) settled for a field goal. Howard showed excellent situation awareness and instinct to turn a scrambling shovel pass into a 34-yard gain in the second quarter. He added to that with a 21-yard reception later to set up a goal-to-go situation.

Howard also used his zone blockers perfectly on repeated occasions, letting a run-left develop for a six-yard gain to the Vikings 11 in the third quarter to set up an eventual touchdown.

“I’ve been very impressed with him since the outset,” said coach John Fox. “He’s a rookie running back who has grown pretty fast. He got thrown into the fire.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Receivers: A-

Alshon Jeffery had his guy back with Cutler starting but the connections were not there, on both parts. Jeffery had a TD opportunity but lost the one-on-one contest in the end zone to force the Bears to settle for a field goal in the second quarter, and had one ball go off his helmet. “I mean, it was accurate,” said Cutler, laughing.

But Jeffery’s grab for 34 yards in the third quarter was vintage go-up-and-get-it stuff by the big wideout, who then finished off the Bears’ first third-down possession with a tough grab on a slant for a TD.

Zach Miller led the Bears with seven receptions for 88 yards, consistent possession catches with none longer than 21 yards. “It feels great, man, really just a great team effort,” Miller said. “We played well across the board. We fought our butts off.”

Tight end Ben Braunecker caught his first pass to set up the Bears’ second-quarter touchdown. Logan Paulsen delivered a perfect seal block on the right edge for Jordan Howard’s subsequent two-yard TD run.

Offensive line: A

A line missing both starting Pro Bowl guards (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton inactive) performed very well throughout. The Bears averaged 5.4 yards per run and allowed only one sack of Cutler.

Zone blocking by the entire line, with backside efforts by guard Ted Larsen and Bobby Massie, sprung Howard for his 69-yard run. Larsen also got into a front-side stack to help get Howard in for a TD on a two-yard run in the second quarter, with Massie also completely stalemating the Vikings’ left side.

“The last time Bobby and I played Minnesota was when we were back in Arizona, and we ran the ball really well on them,” Larsen said. “So we wanted to come out with the same mindset, run the ball and keep us out of third-and-long. And we did that.”

Minnesota managed just one sack of Cutler and five other hits. “Their strength is rushing the passer,” Larsen said, “and I think we did a really good job at stopping that.”

Coaching: A+

With a makeshift offensive line, missing the starting nickel receiver and still without some key defensive players, the Bears put together a complete, 60-minute game – no small accomplishment for a team languishing and possibly looking forward to a week off. The suddenly disciplined Bears committed no turnovers and a season-low penalties.

The offense, while still settling for a couple of field goals on drives inside the red zone, attacked early for a lead and controlled the tempo and the overall game.

“It starts with the game plan,” Cutler said. “Dowell [Loggains, offensive coordinator] and the rest of his staff. When we first saw the game plan, we really liked it. As the reps progressed through the week, we liked it even more.”

The need for rush pressure against Sam Bradford was obvious and that pressure in the form of sacks by four different players in addition to four tackles for loss.

“Our key is what Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] always says, and it rings true: ‘Execution fuels emotion,’” said linebacker Sam Acho. “So it’s not about just doing whatever you want to do; it’s executing and you saw us executing our assignments. You saw the big guys like ‘Corn’ [Washington] and Akiem [Hicks] able to dominate inside, and the guys on the edge executing their rush plans on the outside.”

Special teams accounted for three of five Pat O’Donnell punts inside the Minnesota 20, another effort indicator.

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Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly/670 The Score), Mark Grote (670 The Score) and Mark Carman (WGN Radio) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel. Quenton Nelson works out at Notre Dame’s pro day. If he’s still on the board at 8, should the Bears take him? Plus the panel talks about the Cubs outfield heading into 2018 and if it’s time to shut down both Jonathan Toews and Lauri Markkanen.

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

USA Today

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quenton Nelson hasn’t met with the Bears yet during this pre-draft process, and doesn’t have a local visit scheduled with them. But maybe that’s not too surprising.

Harry Hiestand has better intel on him than anyone else after coaching him for the past four years at Notre Dame, after all. 

“Coach Hiestand, he’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said. “He knows everything about me.”

Could part of that intel provided by Hiestand be that Nelson has the ability to eventually play tackle?

Nelson might be the closest to a “sure thing” prospect in this year’s draft, with his reams of dominant film and off-the-charts work ethic projecting him as an All-Pro for years to come. But that he plays guard is a stumbling block, given interior positions generally don’t hold as much value as tackles in the NFL.

So here’s a potential scenario for the Bears: They draft Nelson at No. 8 — which is still "high" for a guard — and plug him at left guard in 2018. They then, under the careful watch of Hiestand, slide him to tackle in 2019. 

“I’m pretty convinced that Q could do whatever he sets his mind to,” Mike McGlinchey, a first-round tackle in his own right who's Nelson’s ex-Irish teammate and workout buddy, said. “If that’s what teams want him to play, I’m sure he’ll take that head on and perform to the best of his ability.” 

Nelson, to his credit, is confident he could make the switch to tackle (he was recruited by Hiestand as a tackle, and began his college career backing up Zack Martin at tackle). He said the only team that’s asked him about it so far is the Cincinnati Bengals, though it’s unlikely he’ll still be on the board when they pick at No. 21. 

But maybe the thought of guards being significantly less valuable than tackles is slowly becoming antiquated in today’s NFL. Four of the top 10 highest paid offensive linemen, by total contract value, are interior linemen. Three of the top 10 offensive linemen with the most guaranteed money are guards, led by Andrew Norwell, who inked a five-year, $66.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this month with $30 million guaranteed at signing. Only one offensive lineman — Nate Solder, who just signed with the New York Giants — is guaranteed more money. 

Following the money, if teams are willing to splash down loads of cash for the best guards in the league, a team may be willing to spend a top-10 pick on a guard who could immediately be among the best at his position in the NFL. Or the calculation for whatever team drafts him may be this: Would you rather have him as a perennial All-Pro guard or "merely" a solid-to-good tackle? 

Regardless of where he ends up playing, though, Nelson is one of those supremely-talented players who takes the right approach to his craft — in other words, one of those guys you just want to get in your building. And while Nelson said he’d love to play for his hometown New York Giants — who could be interested in him with the No. 2 pick — he said getting to link back up with Hiestand would be an incredible opportunity, too. 

“That would be amazing to play for him,” Nelson said. “He’s the one that made me into the player I am today. I wouldn’t be here without him or be in any conversations in the draft without him, so it would mean a lot to play for him again.”