Bears Grades: Secondary routinely burned for big gains


Bears Grades: Secondary routinely burned for big gains

After allowing just 16 pass plays of 20 yards or longer through five games, the Bears allowed four in just the first 15 minutes of Detroit Lions possession Sunday, setting a course for problems that eventually doomed the Bears. The Lions put up eight pass plays of 20 or more yards, including two in the fourth quarter and a 57-yarder from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.

“I just saw Matt,” Johnson said. “Once I’m running downfield, he always tells me to keep my eyes on him because he’ll throw it up. I saw him do the ‘crow hop’ so I knew it was coming. I was just trying to keep the defender in a good place so I could make a play off of him.”

The defender on the play was rookie safety Harold Jones-Quartey after cornerback Kyle Fuller had passed Johnson off to the deep coverage. “He’s a tough cover,” said Jones-Quartey. “He’s big, he’s fast, he can jump. He’s Calvin Johnson, a great player. But that’s no excuse. When your number’s called, you’ve got to make a play.”

Johnson has made a career out of abusing secondaries and spent much of Sunday doing the same. He finished with six catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, nearly all of the receptions coming at what seemed to be the most precipitous moments.

Johnson worked into an open area of the Bears’ zone for a 43-yard gainer in the second quarter, then beat cornerback Tracy Porter for 39 yards to set up the third Detroit touchdown. “It was a lot of (coverage) variety,” Porter said. “I was on him most of the time, but we mixed it up a little bit, tried different things.”

[MORE BEARS: Upon further review: No interception for Bears as Lions get TD]

But Johnson was far from the only problem for the Bears. Stafford finished with 405 passing yards and four touchdown passes, exploiting major breakdowns by virtually every member of the secondary at one point or another.

Fuller had a day nothing short of tumultuous. The second-year cornerback saved a touchdown with an open-field tackle of Johnson in the second quarter. Fuller then gave up the score when he lost focus as Stafford extended the play and Detroit backup tight end Tim Wright worked free for a virtually uncontested catch of a eight-yard touchdown to finish that drive.

Fuller failed to seal against a slant to wideout Golden Tate in the Chicago end zone late in the second quarter.

Missed tackles and poor leverage allowed a 22-yard completion from Stafford to Tate, a catch-and-run in the first quarter that was followed by poor coverage on which Sherrick McManis allowed wideout Lance Moore an easy catch on a slant for a 20-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Moore finished with five catches and a total of 106 yards.

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McManis also completely lost Moore in the secondary in nickel coverage to allow a 42-yard completion late in the third quarter. McManis was spared embarrassment several plays later when he missed running back Theo Riddick on a long gainer that was nullified by a pass interference call against Johnson.

Fuller committed pass interference on what would have been a third-down stop late in the fourth quarter, sustaining a Detroit drive.

The Lions put particular emphasis on working deep against the Bears, “and I’m glad we did,” Johnson said.

Moon's Grade: F

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.