Bears Grades: Too early for conclusions about offense

Bears Grades: Too early for conclusions about offense

HOUSTON – The debut of Dowell Loggains as Bears offensive coordinator did not go as planned; any game that ends in a loss by definition did not go as planned.

But against one of the NFL’s premier defenses, particularly in the front seven, the Bears did manage two extended touchdown drives in the first half. Then in the second half, they managed no possession longer than 24 yards.

Conclusion? Insufficient data.

“I don’t know,” conceded quarterback Jay Cutler. “You don’t see defenses like [Houston’s] week in and week out. Just going to get home [pass-rushing] with four or five. They’re going to play a couple of coverages. It’s not that hard, but the guys that they have are really, really good at it.

“We’re going to get a lot better but I don’t want to pin exactly what this offense is going to be or what direction we’re going to go until we get a little more involved.”

Quarterback: B

Jay Cutler’s line – 16-for-29 passing, 216 yards, one TD, one INT – was decidedly mediocre taken overall. But he was a stellar 10-of-13 in the first half for 156 yards, meaning something happened in the second half. Or rather, didn’t happen.

Cutler’s receivers stopped catching key passes and running correct routes in crucial situations. He was 0-for-5 in the third quarter, one pass being intercepted, and in the fourth quarter, with the game slipping away, Cutler was sacked three times and hit on other occasions.

Cutler too often held the ball long enough for the rush to get home. But equally too often his receivers were not gaining sufficient separation from a pressing Houston secondary, and Cutler could be excused for having confidence questions about inexperienced wideout Kevin White in particular.

Running back: C-

The post-Matt-Forte era began with Jeremy Langford rushing for 57 yards on 17 carries (3.4 ypc.) against a very good Houston defense. Langford managed no run longer than 15 yards and did contribute two pass receptions, with a 19-yard screen pass wiped out by an interference call against tight end Zach Miller.

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The Bears expect to run the football more than 18 times with their tailbacks (Ka’Deem Carey carried once for four yards), and the plan is to rotate backs. But Houston controlled the ball more than 36 minutes and “we didn’t need to spell him a whole lot because of the [defensive] fronts we were seeing,” said coach John Fox.

Receiver: D+

One grade – A- –  for Alshon Jeffery, another – D – for the rest of the receiver group. Jeffery, who blew up the Houston secondary for 105 yards in the first half, set an early tone with a back-shoulder catch for 29 yards, followed by drawing a pass-interference flag two snaps later, to set up the Bears first TD. Jeffery then embarrassed the Texans pass defense for a 54-yard catch on the drive that finished with a 19-yard Eddie Royal TD catch just before halftime.

But other than Jeffery and the Royal catch, Jay Cutler did not get much help from any of his receivers while the quarterback contended with the rush from a strong Houston front. Cutler was forced to hold the ball too long, commonly a reflection of a lack of confidence on route-running.

Kevin White had a very poor NFL debut, with a false-start and two catchable balls off his hands in the first half, then failing to break a route back outside on the Bears’ first possession of the second half, resulting in an interception by safety Andre Hal. A defensive stop held Houston to a field goal off the turnover, but the chance for momentum was squandered by the Bears.

“You can’t change what happened,” White said. “So we have to move on and just get ready to play the Eagles [next Monday at Soldier Field].”

Zach Miller negated a big gain on a screen pass to Jeremy Langford with an offensive pass-interference call.

Offensive line: D+

Facing one of the NFL’s elite front-seven’s, the Bears acquitted themselves passably if unspectacularly for the most part through three quarters, particularly with an offensive line that had never taken the field as a group before. Houston scrambled looks with All-Pro J.J. Watt moved to all points on the front and eventually finished with five sacks after a jail-break period in the fourth quarter with the Bears down two scores.

“It’s probably those struggles that occurred a little bit more in the second half,” said coach John Fox. “Especially when you get into backyard football where you have to throw to catch up. Whenever you get one-dimensional like that, I think it’s problematic for anybody.”

Jay Cutler took a number of significant hits but was only occasionally sent scrambling; Cutler’s problems were more from receivers not gaining separation.

Cody White got the expected start at center, pitting him against veteran nose tackle Vince Wolfork. Whitehair handled himself reasonably well in his first NFL start at a position.

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“I felt comfortable,” Whitehair said. “Jay helped me with stuff and had me feeling comfortable out there. Obviously there were a few mistakes but we’ll get those cleaned up.”

Bobby Massie and Charles Leno were each beaten cleanly to the outside for third-down sacks by Whitney Mercilus.

Coaching: C

The offense was unable to break out other than two 75-yard drives in the first half. The problems were compounded by three dropped passes in crucial situations, and coordinator Dowell Loggains was able to keep the offense balanced through three quarters (17 runs, 20 pass plays) before needing to resort to catch-up passing in the fourth quarter.

“I thought Dowell put a heck of a game plan together,” Cutler said. “There was nothing out there that we weren’t prepared for or weren’t ready for. [The Texans] did exactly what Dowell and coaches said they were going to do. We’ve just got to execute.”

Houston did what a number of Bears opponents did last season, that being to show nickel personnel to get the Bears out of their base 3-4 defense and into nickel with two linemen and two linebackers, then running the football. The result was Houston grinding out 131 rushing yards, albeit needing 35 rushes to do it.

But the lack of pass rush was a critical problem, and the Bears were unable to bring looks that upset the Houston offense often enough. Blitzes were rare but could have helped getting into run gaps as well.

Special teams created openings and got an average of nearly 21 yards per kickoff return, plus a punt return of 31 yards by Eddie Royal to give the offense good field position.

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.