Bears keep making mistakes, but this time they overcome them in wild and crazy win

Bears keep making mistakes, but this time they overcome them in wild and crazy win

Nearly everything about the Bears’ first win of the season was just plain crazy.

Marcus Cooper Leon Lett’d his way onto every highlight show for the rest of time, stopping short of the goal line on his return of a blocked field goal. The Bears turned the ball over not once but twice in their own red zone in the second half, erasing their double-digit halftime lead. Tarik Cohen rattled off an insane 73-yard rush that you could only recreate on a Playstation, only that was called back, apparently he stepped out of bounds. Jordan Howard came to the rescue with a walk-off touchdown rush that had Soldier Field hopping.

And that’s all without even mentioning the overarching topic of the day in the NFL: The President of the United States calling peaceful-protesting players “sons of bitches” who deserve to be fired.

All that madness — on the field and off of it — combined into a crazy concoction that ended with the Bears winning one of the more ridiculous games you’ll ever see.

And did I mention that the Bears won? That’s right, the same team that dropped to a sky-is-falling 0-2 a week ago with a turnover festival in that blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came back to Chicago and played well enough to beat the perennially contending Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It was great, especially in the fashion that it happened,” Bears defensive back Prince Amukamara said after the game. “Just what we did before the game and during the game. Coop’s touchdown not being a touchdown. Tarik’s touchdown not being a touchdown. And then Jordan’s touchdown actually being a touchdown. All that was just great. It just kept building the momentum, like a story or a movie — how’s it going to end? And we’re glad that it ended the way that it did. I don’t want to think about going 0-3, but it would’ve been ugly here in Chicago, I know that.

“I’d put it top two right after the Super Bowl win my rookie year.”

Oh really? Amukamara is referring, there, to Super Bowl XLVI, in which the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots with a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute. That’s pretty lofty company.

The Bears didn’t play championship-quality football Sunday, and it’s not apparent that they’ll come close to doing so at any point this season. But give them credit for overcoming plenty, much of it their own doing, and winning a game few outside Halas Hall expected them to win.

Cooper’s bone-headed play stands out if only because it was absolutely incomprehensible. Special-teams ace Sherrick McManis blocked a Steelers field goal in the waning seconds of the first half. Cooper picked the ball up and sprinted the length of the field toward the end zone, only to inexplicably stop inside the 10-yard line, allowing the ball to get swatted out of his hands. No touchdown. A Steelers penalty prolonged the half one more play — the Steelers had to come back out of the locker room — but Charles Leno committed a false-start penalty. No touchdown. The Bears settled for a field goal on an unbelievable sequence that looked almost sure to come back to bite them.

When Howard’s third-quarter fumble turned into a Steelers touchdown and a Mike Glennon interception turned into a Steelers field goal, the Bears’ 10-point halftime lead was gone. Surely this would drench their parade, right? But the defense kept doing its thing. A Steelers offense that is high-powered at times thanks to its Big Three of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown was well subdued by the Bears defense. Bell rushed for just 61 yards.

The Bears tried driving for a game-winning score in the fourth quarter, stringing together a nightmare sequence in which Cohen fumbled (recovered by the Bears), Glennon nearly threw a pick (dropped by the defensive back Mike Mitchell) and a snap went sailing by Glennon’s legs (he picked it up and threw it away). But disaster was again averted as the defense stepped up one more time, with Willie Young sacking Roethlisberger on the final play of regulation to melt the game into overtime.

The Bears made a lot of mistakes. But they won.

“It’s tremendous for us to be able to overcome those things because we were definitely shooting ourselves in the foot,” Cohen said. “As you saw last week, we shot ourselves in the foot, and it didn’t end too well for us. To battle and overcome those mistakes, it’s a great thing.”

“It was seriously a great win,” Glennon said. “Just finding a way to win against a really good football team is the goal every week. We found a way, it was kind of unique. We had turnovers, the blocked kick, overtime with Tarik’s run being called back, it was a whirlwind of emotions but I thought we handled it really well. At the end of the day, all that matters is that we won.”

While Glennon didn’t win over many more fans Sunday — he threw for just 101 yards and completed one pass to a wide receiver the entire game — he sure is right about that.

While Week 2’s trip to Tampa was a disaster in all phases with some high-profile mistakes from the highest-profile position on the field, you could certainly argue that the mistakes Sunday were as bad and as frequent.

But the difference between last week and this week was the Bears playing well enough elsewhere to make up for those mistakes — this time in the face of some competition annually regarded as some of the best the NFL has to offer.

Glennon wasn’t great. Cooper screwed up bad. Howard fumbled. The refs called back Cohen’s touchdown run. And the president put every player in the NFL in a position they didn’t want to be in. But the Bears kept going. And this time they made the plays that got them a win.

“They’ve given us everything they had in all three games they’ve played,” John Fox said. “We just made some errors in the other ones that we weren’t able to overcome. We’ve had opportunities, but it was nice to get the win today.”

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.