Bears 'leak' in second half, fall to Texans in opener

Bears 'leak' in second half, fall to Texans in opener

HOUSTON – One member of the Bears’ offense told this week that the Bears would be “a lot better than people think,” and that he considered four games to be swing games in this season.

One of those games he named came Sunday against the Houston Texans. And it was indeed there for the Bears, leading a division champion going into the fourth quarter on the road. It’s only one game but don’t try selling patience around Halas Hall.

“We don’t have time,” said guard Kyle Long. “Our house is on fire and we’ve got to put it out.”

Lots of fires, actually.

Enough mistakes were made, early and late, in all phases, to let a game slip away into a 23-14 loss to the Texans, the fourth in four games against the one-time expansion franchise. Teams that lose fourth-quarter leads rarely play more than 16 games in a season. There was no feel-good from getting close, and the frustration was palpable afterwards, particularly from new Bears not accustomed to losing.

“We know how dominant we can be,” said former New England defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, shaking his head. “We expect better of ourselves.”

Said linebacker Danny Trevathan, not accustomed to coming up short from his years with the Denver Broncos: “We’ve got to a better job of finishing. I know we are so much better than that.”

But until they are better than that, they aren’t. And until they show they’re finishers, they’re not. The Bears were 2-3 last season when leading or tied after three quarters, so this was a disturbing flashback. And the season clock is ticking.

The Bears answered some questions and created others. And in a bit of troubling irony, even some of the apparent positives revealed negatives lurking beneath.

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The offense managed two first-half touchdown drives totaling 150 yards. They amassed just 108 in their other 10 possessions and crossed midfield just once in the second half in Dowell Loggains’ first game as offensive coordinator.

Listed among the supposed high points will be Alshon Jeffery’s 105 receiving yards. But that now makes the Bears 4-9 in games in which the franchise wideout goes for a century, meaning that few if any others are taking advantage of Jeffery, who had those 105 through three quarters. None in the fourth, when with the game on the line, the Bears netted just 41 yards.

Houston ran just three plays longer than 20 yards. Normally good, limiting big plays. The defense that was built to stand up to elite offenses was pushed around for 131 rushing yards and 231 passing by a Houston offense that was in the NFL’s lower half last year, and which converted 12 of 20 third downs.

The Bears bled to death.

“We just couldn’t stop the ‘leaking’ yardage,” said nose tackle Eddie Goldman.

Arrows up? Or down?

The Bears started nine players with zero or one year of NFL experience. So this was more than a casual referendum on the young foundation of the Bears, the players who will determine the outlook for the organization beyond this week and even this season.

Some was good; if you didn’t know Cody Whitehair was a second-round rookie playing his first game at center, it was far from evident in his play against one of the NFL’s best fronts.

Whitehair failed to get a fourth-and-one direct snap into Jay Cutler’s hands, resulting in a fumble and missed fourth-down conversion. “That’s on me,” Whitehair said. “It’s up to me to get the ball up higher for him.”

Some was bad; if you didn’t know Kevin White was a No. 1 pick, the guess might have been a practice-squad call-up. White back-slid from an optimistic finish to his preseason, with drops, a pre-snap penalty and a costly route-running mistake that ended in an interception.

Cutler swung his arm in apparent frustration in the direction he expected White to run on the pattern. “We’ve just got to watch it on film and move on to the next play,” said White, who caught just one of four Cutler targets through three quarters and three of seven for the game for 34 total yards.

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Linebacker Leonard Floyd shared a sack with Goldman, but Floyd was impact-lite overall and too often failed to get close to Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler often, and that against a second-tier left tackle in backup Chris Clark. Floyd did share a sack with Goldman.

“I’ve got a lot to learn,” said Floyd, initially credited with six tackles (two solo). “But I think this is going to be a great defense.”

Maybe. And while mistakes are expected from youth, successful teams are the ones where young players make impact early. The Bears did not get enough from theirs on Sunday.

Leadership role’ing

Some outsiders expressed surprise when Jeffery and not Kyle Long was voted by teammates as the other offensive co-captain along Jay Cutler. But inside the locker room the lack of surprise was telling, and reflected very well on Jeffery, a man of few words but who has quietly this training camp and preseason won over any doubters among teammates.

On Sunday, Jeffery played and acted like a team captain.

“The guy is a stud, and all the guys really look up to him,” one offensive player said privately. “He’s a leader on this team for a lot of guys, and not just the receivers.”

Jeffery led by example, putting 105 receiving yards on the Texans in the first half. He did drop a key third-down throw in the third quarter and put the responsibility squarely on himself.

“I think I should’ve caught that with my hands instead of my body,” Jeffery said. “I feel like that was a turning point right there.”

But one of Jeffery’s biggest contributions may be to the psyche of Kevin White after the latter struggled mightily in his first NFL game. As far as White's catastrophic wrong route that led to an interception, “that’s going to happen,” Jeffery said. “[I told him] ‘Next play,’ gotta always be ‘next play.’”

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.