Bears

Bears offense makes strides as No. 1 unit scores three times

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Bears offense makes strides as No. 1 unit scores three times

INDIANAPOLIS – After a three-and-out and field-goal drive on two possessions in last week’s win over the Miami Dolphins, the No. 1 offense again opened with a three-and-out, followed by a field-goal drive. But this time the first unit was sent out twice more and came away with two more field goals.

Touchdowns will be preferred. But the result was an improvement, even if the yardage and point productions were less than Week 1's.

[MORE: Bears push smash-mouth running model to new level in win over Colts]

Quarterback

In another game that coaches hope with be the model for Jay Cutler ’15, the quarterback completed 8 of 9 passes for 69 yards during his four possessions of the first half. Cutler was efficient and for the second straight week went without a turnover; only six total possessions with a turnover, but after leading the league in giveaways last year, this is a clear trend that the Bears have given heightened focus to, and are seeing at least something positive in the way of an early result.

Cutler was not without pressure, being sacked once and needing to scramble away from the rush twice. But in spite of two penalties on his offensive line, Cutler maintained control of himself and the offense, producing scores on three of his four drives.

Jimmy Clausen had an apparent crossed-signals with tight end Dante Rosario on a late second-quarter throw that was intercepted in Bears territory with two minutes to play. But Clausen was crisp and on target with an underneath throw to Josh Bellamy for a third-quarter touchdown. That was part of a 5-for-5 quarter for Clausen.

Running back

The extended use of the running backs as runners continues to be a story of the offense through two preseason games. Regardless of which unit, coordinator Adam Gase has established that the Bears will attack on the ground, and do it in waves.

Matt Forte, who sat out the Miami game, was in the starting lineup and was handed or thrown the ball on four of the Bears’ first eight snaps finished with nine touches and 36 yards and a long run of 11 yards. Workmanlike.

Jacquizz Rodgers is ensconced as first-alternate to Forte, to the point of being sent in for tight red-zone situations. Rodgers netted 34 yards on his nine first-half carries and caught a pass for a two-yard gain.

[RELATED: Jeremy Langford flashes potential as Bears rally to beat Colts]

But Forte and Rodgers may be hearing footsteps, literally, and that is a very good thing for the Chicago offense. Rookie Jeremy Langford broke a 46-yard run in the third quarter, setting up his blocking downfield superbly to extend the run. He topped that with a two-yard, second-effort TD run in the third quarter, starting left, bouncing off the pile and outrunning the Indianapolis defense.

“[The 46-yarder] was an inside run, the linebacker came over the top and the offensive line did a great job of walling him off,” Langford said. “I thought I should’ve scored but it’ll come with experience. But I’m mad about it.”

Offensive line

The line achieved some control of the front through the first half. The yards per carry on designed run plays averaged 3.4 in the first half and Cutler was sacked once, but the Bears were able to mount field-goal drives of 6:30 and 5:20 sustained over 11 and nine plays, respectively, largely because the line was able to do a passable job holding off the Indianapolis 3-4.

That said, three first-half penalties on a group that needs to be the bedrock of an offense intent on being a run-based team continued an alarming pattern from Week 1. The Bears do not want to be forced into a passing game and nothing inflicts that more on an offense than penalties.

[MORE: Cutler, Gould highlight Bears first half against Colts]

Charles Leno Jr. took some snaps at right tackle with the No. 1 offense during practice Thursday, with Jordan Mills working briefly with the 2’s before straining a calf. This was an anticipated position battle before camp but Leno has played primarily behind Jermon Bushrod on the left side. Leno was inserted as the starter Saturday and was not dominant, drawing a hands-to-the-face penalty on his third snap, nullifying a 42-yard completion from Jay Cutler to Josh Bellamy. Bushrod was beaten with a bull rush by linebacker Jerrell Freeman to trigger a sack in the first quarter but overall the Bears were able to run left with some effectiveness early.

Kyle Long drew a holding penalty on what broke down into a Cutler scramble to just short of the end zone. But Long and the middle of the line were stout against an Indianapolis front that knew the Bears were committed to the run. Michael Ola at left tackle turned a third-and-5 into a third-and-10 with a false start that was followed by an interception of Clausen, leading to an Indianapolis field goal at the end of the first half.

Receivers

Josh Bellamy and Eddie Royal were the starting wideouts as the offense was without Alshon Jeffery and will be presumably for the remainder of the preseason as the wideout gets over a calf injury suffered in the days before the Miami game. Bellamy scored on a 12-yard pass from Clausen, running a precise route breaking outside after a clear-out by the outside receiver, taking the ball and beating the defense to the pylon.

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Marquess Wilson broke a nine-yard completion on second effort. Wilson was forced to leave with a hamstring injury and his status is unclear. The third-year wideout, who caught two passes for the game, missed time last year with a broken clavicle and the Bears cannot afford both Wilson and Jeffery to be dealing with muscle injuries with rookie Kevin White out due to a shin injury.

Marc Mariani was superb on a punt and kickoff return in the first quarter and likely has secured a roster spot with his return ability on top of some sure-handedness as a receiver.

Martellus Bennett caught all three of the passes thrown to him, one for 20 yards that was the Bears’ longest completion for the game.

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.