Bears

Bears tight ends unorthodox fits for physical run game

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Bears tight ends unorthodox fits for physical run game

Rarely will the Bears need more impact from their tight ends than Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Rarely will that be more difficult than against the Seahawks, whose safeties (Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas) are the elite tandem in the NFL.

But when coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase declared unequivocally that the Bears would commit to running the football, actions in the preseason underscored their statements: 220 plays, 114 rushes (51.8 percent).

Despite never leading in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals and being ahead only briefly in the loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have stayed the running course: 45.9 percent run.

But there’s something slightly odd about how the Bears are going about this. Or maybe just a little bit unorthodox.

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The Bears opened both games with multiple tight ends – three (Martellus Bennett, Khari Lee, Zach Miller) against Green Bay, and two (Bennett, Miller) against Arizona. With no fullback on the roster, there's nothing really unusual there.

What is unusual is the template for Bears tight ends. Bennett is a prototypical tight end (6-6, 275 pounds) with speed and good hands. The Bears have run 149 offensive plays this season. Bennett has been on the field for all but three of them (98 percent).

But Lee is 235 pounds and Miller 240, not the widebody model of a Brandon Manumaleuna or grinder type usually associated with a balanced offense committed to running.

“It's cool,” Bennett said. “I like to see the guys get out there and play. Those guys work hard every single day. Zach and Khari are learning but it's fun to see them get a chance to go out there and compete.

“’Thirteen’ personnel is always good. You see ‘13,’ that means your tight ends, if you've got a good set of tight ends you can roll out 13 personnel for an entire series.”

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Even without a complete complement of wide receivers, the Bears have not tilted over toward being a tight-end-based offense, even in the run component. Miller played 14 snaps against Green Bay and 11 against Arizona. Lee played two against Arizona and 11 vs. Green Bay.

But it is the variety of fits for Lee and Miller in particular that bears notice. Miller in particular has been posted in nearly every alignment, all the more remarkable because he had not played in a regular-season NFL game since 2011 because of injuries.

“I think there’s a place,” Miller said of roles for undersized tight ends. “These last couple weeks I’ve been moving around all over the place and I think there’s ways we can use that to help us a unit.”

It is a very motivated unit. Bennett held out of offseason work as part of an effort to secure a new contract. Lee was an undrafted rookie free agent with the Houston Texans, who traded him to the Bears before the season. Miller, the victim of one season-ending injury after another, including last year when he caught six passes in a preseason game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, then was done for the year after being injured the next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I'm very proud of Zach and the work he's been putting in all camp and the things that he's been doing,” Bennett said. “Hopefully he'll get a chance to catch some balls and make some plays out there.”

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Miller caught a Jay Cutler pass on the first play vs. Arizona, then another on the Bears’ second possession that culminated in a Josh Bellamy touchdown. Modest beginnings for another “comeback” for a player who has stayed NFL-ready under the most demoralizing circumstances.

“I love it. I love this game. I love the work. I love being around the guys,” Miller said. “It’s just something I’ve grown up doing and want to keep doing it as long as I can.

“I’ve had time to work on my craft and then got hurt. I came back, worked on my craft, and then got hurt. But I was able to stay up on what I was doing. So I don’t feel like I’m out of place. I still believe I can produce and be a good football player.”

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

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.