Bears

Bears-Vikings: And the winner is...

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Bears-Vikings: And the winner is...

Every game has “keys.” Commonly those are variations on a theme — stop the run, pressure the passer, avoid turnovers, the usual suspects.

But the keys to the Bears being successful are less specific to the Minnesota Vikings — stop Adrian Peterson, the usual — and more to what in a broader sense the Bears simply have not done well enough virtually this entire season.

The early fall-downs

In multiple games this season the result has gone in favor of whatever team scores last — Washington, San Francisco, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland. The Bears bluntly and correctly declared that in losses to the Redskins and 49ers it should never have had to come down to Robbie Gould field goal tries.

Too often, however, the problem has been who has scored first. The Bears have been outscored in the first quarters of 10 of their 13 games, and they are 3-7 in those games. In some they have come back to tie scores or even go ahead, but those subsequent scores should have been building or padding a lead if the Bears had not spotted opponents the high ground in the first place.

[MORE BEARS: Vikings will be without Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr vs. Bears]

And against a Minnesota team that coach Mike Zimmer admitted had a confidence sag when they were flogged by the Arizona Cardinals (the Vikings’ third loss in the last four games), starting with authority potentially stands to fuel any shakiness the Vikings still feel.

Get a takeaway, any takeaway

The 2015 Bears defense has been respectable in spite of a litany of injuries and personnel losses in every echelon of the unit. Run defense has not allowed an average of fewer than 118 yards per game and was up to 128 per game after a Week 12 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

But the pass defense, while ranked No. 2 at 216 yards per game, is something of a mirage in perhaps the most game-turning area.

Only four teams have fewer than the Bears’ seven interceptions this season. And only three of those belong to defensive backs — two by Kyle Fuller, one by Tracy Porter. That matches the low of the past 20 years, when safety Marty Carter had two and cornerback Jeremy Lincoln had one.

The Bears had four in 2000 and 2002 — coincidentally (or not) seasons of 5-11 and 4-12, respectively.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Jay Cutler has had a career year at taking care of the football — interception percentage 1.8 vs. his previous best of 2.9 percent for a season in which he has played 12 or more games.

The defense has not returned the favor. The Bears need to be able to commit numbers to stopping Peterson, with the secondary then taking the ball away from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

And the winner is...

Few teams have been as difficult to predict in 2015 as the Bears, with the resiliency and character to recover with road victories to close to within a game of .500, then failing completely at home against genuinely substandard teams in games with genuine playoff implications on the line.

The Bears and the Vikings come into Sunday having lost three of their last four. The Bears have been rallied to upset good teams already (Kansas City, Green Bay) but after the performances, top to bottom, against San Francisco and Washington, and a top-5 Minnesota rushing game going against one of the NFL’s poorest run defenses...

Prediction: Vikings 24, Bears 20        

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.