Bears

Bengals maul Bears No. 1 defense for 210 yards, 21 points in first half

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Bengals maul Bears No. 1 defense for 210 yards, 21 points in first half

CINCINNATI – The third preseason game is usually the one where starters play into the third quarter. Since most of the defense didn’t play much of the first two quarters while the Cincinnati Bengals were piling up 21 points and 210 yards, Fox pulled most of the No. 1’s to start the third quarter, apparently seeing little reason for making the Bengals feel any better about themselves than they already did.

“I just don’t think we played as tight and as sharp as we did a week ago [beating Indianapolis],” Fox said. “Most of that was on third down, in particular defensively.”

Cincinnati quarterbacks Andy Dalton and A.J. McCarron completed all 12 of their first-half passes, the principal reason the Bengals converted 71 percent (five of seven) third downs in the first half when the game was decided.

And for the disturbing second time in three preseason games, the Bears’ defense with injuries continuing to pile up was pushed methodically backwards for a touchdown on an opponent’s opening possession. And it wasn’t just once.

In game one it was the Miami Dolphins running 14 plays to cover 85 yards, and taking 8 minutes to do it, for their one touchdown.

[MORE: 'No turnovers' a rare bright spot in Bears loss to Bengals]

This time it was the Cincinnati Bengals driving 77 yards and taking 16 plays and 9 minutes 11 seconds to do it. But while the second-string defense rallied somewhat in the Miami game, the No. 1 unit had it happen again with a drive covering 71 yards in the second quarter.

“We'll all look at this and think, 'What can we do better?'” said linebacker Jared Allen. “We all expect to play well. We're all going to compete to push each other. I think we have a lot of depth at that position, but I think it's still new to us.

“So we've got to keep on grinding, keep on pushing it. Take coaching. There's always highs, there's always lows. Again, we'll learn from it. It's better it happened now, then let it happen when the games count. It's a learning tool.”

Defensive line

The misfortunes along the defensive front took a devastating turn early against the Bengals when nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a pivotal player already because of the coming suspension of Jeremiah Ratliff, had to be escorted to the sideline with a possible concussion after an unsuccessful goal-line stand in the first quarter. The news worsened when Ratliff was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury, about which coach John Fox said only that “it’s not broken.”

Ratliff has not played 16 games in a season since 2011 and won’t this year because of the three-game suspension for a DWI incident. Ratliff took an inside rush of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the first quarter, lost containment and allowed Dalton to convert a third-and-6 with an eight-yard scramble. His suspension guarantees a month of uninterrupted healing time for his ankle, after which.

[RELATED: The good (and bad) standouts from the Bears' loss to the Bengals]

Will Sutton delivered a much-needed stop on a third-and-1 early in the second quarter when the Bears needed a play by someone after a disappointing start on both sides of the football. “Will was a force,” said linemate Ego Ferguson. Sutton, playing extensively at nose tackle with the Goldman and Ratliff injuries, got excellent pad level vs. the bigger Cincinnati linemen.

Linebackers

The loss of two starting defensive linemen – Goldman and Ratliff – did the linebackers and run defense in general no favors. The group turned in a handful of individual impact plays but was not able to consistently get pressure against the Cincinnati offensive line.

Lamarr Houston had his best day since last year’s New England Patriots game when he tore his ACL on a sack celebration. This time Houston, working at right outside linebacker, collected two sacks and was generally strong at the point closing against the run.

Shea McClellin had his name called for three tackles on the initial Cincinnati drive but all were after gains and two after pass completions. His night continued spiraling when he was called for roughing the passer on a blitz of backup quarterback A.J. McCarron in the second quarter.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Jared Allen made two open-field stops in the first half, making tackles despite being locked up with Bengals blockers.

After a strong showing against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, Pernell McPhee was an overall non-factor throughout.

The defense was without outside linebacker Sam Acho, who practiced all week but was ill and held out of Saturday’s game. Acho was one of the defensive standouts through the first two preseason games, with a sack and quarterback hit in each game plus one tackle for loss, interception and pass broken up.

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.