Cutler's efforts not enough as Bears close season with home loss to Lions


Cutler's efforts not enough as Bears close season with home loss to Lions

It's clear what one of the Bears' top goals will be next season: Win at home.

The Bears finished the 2015 regular season with a 24-20 loss to the Detroit Lions, ensuring a 1-7 finish at Soldier Field in John Fox's first year as head coach.

The Bears (6-10) were playing catch-up all day as Matthew Stafford and the Lions (7-9) marched downfield on the game's opening drive for a touchdown.

Slow starts have plagued the Bears all season and Week 17 was no different. They did not get on the scoreboard until the middle of the third quarter, when Robbie Gould connected on a 49-yard field goal.

The Bears looked as if they were going to have a chance to pick up a score on their first drive of the game, too, but Jay Cutler's pass in the endzone tipped off Cameron Meredith's hands and into the waiting arms of Lions safety James Ihedigbo.

Cutler also threw an interception right before halftime when his arm was hit, setting up a 59-yard field goal from Lions kicker Matt Prater as time expired in the first half.

The Bears' hopes were dashed on Cutler's final interception on the first play out of the two-minute warning when he was hit by Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and the ball floated into the hands of Detroit safety Glover Quin.

The Lions picked up a first down on the ensuing drive before settling into victory formation and winding down the clock.

Working without his top five receiving options (Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal, Marquess Wilson, Zach Miller and Martellus Bennett), Cutler played some inspired football despite the three interceptions, executing the gameplan rather well in what may be offensive coordinator Adam Gase's last game in Chicago.

Cutler worked with Marc Mariani (6 catches, 80 yards), Josh Bellamy (3 rec, 49 yds, TD), Deonte Thompson (1 rec, 45 yds) and third-string tight end Rob Housler (2 rec, 18 yds) while also utilizing Matt Forte out of the backfield.

Forte scored on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Cutler, making for a nice moment in what is likely the star running back's final game with the Bears. Forte shared a touching minute with the Soldier Field faithful, who gave the veteran a standing ovation after crossing the goal line.

Forte also finished with 76 yards rushing on 17 carries plus 34 yards on three catches.

Cutler ended his day with 245 passing yards to go with the two touchdowns and three interceptions and a rating of 97.5.

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.