Bears

Evaluating the Bears’ pass-catching options with Kevin White going on IR

Evaluating the Bears’ pass-catching options with Kevin White going on IR

The Bears aren’t sure if Kevin White will return in 2017, with the star-crossed former seventh overall pick going on injured reserve with a fractured scapula.

Whether he does or doesn’t, though, won’t affect the question facing the Bears’ passing offense: Now what?

When training camp opened in late July, the Bears’ top three wide receivers were lined up to be Cameron Meredith (who’s out for the year), White (who may be out for the year) and Markus Wheaton (who didn’t play Sunday due to a fractured pinkie suffered in August). So where can the help come from, if it materializes at all?

Currently on the 53-man roster:

Kendall Wright didn’t catch his first pass Sunday until the fourth quarter. He’s a savvy route-runner who’s adept at getting open in space, but is primarily a slot receiver, which limits his opportunities to get on the field if…

— The Bears use more two- and three-tight end sets. Zach Miller was Mike Glennon’s second-most targeted player on Sunday (six times, with four catches for 39 yards), and coach John Fox made the point last week that when Miller was injured in 2016, he was the team’s best pass-catcher. Dion Sims caught two passes and could be utilized more as a big body up the seam. Rookie Adam Shaheen didn’t show much during preseason but played a handful of snaps, but he and his 6-foot-6, 270 pound frame could be molded into a useful weapon in certain situations.

“He’s getting better every day, every week,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last week. “We’ll just keep practicing. He’s going to fill a role for us right now and it’s a deep position for us so we’re fortunate that we can develop a talented player and he’ll have a role and that role will continue to grow as he’s ready to take on more.”

Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy haven’t been more than 20-catch, 300-yard receivers with special teams value in their respective careers, but may be counted on to do more going forward. Bellamy in particular played well late against the Falcons, and while a possible game-winning touchdown hit him in the hands, it looked like he was held and had his timing disrupted on that play.

— Ryan Pace said last week the Bears “we’re excited about adding” Tre McBride, a waiver claim from the Baltimore Ravens. McBride was inactive last week and only has two career receptions for eight yards. “He spent last week getting kind of oriented in our offense, he's a possibility,” coach John Fox said.

Markus Wheaton is “improving,” Fox said Monday, but has yet to practice without a club on his hand to protect his healing pinkie. He has the established speed to at least be a deep threat for opposing secondaries, but only played in three games last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a shoulder issue that required surgery in January. If he can return to the field soon, he could add an important dimension to the Bears’ offense, so long as he’s able to stay healthy.

“I haven’t played a lot of football yet,” Wheaton said last week. “I’m sure it’ll come quick once I start playing again.” 

Tarik Cohen was outstanding on Sunday, catching eight passes for 47 yards and plowing through cornerback Desmond Trufant for a 19-yard touchdown. But can the 5-foot-6, 181 pound Cohen hold up over a full 16-game season taking the kind of shots he did from the Falcons’ defense? He’s shown impressive toughness, but given his early status as the best playmaker in this offense, may need to be calculated about the risks he takes (i.e., going down/out of bounds against zone coverage to avoid the biggest of hits).

Jordan Howard wanted to improve his all-around game in 2017, but the drop he had near the end zone late Sunday hurt. He only had 13 carries, though, and if the Bears’ offense can find a way to be effective while making sure he’s fresh throughout games and the entire season, it’ll benefit this group as a whole.

Benny Cunningham has pass-catching ability as a third-down back, but suffered a high ankle sprain on Sunday. That may lead to waiver claim Taquan Mizzell, who caught 195 passes in college at Virginia, being active against Tampa Bay to fill Cunningham’s role.

Not on the roster, for now:

— Training camp star Tanner Gentry could be an option if the Bears elevate him off the practice squad. He has a better understanding of the offense than anyone the Bears could acquire from outside the organization, which could help him step in faster. But the Bears decided against keeping him on their initial roster, and he wasn’t claimed on waivers by any of the other 31 teams in the league. Perhaps Gentry develops into a solid player, but it’s worth remembering the last undrafted rookie receiver to make it with the Bears (Meredith) only had 11 catches for 120 yards in his first year.

— The free agent pool at this time of the year, obviously, is limited. Could someone like a Dorial Green-Beckham, who caught 36 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns last year, be an option? Possibly, though teams have had two and a half months to sign the former second-round pick and haven’t, likely due to off-the-field questions. Former Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is out there, but tore his ACL last year and, at the age of 34, has seen his production sharply decline over the last three years. The Bears’ front office will continue to scour the free agent, and possibly trade, markets, but finding an impact guy in mid-September will be difficult.

“When injuries happen in the league is, how thick your roster is at that position and how fast you can get a guy schooled up?” Fox said. “We dealt with that more than our share last year and it's not unusual but we'll adjust.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

The Bears winning a road game against a perennial playoff contender, one with a winning record coming in – that’s great.

Winning in Baltimore with a rookie quarterback in only his second NFL appearance – that’s terrific.

Generating more takeaways than giveaways and netting points from them – that’s just outstanding.

And now what?

Because too often under John Fox the Bears have posted a victory and failed to have it mean much of anything because of what followed a week later – a largely self-inflicted loss. The Bears have not posted consecutive wins since midway through the 2015 season, and even then proceeded to unravel on by squandering opportunities sitting squarely within their grasp.

Why should this time be any different? Because if it’s not, and the Bears again fail to stack even one win on top of another, then a dominating performance against the Baltimore Ravens (leaving out special teams, which surrendered in two plays more points than the defense did in 14 entire Baltimore possessions) becomes another meaningless afternoon in the overall for a team determined to reinvent itself.

Coaches typically divide seasons mentally into quarters, and clearly in Fox’s mind, Sunday was part of a different quarter from the 1-3 first quarter. “Really it takes almost four games, it’s almost like the preseason anymore, where you kind of get it figured out,” Fox said. “So just developing that confidence, usually good things have to happen to gain that confidence. And we did some good things.”

But the Bears have done “some good things” in games past and it becomes much ado about nothing, sound and fury signifying less than nothing. So again: Why should this time be any different?

Two reasons, actually. Neither absolute, but neither very complicated, either.

Reason No. 1: Trubisky

Without making too much out of one individual player, the chief reason arguably lies in the person of Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback who already has palpably changed the psyche of a previously languishing team.

“The team didn’t make nearly as many mental errors this week because of his patience,” said wide receiver Kendall Wright, who supported Trubisky with a leaping catch of 18 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Unlike Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer and 2016 Jay Cutler, each of whom won one game and one game only over the past 22, Trubisky delivered the ball security of Hoyer with added impact that none of his predecessors did manage, or arguably even could have managed.

Put simply, the Bears do in fact have a quarterback who even at this point appears able not only to make plays as drawn up, but also to create something out of nothing or at least avert catastrophe.

“Mitch made some great plays,” Fox said. “I mean, if you look at the snap over his head in the end zone, there’s probably only five or six or seven quarterbacks in this league that could get out of that. I go back to the touchdown pass to Dion [Sims, tight end]. He flushed [from the pocket], we adjusted and he dropped a dime in the end zone for a touchdown. And the play obviously at the end where more than likely if we don’t get that, we’re probably punting, the play he made to Kendall. I think Mitch played outstanding… .

“Those are really good decisions. It beats six interceptions, for sure. There’s a 3rd-and-3 play in the red area, low red, sprint out to our left. It wasn’t all perfect but he did the next best thing and that’s throw it away. So those are really, really good decisions that I think sometimes the casual or un-casual fan does not see.”

The noteworthy element in Trubisky’s game was the impact achieved by a Bears quarterback who completed all of eight passes. The reality is that Trubisky doesn’t need to attempt more than 20 passes a game (including the four sacks his protection allowed, which absolutely needs to be fixed).

For perspective purposes: Ben Roethlisberger in his first two seasons averaged 17.4 and 15.9 passes per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship game and won the Super Bowl in those two seasons, running an offense that was just short of 60 percent runs.

Reason No. 2: Mistake reduction

A mistaken notion as to how improvement happens is the belief that it comes from just getting better and better, skill sets rising to the loftiest heights.

Not necessarily. Anyone who has had the good fortune of working their golf handicap down knows that the stroke reductions come less from suddenly adding 30 yards to drives or developing a draw on a 200-yard three-iron, than from eliminating the fluffed pitch shots, the approach shots pushed into traps, the drives into the woods. Cut down the mistakes and good things happen.

So it is with the Bears, who effectively lost the Minnesota game by allowing a 58-yard TD run by Jerick McKinnon, and sealed it with a poor Trubisky pass on a possession with a chance to tie or win. They lost the Atlanta game simply by dropping passes. They aren’t as good as the Green Bay Packers – at least not until Trubisky reaches full extension and proves to be a challenge to Aaron Rodgers.

But only in the Atlanta near-miss did they self-destruct with fewer penalties (four) than they did at Baltimore (five). Sunday was the first time since Atlanta that they threw zero interceptions. And the defense limited the Ravens to three third-down conversions out of 18, one indicator of fewer breakdowns on the most important down.

“As long as we eliminate those mistakes that we’ve been making,” Fox said, “we’re gonna be right there going into the end of the game.”

The Bears have had positive spikes in the past and then collapsed; even after winning three of four in late 2015, the inept home losses to San Francisco and Washington were arguably a tipping point in the Fox era.

The point next Sunday against Carolina is to determine if the Bears are through with their one-and-done ways.