Bears

Jay Cutler, Jordan Howard lead Bears past Vikings

Jay Cutler, Jordan Howard lead Bears past Vikings

CHICAGO (AP) — Jay Cutler's halftime speech — yup, that Jay Cutler — helped the Chicago Bears turn a strong start into one surprising victory.

Cutler threw for 252 yards and a touchdown after missing five games with a thumb injury, rookie Jordan Howard ran for a career-high 153 yards and a TD, and the Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-10 on Monday night.

Chicago (2-6) sacked Sam Bradford five times while handing NFC North-leading Minnesota (5-2) its second straight loss.

Cutler was on target in his return from a sprained right thumb, and Howard easily surpassed his previous high of 118 yards. Alshon Jeffery got his first touchdown reception of the season while helping Chicago outgain Minnesota 403 yards to 258.

"I think it was more fun just to watch my teammates and see how hard they played and how well they played," Cutler said. "One win coming into this one, they had a lot of outside noise."

Cutler has faced criticism for his body language and leadership skills throughout his time in Chicago, but Jeffery said the quarterback told his teammates to "keep our pedal to the metal" at halftime.

"Everyone in there is from different backgrounds and different cultures, societies," Cutler said. "Whatever it takes to find the inspiration — because motivation usually wears off at some point during the game. Those guys played inspired football."

Minnesota's performance was far from inspired.

"We're a good team," guard Brandon Fusco said. "It's not us. It's not Viking football. That's what is frustrating, we're such a good team. What we're putting out on the field is not us. We have to watch the film and get better from this."

Cutler had not played since he left the second game of the season against Philadelphia. But with his future up in the air after coach John Fox wavered in his commitment to him as the starter, he made a triumphant return.

Cutler completed 20 of 31 passes, including an 11-yard touchdown to Jeffery early in the third that made it 20-3. Whether he quieted fans who thought the Bears were better off with Brian Hoyer is another issue. But that became a moot point when Hoyer broke his left arm last week in a Thursday night loss at Green Bay.

Howard had a 69-yard run, the longest for Chicago in seven years. Zach Miller added 88 yards receiving as the Bears stopped a three-game losing streak.

Bradford, playing behind a porous line, had another rough game after getting sacked six times the previous week against Philadelphia. He was 23 of 37 for 228 yards.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Matt Asiata ran for 42 yards with Jerick McKinnon sidelined by an ankle injury.

With a sparse and quiet crowd looking on, the Bears led 13-3 at halftime. It was almost a bigger advantage, but Chicago settled for field goals on its first two trips inside the 20.

GOING LONG

Howard, a fifth-round draft pick, broke off a 69-yard run to the 13 on Chicago's first possession. It was the longest rushing play for the Bears since Kahlil Bell's 72-yarder against Philadelphia on Nov. 22, 2009. But instead of a touchdown, the Bears got a field goal from Connor Barth.

DENYING DISCORD

Fox denied a report of discord between the coaching staff and front office and that the organization has brought in an outside consultant to examine the football operation.

"There's no truth to that. This is as unified of an organization and football team as I've ever been associated with," Fox said.

OFFICIAL INJURED

Head linesman Ed Walker was taken from the field on a cart after he slipped on the Soldier Field grass in the first quarter. Walker was injured running down the Vikings' sideline as the Bears punted. His legs buckled, and he was tended to for several minutes by medical personnel before being placed on the cart.

INJURIES

Vikings: G Alex Boone was being evaluated for a concussion. ... CB Captain Munnerlyn hurt his foot. ... SS Andrew Sendejo (ankle) sat out and Jayron Kearse started in his place.

Bears: The Bears held out RG Kyle Long (strained triceps) and LG Josh Sitton (ankle). Ted Larsen started at right guard and Eric Kush at left guard.

UP NEXT

Vikings: Face division rival Detroit for the first time this season when they host the Lions on Sunday.

Bears: Have a bye before visiting Tampa Bay on Nov. 13.

 

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.