Bears

Mullin: Those pesky (overlooked?) Lions

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Mullin: Those pesky (overlooked?) Lions

Monday, Dec. 6, 2010
Posted: 10:35 a.m.
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

While it may be natural to dismiss the Detroit Lions and their now 2-10 record, and some Bears clearly did, to their discredit, these were the same Lions who led New England and Dallas at halftimes of their past two games and who had 10 days to prepare for the Bears. These were the same Lions who nearly defeated the Bears in Soldier Field Opening Day on an official's ruling, and who were tied with the Bears at halftime and in the fourth quarter or their games last year with the Bears.

"I don't know why but we never really seem to play great against the Lions," linebacker Brian Urlacher said, shaking his head. "But it's a division game and there's always going to be more on the line no matter what the records are."

The Detroit defense hung as many sacks (four) on the Bears as it did the first time the teams met this year. "They came out and played hard," said right tackle J'Marcus Webb, who had his pads full with defensive end Cliff Avril and a ramped up Detroit pass rush in the first half. "I guess you could say this was their game of the year."

When the Bears come to Detroit, "it seems like they just come out faster than we do; I don't know why," said safety Danieal Manning. "Next year we've got to start faster, period."

Sooo close

Devin Hester had the NFL record for return touchdowns in his sights, literally, in the third quarter when he took a Nick Harris punt back 30 yards before the last man, Harris, brought him down with a "tackle" that left Hester grumpy afterwards. Being tackled by kickers can leave returners that way.

"It's just lazy tacklers, they just get in the way and trip you up," Hester said. "It's frustrating. He fell down, I tried to jump over him and he grabbed my foot. ... That punt return should've been a touchdown."

Disturbing stat

Jay Cutler continues to develop as a quarterback but his stellar play of late and the overall progress of the offense shouldn't obscure one very ominous aspect that is still far from satisfactory.

The four sacks by Detroit marked the sixth time in 12 games that Cutler was sacked at least four times and in two of the others (Green Bay, Miami) he was taken down three times.

Huh?

No one had ever heard the call "simultaneous possession" and a couple players laughingly wondered if the officials came up with the phrase on the spot. But it cost the Bears a platinum chance of taking over Sunday's game much earlier than the fourth quarter.

Defensive end Israel Idonije forced a fumble by running back Maurice Morris at the Detroit 28 and gained control of the ball in the resulting scrum. But Morris wriggled in enough to get his hands on the ball and in the NFL, a tie goes to the offense.

"That was a terrible call. I clearly had the ball," Idonije said, crossing his arms tightly across his chest to demonstrate. "I had the ball for few seconds and then the other guy came in and just put his hands on the ball and the officials said it was this 'simultaneous possession.'"

"Turn out the lights, the party's over" ...

The passing of Dandy Don Meredith at age 72 throws a bit of a cloud over the NFL today. He, Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell made Monday Night Football, and the Danderoo was the absolute perfect counterweight to the (for some) detestable Howard.

Meredith was one fine quarterback as well, just with the misfortune of having his career overlap with the Green Bay Packers dynasty. And Chicago will have to always wonder what might have been had the Bears, who made Meredith their third-round pick in the 1960 draft, kept that kid out of SMU instead of trading him to the Dallas Cowboys for future draft picks.

But maybe things work out as they should after all. Meredith went to and helped fashion the "America's Team" that the Cowboys became. And for a fun watch sometime, watch "North Dallas Forty" and "Seth," the Mac Davis character in particular. You'll get the idea.

The NFL star is a little dimmer today for the loss.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.