Bears

No accolades, but Bears offense still jelling just fine

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No accolades, but Bears offense still jelling just fine

Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010
4:40 PM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

No member of the Bears offense was voted to the NFC Pro Bowl roster. No giant surprise there, given that the unit ranks 30th in yardage, 18th in points per game and has absolutely been pantsd in a number of national games before putting 40 on the Minnesota Vikings in a game played after most votes were in.

The Bears scored one TD in each of the Miami and New England games, had more sacks than points against the Giants, and have been out-gained in five of their 11 wins. Not impressive.

But the Chicago offense right now is the quintessential case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And that is a very good thing.

Matt Forte is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the last eight games. Only LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia, Jonathan Stewart in Carolina and Tampa Bays LeGarrette Blount have averaged more. Forte and McCoy are the only backs in the NFC with 900 rushing and 400 receiving yards and Forte is poised to join Walter Payton as the only Bears with 1,000 rushing and 500 receiving yards in the same season.

The Bears have converted 46.3 percent of their third downs in the past eight weeks. The only teams ahead of them (New Orleans, Green Bay, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England) are all in or near the playoffs. The reason: Jay Cutler is the NFLs best in third-down passes completion percentage for first downs (92.1) and in percent of overall attempts completed for firsts (54.7).

When the Bears played the Green Bay Packers the first time, only center Olin Kreutz and left tackle Frank Omiyale were starting in those positions, and Omiyale was making his first start there. Roberto Garza was out of position at left guard, and the right side consisted of Lance Louis at guard and Kevin Shaffer at right tackle.

When Cutler met with the media Wednesday, the subject of Pro Bowl never came up, maybe because the only Bears on the all-star roster were from defense or special teams. But you have the distinct feeling that the Bears could not care less about things like Pro Bowls at this point.

We dont really want to take a step back as a team or as an offense the way we have played the last couple games, Cutler said. Were kind of putting things together. We want to keep that going.

Obviously you cant take the last eight games and treat it like its own separate season.

Or can you? The Packers, who had two members of their offense (tackle Chad Clifton, receiver Greg Jennings) selected and three others named as alternates, are looking at the Bears exactly that way.

I think overall, theyre just starting to jell and come together, said linebacker Clay Matthews, one of three Pro Bowlers on the Green Bay defense. Obviously, Cutler has got a nice little rhythm going. Knox continues to make big plays. Obviously, Olsen at tight end and Forte has really got it going. I think more so than them changing, theyre really jelling. I think thats the biggest difference is theyre on a roll.

And that is a whole lot more important than being on a Pro Bowl roster.

Ouch

Kudos to Jay Glazer, FOXSports.coms NFL maven and good friend of View from the Moon (Glaze IDd the Bears as the NFC darkhorse team back when we hooked up in Bourbonnais) on breaking the 50,000 fine Brett Favre was tagged with by the NFL for failure to cooperate in the Jenn Sterger mess and investigation (http:tinyurl.com29666xz).

Glaze notes that the fine wasnt for violating a policy but for non-cooperation. Not exactly the Al Capone to Alcatraz for income tax evasion, but you get the idea.

Welcome thoughts

Compliments to a few of you for thoughts, even ones I disagree with, on recent columns. Geeman215 thinks staying healthy is the key through this final regular-season game vs. my point that the Lovie Smith Bears have stumbled badly when they phone in their last game. Gee notes that this isnt Rex Grossman were talking about, as we were in 2006. But Id just note that Grossman had more 100 passer ratings (seven) than Jay Cutler has this season. He wasnt the Bad Rex that ran off the rails in subsequent seasons. My point is that this team needs to stay focused and not take an excessive amount of time off before its playoff game.

dcrutch15 weighed in with an intriguing prospect for a Bears wide receiver: Plaxico Burress. Burress was one of three players the Bears were prepared to take in the 2000 draft (plus Thomas Jones and Brian Urlacher) at No. 9, whoever was left, and that turned out to be Urlacher after Pittsburgh grabbed Burress.

Burress is serving time for weapons charges and even managed to shoot himself in the leg. But hell be eligible for parole in early 2011 and I like dcrutchs alluding to Michael Vick as a successful rehab story.

Burress, like Vick, could well have been humbled by his fall and may be a superb low-risk gamble on a towering wideout who caught a Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass.

The comments are always welcome. Always enjoy things you all notice.

Kaping if off

Today is All-Kap All The Time Day here at "View from the Moon" where I spend more time with good buddy David Kaplan than his family does. Ill do a little talk-back (Kap considers it back-talk, but hey, he just doesnt like being sassed) on Comcast SportsNets Chicago Tribune Live at 5:40 p.m. and give Kap a chance to make his prediction for the score of the Bears-Patriots Super Bowl.

Then Ill visit with Kap on WGN-AM 720 a little after 8 p.m.

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.