Bears

'No turnovers' a rare bright spot in Bears loss to Bengals

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'No turnovers' a rare bright spot in Bears loss to Bengals

CINCINNATI – Coach John Fox didn’t necessarily want a lot from his offense Saturday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, just progress. He didn’t get it.

Beset again by penalties on top of injuries depleting the wide-receiver group, the No. 1 offense played into the third quarter and for the third time this preseason failed to get the football into the end zone. The No. 1 offense, which punted to end its first four possessions, has scored just four field goals/12 total points, a result likely to stand unless coaches decide the unit needs to do something more before the Green Bay Packers come to Soldier Field on Sept. 13.

“I wouldn’t say we improved,” Fox said. “I don’t know that ‘disappointed’ is right.”

It might be the right word as far as some players were concerned after too many mistakes. The Bears had at least one penalty on five of their nine offensive possessions, a total of 12 flags for 117 yards. Not all were on the offense, but the offense managed just 194 total yards.

With the injuries at wide receiver, the Bears’ plan was to run the football more. They had their worst preseason outing rushing the ball at a time when they focused on it and had to do it.

[MORE: Bears O-line struggles continue with penalties, breakdowns]

“Without looking at the tape, some of the things were that they were the first 4-3 team in base defense that we've played,” Fox said. “I don't know that we reacted really well to that. But overall, our execution wasn't as good in the run game as it has been. It was an area we did not improve."

If there was a twist it was that the Bengals play a 4-3 scheme similar to the one the Bears played and practiced against for most of the past decade-plus. Yet they were unable to mount any drive longer than 50 yards (54).

“Other than the first series when we had the third-and-short, the rest of them we were killing ourselves with penalties,” said quarterback Jay Cutler.

Quarterback

Jay Cutler finished his preseason without throwing an interception – and without a touchdown pass – and a passer rating of 91.6 after completing 13 of 17 passes for just 98 yards against the Bengals. Jimmy Clausen completed five of eight before being knocked out of the game on a blow to the head by linebacker P.J. Dawson while Clausen was in the middle of a slide at the end of a run. David Fales completed his only attempt.

"The good news is, I don't think we've turned it over a bunch,” Fox said. “We have moved the ball. Jay has been efficient.”

[RELATED: The good (and bad) standouts from the Bears' loss to the Bengals]

Receivers

Not having the projected top four wide receivers for 2015 (including Kevin White) counts for something, but not for much, and Fox has been clear that no one is coming to the Bears’ rescue either with personnel help yet, or game cancellations.

Martellus Bennett gave the Bears at least something, catching all six of the passes thrown to him in the first half, albeit on shorter patterns for a total of 37 yards. Bennett added a seventh catch early in the third quarter, giving him a team-leading 11 receptions through the three preseason games.

Rashad Lawrence started at one wideout position and caught a Jay Cutler pass for a 16-yard gain in the second quarter. Lawrence, however, dropped the ball on a simple third-down crossing pattern and was not crisp on route-running as Cutler appeared to be holding the football longer and longer as the first half went along.

Josh Bellamy was unable to make much of his starting shot, catching one pass for six yards in the half. Marc Mariani caught his two “targets,” one a falling-down grab in the first half, for his first two receptions of the preseason.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Tight end Dante Rosario did not help his roster chances with a dropped pass and false-start penalties in the third and fourth quarters, the latter followed on the next trip to the line by a holding penalty.

"We came into the game light at the receiver position,” Fox said. “We were going to lean on the run some. I don't think our execution was great in that area - that's all involved.”

Running backs

After two successful games committing to and staying with the run, the Bears sputtered on offense, running just 46 total plays, 18 of them run after penalties forced the offense into passing situations.

Jeremy Lanford (6-17), Matt Forte (6-16) and Jacquizz Rodgers (2-9) were what there was of a ground game. 

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.