Overtime loss to Lions leaves Bears ... where, exactly?


Overtime loss to Lions leaves Bears ... where, exactly?

DETROIT — Just taking a reading at the six-game mark of the 2015 season.

“View from the Moon” predicted last spring that the Bears would be 2-4 at this point of the season, albeit not precisely as it has come to be. VFTM’s call early in the offseason was that the Bears would upset the Green Bay Packers and lose to Kansas City, so at least in this case of prognostication, two wrongs can make something close to a right.

The point isn’t the prediction, though: It’s what happens now.

The positives and trend lines suggested by those consecutive wins over the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs were abruptly and a little brutally set back (reversed?) in the 37-34 overtime loss to the previously winless Detroit Lions that pushed some nagging questions back into consideration after the Bears had appeared to be hitting some sort of rhythm and finding an identity after an 0-3 start.

What was noteworthy coming out of Sunday’s loss was the blunt candor of the Bears’ self-assessment. Players, particularly the ones on defense, pointed thumbs, not fingers. The Bears might have miscalculated the fire with which the Lions, an 11-5 playoff team that was 7-1 at home last season, played.

[MORE BEARS: Bears Grades: Bears not ready to play at Lions' level]

“We started off slow today, and I think it was our worst performance all year,” linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “But they get paid to play offense, did a nice job of scheming, and they came out playing harder than we did.”

The Bears established an identity of themselves as fighters and finishers, and there were elements of those on Sunday: 18 points in the fourth quarter, 21 total in the second half, some defensive stops (on the first two Lions possessions in overtime) after allowing touchdowns on three of Detroit’s first four possessions.

But it wasn’t enough, and they know it.

“The defense has got to pick it up and match (Detroit’s) intensity,” defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins said, clear that the Bears hadn’t. “There were times when we’d have a good (stop), then times when we left some moves out. We’ve got to play solid the whole game. We’ve got come back with a better mentality.”

[MORE BEARS: Upon further review: No interception for Bears as Lions get TD]

Questionable clock management

Besides the conservative lean to the offense after catching the Lions at 34-34, late clock management by Bears coaches was puzzling. Head coach John Fox had the option of declining a 10-second clock runoff after Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford was called for intentional grounding. The Lions scored a touchdown; the Bears came back down for a tying field goal with the football at the Detroit 11.

Those 10 seconds plus the four that were on the clock when Robbie Gould kicked the field goal were time for shots at the end zone. Fox also elected not to use two of the Bears’ three timeouts in that closing stretch. More time for shots at a win.

Offensive line status report

For all of the flux the offensive line has gone through since the start of training camp and even the regular season, it might be premature to assume that everything is settled in that group. Center (Hroniss Grasu) and left guard (Matt Slauson) are set, and right tackle (Kyle Long) is set as he and coaches decided, for the time being, as Fox has said.

Intriguing, however, is the situation at left tackle where Charles Leno Jr. started his third straight game in place of Jermon Bushrod. The latter was cleared under the NFL’s concussion protocol and was listed as questionable (50-50) on the final injury report. He then didn’t dress for the Detroit game. Leno and the offensive line held up reasonably well against the Lions pass-blocking (one zero-yard sack) but were less effective run-blocking (2.9-yards per carry, no run longer than 11 yards).

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Prater sinks Bears again

If the name of the kicker (Matt Prater) finishing off the Lions’ overtime win Sunday sounded familiar, it should. It was Prater, then kicking for John Fox, who booted Fox’s Denver Broncos to an overtime victory over the Bears in the Marion Barber Game of 2011.

Prater converted from 59 yards after Barber stepped out of bounds on the preceding Bears possession to save time for the Broncos, and Prater won the game from 51 yards after Barber lost a fumble in overtime.

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.