Bears

Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots

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Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots

Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010
Posted 5:54 PM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

In terms of ranking a game, the Bears meeting with the New England Patriots will be less important than, say, a game against Detroit, Green Bay or Minnesota, or any NFC team for that matter. Those games factor into playoff tiebreakers more directly than a game with even a very good AFC team, which the Bears will see in two of their next three games.

But the main reason that the New England game is in fact as monumental as it is, apart from any PatriotsTom BradyBill Belichick mystique, is because of what a loss would do to the Bears playoff situation.

The Bears hold a one-game edge on Green Bay, which is in Detroit to face a wobbling Lions team. The Packers are fully expected to be 9-4 by late Sunday afternoon.

And so will the Bears if they cannot overcome the 10-2 Patriots. At that point the tiebreakers would begin coming strongly into play and the Bears have only a one-game edge over the Packers in division play. That could vanish on Jan. 2 in Lambeau Field. The only sure route to the playoffs for the Bears lies in winning out over four teams generally playing well at this time of the season.

I think every game is huge at this point, said quarterback Jay Cutler. Were 9-3; everyone is vying for the playoffs. Last game was a big game for us. We had to win that one. We have to win this one. After the Patriots weve got to look forward to the next three."

Not the old 2010 Bears offense

The Chicago offense is nothing like it was in the first portion of the season. Through the 4-3 run prior to the off-week, the Bears averaged 18 points per game despite calling an average of nearly 35 pass plays (attempts plus sacks, and not including Cutler runs) per game.

Since going balanced (translation: run-intensive) during the off-week, the Bears have averaged 30.2 pass plays per game. They have hit their early season average of 35 pass plays only once in the last five games.

Yet in spite of contracting the aerial component of the offense, the Bears have gone from that 18-point average to 24 nearly a full touchdown better per game. The 16 points scored in the shutout win over Miami has been the only game in which the Bears have scored fewer than 22 points in the 5-0 run.

From a purely numbers standpoint, that may not seem stellar when facing a team that has scored fewer than 23 points exactly twice in 12 games the two losses, scoring 14 vs. both the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

Yardage rankings are meaningless when assessing the Patriots. On offense they rank a pedestrian 11th in passing yards and 13th in rushing, yet they are No. 1 in the NFL with 31.6 points per game. More to the relevant time of this season now the Patriots have averaged 40 points in the last four games and the low was 31. Stopping or even slowing Brady is the key to the game for the Bears but only the Jets (the first time) and Browns managed that.

Brady is the best, said linebacker Brian Urlacher. He knows what to do with the football. If you play zone, he throws the checkdowns. If you put seven in the box, he runs it. He just knows where to go with the football every time. Youre not going to trick him.

You may get pressure on him, you may hurt him a little bit, but hes smart, he has a great arm, he knows everything.

But.not the old 2010 Pats either

The Patriots have held only the Dolphins (14), Vikings (18) and Jets (3) to fewer than 20 points this season. But they have five No. 1s and three No. 2s as starters on their depth chart and Ive seen them get better from week to week, coach Lovie Smith said.

New England ranking 31st in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards is of absolutely no comfort to the offense that needs to deal effectively with that defense to both score its own points and keep Brady and the offense off the field as much as possible.

They remind me a lot of our offense, playing better than theyre ranked because theyre playing better now than the beginning of the year, said center Olin Kreutz. If you watched our offense in the Washington or Seattle games, youre not watching the same offense.

Matching up

Players making or not making impact plays will determine Sundays outcome. Games arent played on paper or in theory.

But they are played by players in systems, and Bears-Patriots is a special one. Two weeks ago Lovie Smiths version of the Cover-2 system handled Michael Vick operating the West Coast scheme of Andy Reid. Now the offense of Mike Martz is against the defense of Bill Belichick, a matchup that has not gone well for Martz since a regular-season win in 2001 that was followed by an epic upset in that seasons Super Bowl.

A major portion of the Belichick aura has been forged through his use of a 3-4 base defense but with unique variations on the theme in many important games against elite offenses (including Martzs).

The Bears fortunes in 2010 were reversed by shifts in Martzs offense, to a balance theme that was missing in Martz offenses in Detroit, San Francisco and, until the off-week, Chicago.

The last two, three games have been fun offensively for us because you can really tell the guys are understanding what were doing, Cutler said. Theyre playing fast. They know exactly when they make mistakes. They know exactly whenever we miss opportunities. I think thats the good part about it. Guys come back to the huddle, and theyre aware that we just missed a big one.

Its getting fun. Were able to put more and more in. Were able to challenge guys a little bit more. Its been a fun run here.

Getting that fun run to 6-0, against the Patriots and presumably the elements, may not be fun. But if the Bears are to convince perhaps even themselves that they are a Super Bowl team, they do need to have some fun Sunday.

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.