Bears

Running game stalls as Bears lose to Packers

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Running game stalls as Bears lose to Packers

Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011Posted: 6:35 p.m. Updated: 9:54 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
READ: Jim Miller's take on the Bears' offensive woesREAD: Bears earn unsatisfactory grades all aroundREAD: Rodgers says punt trickery was "most incredible play I've ever seen"WATCH: Moon dissects Bears' loss to PackersWATCH: The Bears PGL Crew breaks down the loss

The start of the Bears 2011 season was going to be difficult. That much was apparent when the schedule came out with three playoff opponents in the first three games.

The Bears, however, have conspired to make it even more difficult, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Those first three games are over and the challenge for the Bears now is to rally and establish that their season isnt over after a 27-17 loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

The defeat left the Bears (1-2) looking a long way up at not only the Packers (3-0) but also the Detroit Lions, who rallied for an overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears will get another shot at the Packers, on Christmas Day in Green Bay, but the Bears will need a turnaround to make that a game of any consequence.

This was the second double-digit loss in a row, only the third time that has happened to Lovie Smith teams since his first season heading up the Bears. The situation represents an early fork in the road for a team that considered itself a playoff contender and then some going into this season.

After it happened to drop the Bears to 1-3 to open the 2005 season, the Bears rallied to reach the playoffs. When it happened in 2007, however, the Bears never recovered and finished out of the running at 7-9.

It is early on, said linebacker Lance Briggs. We have a lot of opportunities to get better. We will do that working toward Carolina.

Against a Green Bay defense that had yielded 477 and 475 yards in its first two games, both at home, the Bears finished with 291. In Soldier Field.

The win was Green Bays 15th in the last 20 games in Soldier Field. It also improved Aaron Rodgers record to 6-2 against Bears teams coached by Lovie Smith, an alarming trend considering how early Rodgers presumably is in his career.

Besides the 27 points, the second-highest total for the Packers against Smiths defenses since the 2004 season, the Packers ran up 392 yards and controlled the ball 37 minutes 29 seconds. They became the third straight team to rush for 100 or more yards on the Bears.

What should be concerning for the Bears, who think they are far from playing their best, is that the Packers think the same thing. The Bears did little against this Green Bay defense, for example, and thats a unit still struggling.

Were still not clicking on both sides of the ball and on special teams, Rodgers said. Defensively I think theyre still trying to figure things out. I know we an play better football. And the standard we have set around Green Bay is excellence.

Self-destructing

The pass-heavy offense that failed in New Orleans was virtually repeated against Green Bay, with predictable results.

Coordinator Mike Martz called run plays to Matt Forte only nine times, netting a dismal two yards total. He called 43 pass plays (37 attempts, three sacks, three Jay Cutler scrambles). At this point not even a passer like Cutler wants to stay a failed course.

Were 0-2 doing this, said Cutler, so its not looking very good.

The Bears had their chances, if not many of them or very good ones. And they effectively self-destructed on several they had:

Of the 10 penalties assessed on them, five came on first-down plays, setting the offense back unnecessarily. Three calls, all on offensive linemen, came on successive trips to the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter with the Bears in possession starting near midfield.

One of the remaining penalties, a dead-ball personal foul against Devin Hester, came 20 yards away from the play and after the play was over.

A perfectly executed deception on a punt return touchdown by Knox was nullified by a holding penalty on Corey Graham 35 yards from the play. The call was roundly denounced in the locker room afterward but Graham acknowledged he should never have put his hands on the Packer in the first place.

On 12 of the Bears 14 possessions, they had zero or one first down.

Were never happy when we have penalties called on us to hurt our football team, Smith said. Youre never happy with that, especially post-play penalties. Thats all part of us not playing our type of football. Well clean those things up.

The Packers had the ball more than 37 minutes to 22 for the Bears, in part because of those drives that the Bears could not sustain. Besides the totally ineffectual run game and the penalties, virtually every Bear receiver had at least one dropped pass.

Unacceptable, plain and simple, like I told Cutler, said Johnny Knox, who had a 40-yard reception among his four catches but a costly fourth-quarter drop. Im a receiver. Ive got to catch that ball, simple as that.

No balance, no matter

Rodgers built a 27-10 lead with three touchdown passes to tight end Jermichael Finley before the Bears recovered a fourth-quarter fumble and scored a play later on a 32-yard pass from Cutler to tight end Kellen Davis. That kept the Bears within two scores with 11 minutes remaining in the game
Brian Urlacher made his second spectacular diving interception of the season, picking off a throw intended for Finley. But three different offensive linemen were flagged for penalties on successive trips to the line and Hester killed the possession with a dead-ball personal foul downfield and the Bears lost a critical opportunity with the ball at the Green Bay 40.

Woeful wanderings

It was not a game of any Bears offensive dominance. With the game well within reach, the Bears opened the third quarter with three straight three-and-outs as Cutler threw a string of eight straight incompletions, including the three in the red zone at the end of the first half, and was sacked twice in the three possessions.

Those three possessions generated a combined minus-20 yards. Nine kneel-downs by Cutler would have produced more offense.

Missed opportunity

Predictable pass-only playcalling marked a significant missed opportunity late in the second quarter. A 40-yard completion to Knox, one for five yards to Dane Sanzenbacher and a 28-yard check-down to Forte put the Bears at the Green Bay 7-yard line with a first-and-goal.

Cutler then threw behind Sanzenbacher at the goal line on first down. A second-down throw to Sanzenbacher in the end zone was broken up and Cutler was forced to throw away a third-down attempt to Knox.

The Bears got something for their troubles when Robbie Gould converted from 25 yards and a 17-10 halftime deficit.

There were signs of trouble. Forte managed just two yards on six carries in a first half in which the offense called 17 pass plays to just those six runs.

Fast offense, fast start

The Packers started as they did in the NFC Championship game, with a touchdown and first score on the Bears. With Rodgers playing basically a drill game with Jennings (four completions, 61 yards), the Packers went a seemingly effortless 80 yards for a touchdown on a seven-yard flip from Rodgers to Finley.

The defense was able to turn the Green Bay offense back on the next couple of possessions but then helped the Packers out with key mistakes. Julius Peppers was guilty of a neutral-zone infraction on a third-and-3 to give Green Bay a first down. That was followed on a third-and-2 pass to Finley, who completely lost safety Craig Steltz on another conversion.

That drive pushed the lead to 14-0 when Rodgers found Finley open at the goal line for a six-yard TD pass

This one time the Bears had an answer.

Cutler hooked up for a 37-yard catch-and-run with Hester for a first down at the Green Bay 43. Three plays later Cutler threw a back-shoulder strike to Knox for 24 yards and a first-and-goal at the Green Bay 3-yard line.

The offense shook off a drop by Roy Williams at the goal line on first down and Cutler got a throw in to Sanzenbacher for a four-yard touchdown at a time when the game was in danger of spiraling completely beyond the Bears reach.

The only damage done by the two teams for the remainder of the half was a pair of field goals.

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: 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.