Bears

Take it from the Bears D: Balance works

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Take it from the Bears D: Balance works

Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011
Posted: 10:40 a.m. Updated: 6:44 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Just in case Mike Martz needs any more convincing to get some semblance of balance in the offense, his counterpart on the Bears defense unintentionally (presumably) lent his voice to declarations made by coach Lovie Smith and others.

Smith said earlier this week that the skewed playcalling of the New Orleans game, with 52 pass plays and 11 run calls, would be cleaned up.

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who had Martz as his offensive coordinator in Detroit and saw quarterback Jon Kitna sacked 114 times in two seasons, was describing the myriad attributes of Aaron Rodgers has that makes him such a massive challenge.

But Marinelli tellingly added that Rodgers has an advantage of a scheme, something that Jay Cutler has not had in games tilted crazily toward passing.

And you know the other thing that helps Rodgers, I think, is the run attempts, Marinelli said. They go out and they run, and you have to prepare in every personnel group to stop the run. They do a very good job in it, and the O-line is very physical, so I think the balance really helps them.

Fort Knox?

The offense got a little help Thursday in the form of wideout Roy Williams returning to full practice participation after being limited last week and Wednesday because of a groin injury suffered in the Atlanta game.

Williams is not back as the starter yet and Johnny Knox leads all receivers right now with five catches for 105 yards, behind Matt Fortes team-high 15.

Knoxs average of 21 yards per catch is particularly notable not only because of its size (ninth overall in the NFL after two weeks) but also because it has been accomplished with not simply one huge gain, but with catches of 15, 25 and 30 yards.

With Earl Bennett down for an undetermined time because of a chest injury suffered in the New Orleans game, Williams return becomes even more critical.

Big receiver, good blocker, good football player, and we need all of them this week against a great Packers team coming in here, said coach Lovie Smith. It seems like hes ready to go.

Williams has 27 career catches in nine games against the Packers, three for touchdowns.

Running back Marion Barber remains on the limited list with a calf injury that occurred nearly a month ago, in the Tennessee preseason game. On the plus side, it is the first time since the injury that Barber practiced at all on consecutive days.

Guard Lance Louis also was limited from the ankle sprain he suffered in the Atlanta game.

Bennett, tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) and safety Major Wright (head) all were held out of practice and are not expected to play vs. Green Bay. Thats a little more painful for Carimi, who played at Wisconsin and was a Packer fan.

I was pretty excited to play the Packers this week, just because, growing up in Wisconsin, and being a Wisconsin guy, Carimi said. Looks like I dont get a shot at them this week. But we get to play them again, so Im looking forward to that.

Vintage guys

So how exactly would this work?

Coordinator Rod Marinelli is ordering the wine for his defensive table. He walks into the beverage emporium and says, I know theyre really hard to find but Id like something in a 54 Chateau Brian, maybe a 55 Haut Briggs and, if you have one, why not? Ill take a 90 Julius.

Aaah, I see, the sommelier says, rubbing his hands together. You want vintage guys.

If youre stocking your defensive cellar, you want some young wines. And you definitely want the vintage stuff. Like a Brian. Urlacher. Like a Briggs. Lance. Like a Julius. Peppers. Because the better wines, and NFL players, do indeed get better with age.

Urlacher is like a vintage. Briggs said with a laugh Thursday. Vintage, you want that old, when you go in and you say, Its a special day or some kind of special conference meeting, give me your vintage, give me your best wine.

You dont want a 2010 or a 2011. You want something that goes way back. You know? (laughs). Because it gets better with age.

There are some vintage guys. There are definitely some vintage guys. And most of the vintage guys, you know, like a Charles Woodson. Like Brian Urlacher. Like a Ray Lewis. These are vintage guys. Like a Julius Peppers.

Urlacher is probably more used to stomping quarterbacks than grapes but theres a reason why he, Briggs, Lewis, Peppers, Woodson and such have gotten better with age or simply not fallen off.

I dont know, I think Ive gotten smarter, Urlacher said. The longer Ive played, the more knowledge I have for the game. Theres some things athletically I cant do anymore that I could do when I was younger.

I dont know if Charles is the same way, if its the same for a DB as it is for a linebacker. I feel like my mental makes up for what Ive lost athletically, if Ive lost anything at all. Definitely not as fast as I used to be.

Dunned

Antonio Garay as a Bears defensive tackle in 2006-2007 didnt make a huge impression. Hes made one now, as a member of the San Diego Chargers.

According to ESPNs Adam Shefter, Garay has been tagged with a 15,000 fine for hitting New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady below the left knee, an infraction highlighted three years ago when Bradys season was ended by a low hit. That gave rise to the so-called Tom Brady Rule about hitting QBs low.

Angelo revisited

Credit Zach Zaidman, Bears maven for WSCR-AM and WBBM-AM and FM, with a fun nugget, which also sparked some other observations.

Zach tweeted on @zachzaidman that Rex Grossman passed for 551 yards in the first two games of the 2006 season. Hes tossed for 596 in his first two starts of 2011 for the Washington Redskins.

Which brings up the funnier point Zach made: The Bears have anguished over the quarterback position for so long but GM Jerry Angelo has stabilized that elusive position in not one, not two, but three cities now: Chicago (Jay Cutler), Washington (Grossman) and Denver (Kyle Orton). Well, maybe not stabilized in Denver but you get the point.

Angelo draws a fair amount of fire for talent issues because of draft choices. But think about it: He stabilized right tackle, tight end and running back with No. 1 picks; they just happened to be the right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys (Marc Colombo, now Miami), tight end for the Carolina Panthers (Greg Olsen) and the tailback for the Cincinnati Bengals (Cedric Benson).

Two starting quarterbacks (Grossman, Orton, No. 1s traded for Cutler), a couple of starting tackles (Colombo, Carimi), tight end (Olsen), a guard (Chris Williams).

Im not sure what all this means, but it was fun to look at.

Mac and Spiegsing

The weekly check-in with WSCR-AM 670s The McNeil and Spiegel Show on Thursday started right where youd expect it to: Mike Martz.

I posited that the biggest question on offense coming into this season wasnt the wide receivers or the offensive line or Greg Olsen or Matt Fortes contract. It was whether the Bears offensive coordinator would ultimately un-learn the lessons of a 7-1 stretch last season and return to his base course of passing until there is a problem and then passing some more.

One shortcoming often pointed out in military leaders is that they are always preparing to fight the last war. I will never use war references to describe football, but the parallel here is that too often the discussion of an upcoming game focuses almost entirely on the game just played, not the one due in a few days.

But clues to the future do often lie in the past, and that proved to apply to Mike Martz, who reverted to the extreme version of his preference for the pass almost to the exclusion of the run. Martz admitted to going to his two-minute offense too soon, which casts a bit of a cloud over his judgment under pressure.

Mac and Spiegs agreed, with some talking about what options, if any, the Bears really have at this point for help on the line and at wide receiver. One possibility is moving Levi Horn up from the practice squad, and that could happen, although I didnt get that impression Wednesday talking to Horn.

The other is for the swing tackle to effectively be left guard Chris Williams, who has played both tackle spots and could fill in for Frank Omiyale at right or JMarcus Webb at left, for at game at least. Then Edwin Williams moves in at guard and the Bears hope they dont lose any more blockers.

The depth chart is getting thin at the top at wide receiver and the guys threw out a couple of names (GM Jerry Angelo did ask for solutions after all). I voted no on Randy Moss and thought that what you gain from a newcomer dropping into the Martz offense was a bad idea vs. relying on more from Sam Hurd and Dane Sanzenbacher. Plus, for the Bears not to make a move hints that Roy Williams is not going to be gone for much longer, even if Earl Bennett is because of his chest injury.

On to the Packers

But all of that fades in significance to the bigger problem, which is Green Bay.

Danny has nightmares of Clay Matthews draped all over Jay Cutler, and I agree: If that happens, and the game plan does not call for Omiyale and Webb to pound a Matthews with their 60-pound weight advantage, this will be another ugly game.

New OrleansDrew Brees and CarolinaCam Newton passed all over the Packers. Both lost.

And theres really the issue of Aaron Rodgers hanging over it all.

The Bears have played Rodgers arguably as well as any team in the NFL. At least they have generally kept games close and low-scoring against someone who can force a scorekeeper to turn to an abacus.

The trouble with the Bears and Rodgers is that he wins. And right now, against the Cover-2 scheme of Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli, Rodgers is a better quarterback than Brett Favre, The Later Years.

Rodgers is patient, where Favre was not in his closing Green Bay seasons. Against a defense that delights when quarterbacks become impatient, Favre was 2-6 as a Packer, and one of those was a throwaway to the Packers at the end of the 2006 season; Rodgers is 5-2, one of the losses was the penalty-fest in game one last season, and he wins games that matter.

Ill likely still go with a Bears win for the weekend (the Packers arent going to go 16-0). But as was the case in New Orleans, if this gets into a situation where the Bears are in a shootout...

So, how bout this Carolina game...

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.