Bears

Victor Cruz reportedly cut as Bears seek solutions at wide receiver

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AP

Victor Cruz reportedly cut as Bears seek solutions at wide receiver

Before Mitchell Trubisky put together an outstanding preseason, Victor Cruz was the most well-known player on the Bears. He still might’ve been even as Trubisky picked up some national attention over the last month.

But Cruz didn’t produce like the salsa-dancing Pro Bowler he was with the New York Giants. On Friday, his fate was sealed: The receiver-strapped Bears will release the 30-year-old Cruz, according to multiple reports. Cruz suffered a knee injury during Thursday’s preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns.

Cruz didn’t flash much in practice, and he only caught six passes for 37 yards with a touchdown in four preseason games. And that Cruz played all four preseason games, almost exclusively with the Bears’ second/third/fourth-string offense, makes the team’s decision to cut him not all that surprising.

He was solidly behind Kendall Wright on the team’s slot receiver depth chart and, because of that, only saw a handful of first-team reps. In the all-important third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, he dropped a pass from Trubisky that hit him in the chest.

Ideally, the Bears would’ve had a reason to keep Cruz and his sage-like wisdom around their receiver room. Kevin White — who, after Cameron Meredith’s injury, became one of the most important players on the Bears — praised Cruz’s presence during July and August.

“He’s a good vet, so he sees a lot of things that other people don’t see,” White said. “We talk one-on-one off the field so for a guy like that to be around is tremendous for me.” 

Despite failing to break free of the backup/third-string offense during training camp, Cruz remained confident he still had “it” after missing 26 games in 2014 and 2015 due to a serious calf injury. Whether he gets another chance to prove it remains to be seen, but being unable to make a roster of a team that desperately needs receivers doesn’t seem like a good sign.

“I still feel like the quickness is there,” Cruz said on Tuesday. “I still feel like the play-making ability is there. Now it’s just to continue to show that each and every time I’m on the field whether it will be practice or on game day.”

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5. 

How a tired Bears defense shut down Cam Newton and dominated the Carolina Panthers

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USA Today

How a tired Bears defense shut down Cam Newton and dominated the Carolina Panthers

The Bears asked a lot of their defense on Sunday, and every single unit delivered in a big way. 

Midway through the third quarter, on the 11th play of a drive nearing the red zone, Eddie Goldman stuffed Cam Newton on fourth-and-2 to keep the Carolina Panthers from scoring while the Bears’ offense was sputtering to a string of three-and-outs. Akiem Hicks continued what should be a Pro Bowl season with a sack, a hurry and two tackles for a loss. Mitch Unrein teamed up with Goldman to record a sack and played well against the run. 

Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee each recorded sacks and consistently disrupted Newton. Danny Trevathan dropped Newton, too, and picked off a pass. Christian Jones was rock-solid next to Trevathan, helping limit Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey to 58 yards on 21 carries. 

Prince Amukamara tipped a pass intended for Kelvin Benjamin that fell into the waiting arms of Eddie Jackson for a 76-yard pick six; the rookie safety, of course, had that 75-yard fumble return score that set the tone for a dominant defensive day. Kyle Fuller continued to play like a shutdown corner, and Adrian Amos continued his solid play since stepping in for an injured Quintin Demps. 

This name-by-name breakdown is deserved for these players not only for their production, but for playing this well while the Bears’ defense was on the field for 38:35 and 69 snaps. 

Were these players tired?

“Heck yeah, we were tired,” Hicks said. 

But did it affect how they played?

“No,” Floyd said. “To be honest with you we were excited to go back out there, keep on executing. We just felt good today, just playing on a high level and hitting on all cylinders.”

The Bears’ defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since Jerrick McKinnon gashed them for a 58-yard run in the third quarter of Oct. 9’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive struggles this year, but the Panthers — led by Newton, McCaffrey and Benjamin — have plenty of playmakers on offense. Newton and the Carolina offensive line were bullied for five sacks and 11 hurries, McCaffrey was largely bottled up, and Benjamin managed three catches on six targets. 

“We want to be on the field, the defense,” Trevathan said. “That’s our job. When we’re put in a tough situation, we’ve got to rise, take that as a challenge. Guys coming in our backfield trying to run in our end zone? No, it’s not going to happen. It’s an attitude and it’s an execution of the plays called and being on the same page, having fun out there and making plays."

The message from the Bears’ defensive players after Sunday’s game was less about their accomplishments, though, and more about what else they can do. But the sense is this defense believes it can be the reason why the Bears can blow past their 2016 win total, which they’ve already matched. 

Still got a long way to go,” McPhee said. “Just keep building that chemistry, that bond. We got a long way to go. We ain’t really done nothing yet. It’s great, now I love it, but we just gotta stay focused, forget about this game and move on to the Saints and go take that.

“… We got a special group, man. We just gotta keep believing in the system and keep holding each other accountable and take it one play, one game at a time.”

This was already a confident group going into Week 7 — Hicks said the Bears’ defense had one of its best weeks of practice leading up to facing the Panthers — but that belief will surely grow after Sunday. If the Bears’ defense can play this well, against a good offense, while being on the field as much as they were, there’s no reason to think this level of success can’t continue. 

“We’re trying to wake the city up, bring the city back to loving the Chicago Bears,” Floyd said. “We’re just going to keep fighting, keep going in and executing. We’re looking forward to next Sunday.”