Bears

Who is on hot seat if Bears' struggles continue?

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Who is on hot seat if Bears' struggles continue?

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011
Posted: 10:26 a.m. Updated: 5:48 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Sick bay

Marion Barbers eagerly awaited Bears debut may be at hand. The physical No. 2 tailback was able to practice in full Wednesday, the first time for that since he injured a calf muscle in the Tennessee Titans preseason game that has idled him on game days ever since.

The secondary also received a huge boost with the return to full participation of safeties Chris Harris (hamstring) and Major Wright (head), potentially giving the Bears their full complement of safeties in time for a Carolina offense in which two of the top three receivers (not including running back Jonathan Stewart) are tight ends Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey.

We have to play better at safety, its kind of as simple as that, coach Lovie Smith said. Youre always anxious to get your starters back out there. And for us, Chris Harris gives us an awful lot, another worldly veteran back there. Big hitter that can make plays. And of course getting Major back. Those guys did a good job. Brandon especially is making progress. But we want to have the entire group on hand this week.

The offensive line has been without two starters since the end of the first half in the New Orleans game. Thats when right tackle Gabe Carimi went down with a knee injury and joined right guard Lance Louis (ankle injury vs. Atlanta) on the sidelines.

Louis was active for the Green Bay game but only for emergency purposes. Chris Spencer started and played the entire game. This week Louis is a better bet to return as his ankle improves.

Lance Louis had a good day, coach Mike Tice said Wednesday. He was working hard and well keep getting him in there and see how hes doing and build the confidence up in his leg. Hopefully as the week progresses hell be more crisp and sharp and continue to get better. Coach Smith will make a decision on which direction were going to go.

It wasnt personal....

In the first game of last preseason, with the Bears adjusting to a new coordinator (Mike Martz) and his offense, they went into San Diego to open the preseason against the Chargers. Eight plays into the game, under a hail of blitzing from the Chargers, coaches pulled quarterback Jay Cutler.

The San Diego defensive coordinator: Ron Rivera, now head coach of the Carolina Panthers, whom the Bear host next Sunday. One belief at the time was that Rivera was intent on embarrassing the team that had let him go as defensive coordinator after the 2006 Super Bowl season.

Not so, says the architect of that evening of preseason mayhem.

One of the things we were doing, and if you watch all of last years preseason when I was in San Diego, we blitzed every game because we wanted to be a blitzing defense, Rivera said. We wanted to be aggressive. We wanted to attack people and it paid off.

It did indeed. The Chargers finished No. 1 in total yardage defense. They were No. 2 in sacks per pass play. They had 47 sacks, compared to the NFL average of 35.

From the day we came into mini-camp in the 010 season, we came in blitzing, Rivera said. Its what coach Turner wanted me to do. It was the mentality we wanted to develop. It just so happened we played the Bears in week one. The following week we played Dallas and did the same thing against New Orleans. That was just really what we wanted to do.
Who's on the hot seat?

ProFootballTalk.com is a must-read (usually quite a few times a day) for whos who doing whats what around the NFL, and Mike Florios hit on The McNeil and Spiegel Show at 10 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670 is always worth the time. Mike obviously tracks more than just the Bears, which means he puts the local gridders into an NFL perspective.

Mike posed the question of who will be on a hot seat Jerry Angelo or Lovie Smith if things continue to sour. If they struggle or lose to Carolina, theres going to be real trouble for Lovie Smith or Jerry Angelo, Mike suggested.

Not sure how true that will be internally, since the Bears have had four winning seasons in the past six. But Halas Hall likely will become an increasingly grumpy place to be.

Mike also pointed a questioning finger at O.C. Mike Martz, who is not turning the offense in any substantively positive direction. The reason: He wants to dictate to the defense without the horses to dictate, Mike said. That stubbornness has to go away.

Sundays Carolina game is a matchup between two 1-2 teams, but one with questions-in-waiting (Bears) and the other with a variety of axes to grind (Ron Rivera, Greg Olsen). Panthers-Bears is going to have some subplots that make this a compelling story nationally, Mike said.

The Detroit Lions are starting to make Bears fans more and more nervous but that could escalate exponentially after Sunday. The Lions travel to Dallas, and Mike noted that the defining eye-popper for the 85 Bears was the 44-0 annihilation in Dallas of the Cowboys. So as far as the Lions, you go into Dallas and come out with that pelt on the wall, you will definitely have everyones undivided attention.

Ill check in with Mac and Spiegs at our regular Thursday 10 a.m. spot. By then well have heard from Martz, Rivera, Cutler, Cam Newton and Mike Tice. Shouldnt be too hard finding a few things to noodle on.

Crammin Cam

Newton has spent time privately talking with Tom Brady about the craft of quarterback. He enlisted Warren Moon as an advisor even before the draft. For all of his athleticism, he has quietly studied the game and the people who play it right. The results, for a rookie quarterback, have been jaw-dropping.

The one who is perhaps least surprised is Newton. He was listening and it shows.

I admire the guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, who is a professional at what they do, Newton said. No offense to those guys, but they might not run the fastest 40, they may not jump the highestthey might not jump the farthest in the broad jump, but I guarantee you from what I've heard from their teams, you're not going to outwork them.

They're in the film study or they're watching film before the offensive coordinator is watching film. So I respect somebody that treats their job they way they go about handling it each and every day."
Yeah, but is he allowed to audible?

Not Carolina quarterback Newton. Tight end Greg Olsen.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera remarked recently that the former Bears tight end is a particularly cerebral player. His quarterback isnt quite so sure about that.

Uhhmm, Newton began, well, knowing Greg, he probably thinks that he is. And he makes every situation bigger than it really is. Numerous times, in each game, Greg's moment has been something that everybody laughs at.

Greg just thinks he's the guy that changes plays, and he over-thinks it while we're in a timeout. Just talking, you know: What's the play? Well, you know Cam, if they give us this...

Newton gently has to remind his guy, Greg, I've been practicing all week, too, I know this thing. He thinks he's the coach off the field, which is a good thing. You need guys like that, and that just shows you his professionalism for the game.

Olsen was traded last offseason to the Panthers despite catching 54 passes in 2008, second to Matt Forte, and 60 in 2009, leading the team, under then-coordinator Ron Turner. He was deemed a bad fit for the Mike Martz offense, the Bears declined his request for a contract extension and he was dealt.

Through three games Olsen has caught 12 passes, projecting out to a 64-catch season.
Not quite Ditka-Ryan II

This wont quite be Mike Ditka vs. Buddy Ryan but Lovie Smith vs. Ron Rivera does have some flavor beyond the normal coaching matchup. Ryan left by choice (he was never tired of reminding Ditka that hed been hired by George Halas, not Ditka), where Rivera simply was dis-invited to remain as Bears defensive coordinator after an assortment of differences with Smith.

But dont look for acrimony. The game obviously is of epic significance to Rivera, who was drafted by the Bears in 1984, played for them until the arrival of Dave Wannstedt, worked as an unpaid quality control assistant just to stay around the organization and get some experience with coaching, and came back as defensive coordinator under Smith. You never completely forget who gave you a major career break, which Smith did.

Rivera expressly said that this was not a normal game for him, which is understandable both from the standpoint of his Bears connections and also because he is exactly three games into his first job as head coach.

Smith has been at this a while and its been five years since he and Rivera split up. So Smith isnt looking at this as Lovie vs. Chico.

I dont think Ron is going to be out there but his football team is doing a heck of a job, Smith said. They lost a couple of tough games before this one Sunday. They found a way to win. Their record is the same as ours right now. Its a football game we both need to win.
Remember him?

If Matt Forte is wondering whether his offense went off and left him (right when he was hoping for a contract extension), how must DeAngelo Williams feel? Prior to the season the Carolina tailback signed a five-year, 43 million extension with 21 million guaranteed. Now Williams has all of 61 rushing yards on 27 carries and hes third on the Panthers in rushing behind Newton and Stewart.

The Panther have been led in rushing by each one for a game, none for much. Williams led in the week-one-loss to Arizona with 30 yards. Newton ran a team-high 53 yards in the loss to Green Bay. Stewarts 59 led in the win over Jacksonville.

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.