Wild finish as Cutler leads Bears to first win of the season


Wild finish as Cutler leads Bears to first win of the season

Same old Jay? Not this time.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was having a near flawless day until disaster struck in the form of future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. Stop if you've heard that before. But luckily for Cutler and the Bears, Cutler atoned for his error to lead Chicago to its first victory of the season.

Woodson, who once as a member of the Green Bay Packers stated that Cutler will always throw one to the opposing defense, picked off Cutler late in the fourth quarter with the Bears poised to take a two-score lead.

However, after a Raiders field goal with 2:05 remaining, Cutler marched the Bears 48 yards down the field to set up a game-winning Robbie Gould 49-yard field goal as Chicago beat Oakland, 22-20, at Soldier Field Sunday afternoon.

And the Bears offense ended the game just how how they started.

Operating like a well-oiled machine on its opening drive, despite losing starting center Will Montgomery to an ankle injury on the game's first play from scrimmage, the Bears easily moved the ball 80 yards down the field in six plays.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Cutler showed no rust from a strained hamstring and completed four of his five passes on the drive. Cutler helped the Bears grab their first opening-drive touchdown of the season when he found Eddie Royal for a seven-yard score. It was Royal's first touchdown as a member of the Bears and first from Cutler since the duo connected against the Jets in Nov. 2008 as members of the Denver Broncos. 

After showing signs of life in a Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Bears defense carried its momentum from the get-go, holding the Raiders to a measly 22 yards of offense in the first quarter. 

However, after a bad punt by Spencer Lannnig - filling in for the injured Pat O'Donnell - the Raiders took over at midfield and found a crack in the Bears' defense. Derek Carr continued to show signs of growth when he delivered a strike to rookie sensation Amari Cooper for a 26-yard score to put Oakland in front.

The Raiders defense immediately put the ball back in the hands of its offense when they pounced on a Cutler-Matt Slauson fumbled snap. Just three plays later, Carr swung a pass out to second-string running back Roy Helu Jr., who put Bears inside linebacker Christian Jones in spin cycle for a four-yard touchdown reception.

[MORE: Injuries in win over Raiders fell two more Bears starters]

But Cutler, just like he did before his injury against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, continued to show signs of improvement in Adam's Gase's offense.

Cutler engineered a seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive, culminating in a five-yard touchdown reception by tight end Martellus Bennett late in the second half. The Bears took the lead just before the half on a 19-yard Gould field goal after the defense gifted the Bears a prime scoring opportunity from a Pernell McPhee interception of Carr.

Before Gould's game-winning field, the Bears and Raiders traded field goals in each quarter of the second half.

The Bears travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in Week 5 next Sunday.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

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.