Connor Barth

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

11-6connorbarth.jpg
USA Today

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

The Bears are 3-5 halfway through the regular season, and returned to Halas Hall on Monday after recharging during their off week. If this team is going to mount a serious shot at eight wins -- or, more ambitiously, a legitimate playoff push -- it'll need this group of players to step up in the second half of the season: 

1. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky

For all the talk of the different energy Trubisky brought to the offense, and for all the (fair) points about talent issues around him, Trubisky is 38/80 for 512 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and a rating of 66.2 through four games. The Bears were able to spend last week self-scouting and taking a bigger picture look at their rookie quarterback, and that could reveal some different ways to get Trubisky into a rhythm and help him be a more effective passer within this offense. Still, the most important thing Trubisky can do in these next eight games is not turn the ball over: It’s no coincidence the Bears are minus-43 when they turn the ball over more than two times and plus-six when they have two or fewer turnovers. 

2. [Insert a wide receiver here]

We’re not picking a specific receiver, but the Bears need at least one guy to step up from this group: Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Tre McBride, Tanner Gentry and Josh Bellamy. Inman hasn’t been active in a month but has the length (he’s 6-foot-3) to possibly this receiving corps go three-wide more than they did in the first half of the season. It’s easier to envision Wright — who hasn’t played much but has been the Bears’ most reliable receiver — being on the field more in the slot with Inman and Tre McBride/Tanner Gentry manning the outside. McBride showed against New Orleans he can be productive, especially when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains schemes to get him open in space. Wheaton could return from a groin injury at some point this month, and perhaps could re-discover the skills that made him an effective deep threat in 2014 and 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bears may not have a traditional go-to receiver in this group, but there could be enough players to cobble together a relatively effective unit in the final eight games. 

3. Tight ends Adam Shaheen and Daniel Brown

With Dion Sims on pace for an average pass-catching season for him (he had nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown; his 2013-2016 average was 18 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns), the Bears will need either or both of Shaheen and Brown to step in and fill Zach Miller’s pass-catching shoes. Brown may be more of a direct replacement — he had 16 catches for 124 yards in six games with the Bears last year — but Shaheen carries high expectations as a second-round pick and needs to be targeted more than the two times he was in the first half of the season. Miller is third on the Bears with 20 catches and 236 yards; replacing that production would go a long way toward the success of this offense in the second half. 

4. Defensive end Akiem Hicks

Hicks played at an All-Pro level in the first half, racking up seven sacks (which tied his career high set in 2016) while being a force against the run. He’s not like everyone else on a list of players that largely needs improvement — but he was the most important player on the Bears in the first half of the season, so it stands to reason he’ll keep that spot in the second half. 

5. Kicker Connor Barth

Barth has made only 64 percent of his field goal attempts, which ranks 27th among the 29 kickers who have attempted at least 10 field goals this season. Three of his misses have been from 40-49 yards, with his other miss on a 52-yard attempt. Barth is, for now, the Bears’ kicker, but he’ll have to be better for a team that likely will find itself in a number of close games in November and December. 

Instant reaction: Three plays that swung Bears' loss to Saints

1029_zach_miller.jpg
AP

Instant reaction: Three plays that swung Bears' loss to Saints

NEW ORLEANS — There were three key plays that were critical in swinging the Bears’ 20-12 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

— Kyle Fuller was flagged for being offside on what would’ve been a 32-yard Saints field goal. Instead, New Orleans got a first down and promptly scored the first touchdown against the Bears’ defense since Oct. 9 on Alvin Kamara’s eight-yard run. That swung four points in the Saints’ favor.

— Connor Barth missed a 48-yard field goal wide left late in the first half. The Bears should’ve done better to not put Barth in that situation — after getting to the 22-yard line with just over a minute left in the second quarter, Tarik Cohen lost three yards on a run, Mitchell Trubisky threw incomplete and then lost five yards when he was sacked. Getting in the end zone before halftime would’ve been big, but not getting those three points was another blow.

— Then there’s Zach Miller’s overturned touchdown, which unlike these previous two plays, was hardly something the Bears could control. Miller — who suffered a gruesome-looking leg injury on the play — appeared to make a catch on a perfectly thrown ball by Trubisky, and it was ruled a touchdown on the field. The play was put under review as Miller was being carted off, and it was overturned. It’s either a bad rule regarding a catch or a bad decision by the league’s replay officials (there’s nothing else Miller could’ve done while suffering that awful injury). Either way, the Bears had to settle for a field goal, missing out on four points in the process.

You can point to Miller’s overturned touchdown being the difference between 17-12 and 17-17 (had it stood, the Bears wouldn’t have needed to go for two on Cohen’s one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and could’ve tied the game with a PAT). But the point here is the Bears don’t have much margin for error to overcome a questionable officiating decision.

Credit needs to be given to Vic Fangio’s defense for holding the Saints to six points in the second half and forcing two fumbles (Jonathan Bullard and Adrian Amos). Those fumbles gave the Bears’ offense a chance, but Trubisky couldn’t lead a game-winning drive after being given the ball by Amos’ strip on his own 30-yard line with just over two minutes to go. The Bears had two downs to pick up a yard and get a first down around the two-minute warning; Trubisky threw incomplete on both passes, then effectively ended the game when he was picked off by Marshon Lattimore on the Bears’ next offensive possession.

The limitations of the Bears’ offense remain clear — especially as the offensive line was uneven after losing Kyle Long (hand) and Cody Whitehair (elbow) on Sunday. A rookie quarterback making only his fourth career start with an inconsistent-at-best receiver group struggled to move the ball, though again, the defense proved it can keep things close to the best of its ability. But those early mistakes were what really came back to bite the Bears on Sunday.

Bears grades: Mitchell Trubisky does his job, special teamers do not

Bears grades: Mitchell Trubisky does his job, special teamers do not

The story of this game was the Bears had control of the game until two massive special teams gaffes allowed the Ravens to get back into the game, so that's what plays out in these grades:

QUARTERBACKS: B

The Bears didn’t ask Mitchell Trubisky to do much, with the rookie only throwing 16 passes in his second career start. Trubisky completed eight of those attempt for 113 yards and threw a 27-yard touchdown to Dion Sims. More importantly, Trubisky didn’t throw an interception. He did lose a fumble on a sack-strip where he said he moved off his first progression too quickly, which caused him to not see a blitzing Lardarius Webb. But even while executing a scaled-back gameplan on the road, Trubisky still made a few impressive plays: His athletic recovery of a high Cody Whitehair snap prevented Baltimore from scoring a touchdown, and his 18-yard completion to Kendall Wright set up Connor Barth’s walk-off field goal. 

RUNNING BACKS: B+

Jordan Howard was excellent, carrying a career high 36 times for 167 yards, with 53 of those coming on a 53-yard run in overtime that set up the Bears’ win. But even before that, Howard was running hard, showing good vision and, for the second straight game, attacked the edge well. Tarik Cohen gained 34 yards on 14 carries and threw a 21-yard touchdown to Zach Miller that was set up by repeated runs to the edge where Baltimore’s safeties crashed toward the line of scrimmage. Dinging this grade enough to not be an A: Cohen losing a fumble late in the third quarter that turned into a Ravens field goal, and Howard inexplicably running out of bounds to stop the clock with 23 seconds left. Howard’s lucky the Ravens didn’t make that count, a la Marion Barber against the Denver Broncos in 2011?

WIDE RECEIVERS: D-

It’s probably more of a coincidence that the Bears barely used their wide receivers in their two wins (four targets, two catches, 26 yards vs. Baltimore; four targets, one catch, nine yards vs. Pittsburgh), but it was another quiet day for this group. Kendall Wright is clearly the Bears’ best receiver, and by a percentage of Trubisky’s attempts, he was targeted on about 19 percent of them (Sims led with four targets). But Tanner Gentry (one target, no receptions) and Tre McBride (no targets) weren’t a factor in the gameplan, and McBride was guilty of an illegal block above the waist (though the Bears still scored on that drive). One other note: Wright, in addition to his two catches for 36 yards, delivered a punishing block on longtime Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs. The Bears were pushed around by Suggs a bit on Sunday, so they probably enjoyed that one.

TIGHT ENDS: B-

Sims and Miller were the recipients of the Bears’ two offensive touchdowns on Sunday, with Sims’ 27-yard grab an impressive display of strength to rip Trubisky’s pass away from Ravens safety Tony Jefferson. But Sims struggled in the run game against Suggs, who soundly beat him for losses of six and seven yards on a pair of plays. With two minutes left, the Bears went with Sims, Miller and Adam Shaheen (as well as fullback Michael Burton) and couldn’t pave a way for Jordan Howard to convert a third-and-one, which preceded Michael Campanaro’s 77-yard punt return score. 

OFFENSIVE LINE: B-

The Bears’ offensive line largely did a good job blocking for Howard and Cohen, but Whitehair had two more bad snaps (one didn’t count because of a timeout) that nearly cost the Bears. That’s become a legitimate concern in his game. Bobby Massie (holding) was the only offensive lineman flagged for a penalty on Sunday, which was a nice improvement from Monday night.  

DEFENSIVE LINE: B+

Another week, another dominant game from Akiem Hicks, who bullied third-string Ravens right guard Jermaine Eluemunor and recorded his fifth sack of the year while doing well against the run. Eddie Goldman notched six tackles and played one of his best games of the year, too. Mitch Unrein made a key play in overtime to hold Javorius Allen to two yards on second-and-five in overtime, and on the next play, the defensive line got good pressure on Joe Flacco to force an incompletion. The Ravens punted, and the Bears won the game on their next drive. 

LINEBACKERS: B+

Danny Trevathan made his presence known after his one-week suspension with six tackles and a sack, and Christian Jones — outside of an unnecessary roughness penalty that looked like a questionable flag — forced a fumble (which Trevathan recovered) and tied for the team lead with eight tackles. A Trevathan-Jones inside linebacker pairing looks like it can sustain itself until Nick Kwiatkoski returns, possibly by the end of the month. Pernell McPhee notched a sack in his return to Baltimore and drew a holding penalty in the third quarter. Leonard Floyd didn’t show up in the box score but he did draw a holding penalty in the first quarter with a good pass rush. 

SECONDARY: A

Adrian Amos, knowing a lot of the attention would be on him, said after the game he’d give the game ball to Kyle Fuller. But both players deserve kudos for their work on Sunday: Amos tied for the team lead with eight tackles and returned his first career interception 90 yards for a touchdown; Fuller played the part of a shutdown corner, allowing five catches on 15 targets for only 43 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, with three pass break-ups (Amos had two PBUs, too). Fuller and Amos' tackling was solid, too. Bryce Callahan returned his second quarter interception 52 yards to the Baltimore 20-yard line, which set up Cohen’s touchdown pass to Miller. A ding here: Eddie Jackson took a poor angle on Alex Collins, allowing the Ravens running back to pick up 30 yards instead of about 12. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: F

Maybe Bobby Rainey’s 96-yard kick return shouldn’t have counted, but that it came down to whether or not Josh Bellamy grazed Rainey’s shin is still a problem. And Michael Campanaro’s 77-yard game-tying punt return was inexcusable — yes, the Bears didn’t have special teams ace Sherrick McManis on the field for it due to an injury, but that cannot happen in that situation of a game. Amos checked into a max protect look, and Pat O'Donnell's booming punt gave Campanaro plenty of room to return it. Cre'Von LeBlanc, replacing McManis, struggled in protection and fell down twice on the play. Those two return scores were enough to give this unit an F despite Connor Barth winning the game with a 40-yard field goal. 

COACHING: D+

The Bears put an emphasis on cleaning up the sloppy play that plagued this team for the first five weeks of the season, and for the first three quarters, it looked like that emphasis paid off. But the last 18 or so minutes of regulation were brutal, with the Bears fumbling three times (losing two), committing five penalties and squandering an 11-point advantage after Amos’ pick-six. Allowing a 77-yard punt return and successful two-point conversion when up eight is horrendous. Howard running out of bounds with 23 seconds left was a mental error that John Fox would’ve had to answer for had the Bears lost because of it. On the positive side of things here: Dowell Loggains’ gameplan, while conservative, wound up working against a solid Ravens defense, and he deserves credit for designing yet another successful trick play. Without those two special teams mistakes, the Bears' offense would've done what it needed to control the game.