Nick Kwiatkoski

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

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USA TODAY

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

A month ago, the Bears could reasonably describe their depth at inside linebacker as strong, and maybe as the strongest unit on the team. 

But on Monday, the Bears will be without the trio of players who comprised that depth: Jerrell Freeman is on injured reserve with a pectoral tear; Nick Kwiatkoski’s pec injury isn’t as serious but will keep him sidelined; and Danny Trevathan will serve his one-game suspension for the helmet-to-helmet hit he leveled on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams last week. 

Trevathan will be back next week and Kwiatkoski appears to have avoided injured reserve, meaning he can be expected back at some point this season. But without them, the Bears will roll with Christian Jones, John Timu and Jonathan Anderson (the latter two began the season on the practice squad) against the Minnesota Vikings. 

“It's a concern, but at least we're playing with guys that were here that were in camp,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “That was the one position on defense, when we went to the 53 and practice squad where we did have guys, we had four active and two on practice squad and now all six of them have played, so (we) feel good about that in that we're not having somebody in off the street having to learn a new system and I think they'll all do fine.”

Jones and Timu have seen a decent amount of snaps alongside Trevathan this year: In the last three weeks, Jones’ defensive snap counts are 47, 36 and 28 while Timu played 17 snaps against Pittsburgh and 19 against Green Bay (Anderson has not played a defensive snap since Week 2). 

Timu, who’s played in 20 games over the last three years, will handle the defensive calls on Monday.

“We’re confident in John,” Fangio said. “John knows our defense. He’s been here for three years. The game’s not too big for him. He loves to play. He is instinctive and smart. So we think he’ll go in there and do fine.”

Added linebacker Pernell McPhee: “Timu’s a very good player, a very smart player, a very patient player. I think his play on the field shows how much he’s studying and how much he’s really locked in throughout the week.”

The Bears may be without two other starters, too: Saturday’s final injury report listed outside linebacker Willie Young (tricep) as doubtful, while cornerback Marcus Cooper is questionable with back spasms. Going back further, the Bears are also without veteran safety Quintin Demps, who handled a lot of the communication duties for this defense. 

But the Vikings will be without rookie Dalvin Cook (74 carries, 354 yards, 2 TDs), who tore his ACL last week. Backups Jerick McKinnon (2.6 yards/attempt) and Latavius Murray (2.7 yards/attempt) haven’t inspired much fear in 2017. And the expectation at Halas Hall is that quarterback Sam Bradford will start, though he’s listed as questionable on the Vikings’ final injury report. 

So in the matchup of the Bears' defense against the Vikings' offense, the group that gets the most out of its depth guys may be the one that swings that battle on Monday. 

“Any time you lose a starter — I think there's a reason they're the starter — but you know I feel good about our backups,” coach John Fox said. “I feel good about the replacement people we've had in there. We've got more depth this season than we've had in the past so I feel confident in the people we'll have out there and the options we have.”

Another season-ending injury for Bears? This one could further weaken depth at linebacker

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AP

Another season-ending injury for Bears? This one could further weaken depth at linebacker

How can the Bears' blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get any worse?

It seems the Bears could be looking at another season-ending injury to a key player, with one Monday report saying that linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski could be lost for the year with a pec injury.

The loss of Kwiatkoski could be disastrous for an already thinned linebacking corps, which saw Jerrell Freeman placed on injured reserve last week with a pec injury of his own. With Freeman down, Kwiatkoski was pressed into starting duty. Now the Bears might need to go further down the depth chart for Week 3's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and far beyond.

Kwiatkoski played in 14 games last season, starting seven and making 32 total tackles. He had four total tackles in the first two games of this season.

Injuries are quickly becoming a main storyline for the Bears once again. They've been hurt by injuries in recent seasons, and this year is off to a similar start. Significant injuries to Cameron Meredith and Kevin White will seemingly keep the Bears' top two receivers off the field for the rest of the season. Kyle Long has yet to play on the offensive line, and Josh Sitton left Sunday's loss to the Bucs with a ribs injury. Now the Bears could be down to their third-string middle linebacker just two games into the 2017 campaign.

Why the Bears are confident Nick Kwiatkoski can succeed in place of Jerrell Freeman

Why the Bears are confident Nick Kwiatkoski can succeed in place of Jerrell Freeman

The Bears would ideally go through the 2017 season without any significant injuries, but that's not the reality of a sport as violent as football. 

As the team scrambles to find replacemensts for Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, though, they can feel confident in the guy who will step in for inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. 

That shouldn’t make Freeman’s torn pectoral muscle any less disappointing, given he was voted a team captain and was the Bears’ most productive tackler (10) against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. It’s unlikely Nick Kwiatkoski will be better than Freeman, a six-year veteran with 70 career starts. 

But it’s also unlikely Kwiatkoski will be significantly worse than Freeman. He may be just as good by the end of the year. 

“He'll play a big role, and I have all the confidence that he'll do fine,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He came along last year as he played more and more. He's had a good camp for us this year and I have confidence in him to go in there and do a good job and nothing will change.”

Coming from Fangio, whose press conferences have a no-B.S., honest tone to them, that’s high praise. The Bears liked what they saw from Kwiatkoski last year, when he filled in for an injured Danny Trevathan for the final seven games of the season and totaled 32 tackles, two pass breakups, one sack and one forced fumble. 

“I think I feel a lot better about Nick right now than I probably I did in that Dallas game (his NFL debut) last season,” coach John Fox said. 

Kwiatkoski said he’s making decisions quicker and playing faster his second year in the league. Despite a concussion he suffered in August, Kwiatkoski participated in more of training camp this year than he did in 2016, which has helped him get ahead of the curve, too. 

“It’s a lot different this year,” Kwiatkoski said. “Just being able to do camp this year and getting the experience I did in the preseason, I definitely way ahead of the game than I did last year.”

Kwiatkoski will parachute into a front seven that limited the Falcons’ dynamic duo of running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — to 53 yards on 20 carries in Week 1. Against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense without suspended running back Doug Martin, stopping the run will be key in the Bears’ efforts to pressure quarterback Jameis Winston and, ideally, force throws into coverage that could be picked off. 

“He’s ready,” Trevathan said. “It’s going to moving fast, but he’s a young guy who’s going to be ready.”