John Mullin

Bears TE situation reaching crisis point, leaving offense virtually short-handed

Bears TE situation reaching crisis point, leaving offense virtually short-handed

While attention has focused on troubles with the offensive line in the search for what’s wrong with the Bears offense, a situation elsewhere is approaching crisis proportions, one with implications in all phases of an offense struggling to find an identity, not just yards and points.

Tight end.

Legendary offense architect Bill Walsh wrote and often said that the tight-end position was a little-understood but hugely significant key to his West Coast concepts, ideally a player who was a built-in mismatch working the seams of a defense and a force blocking in the run game.

“They move around and do a lot of different things,” said coach Matt Nagy. “So it gives you an advantage to be able to get, ‘what defense are they going to play in? Are they going to play sub? Are they going to play base?’ That's where the cat-and-mouse part comes in as coaches every week.”

For the 2019 Bears, tight end has been more mouse than cat, however.

For a variety of reasons, the tight end position – or rather, “positions,” since the Bears have used roster spots on five different ones through just five games already – has become a sinkhole. The absence of production and impact is approaching the levels from the days when Mike Martz ruled as offensive coordinator and relegated the position to irrelevance, getting Greg Olsen out of town and ushering in Brandon Manumaleuna in.

But while Walsh descendants Sean McVay in Los Angeles, Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson (Zach Ertz) and Andy Reid in Kansas City (Travis Kelce) continue to operate top-10 offenses with tight-end impact, the offense of Matt Nagy has gotten next to nothing approaching that despite the organization having invested draft and financial capital and roster spots in the position.

None of the five tight ends who’ve cycled through this season has more than Trey Burton’s 11 receptions. No tight end has delivered run or pass blocking; quite the opposite in fact.

It is a new problem for Nagy, who saw Philadelphia tight ends average nearly 60 receptions and a half-dozen TD’s per season over his last four years as an Eagles assistant under Reid. In Kansas City, the offense of which Nagy was a part averaged more than 96 tight-end receptions over Nagy’s final four seasons there.

Far behind the NFL curve

Whether the problems have been talent, injuries (offseason and in-season), quarterback change or a combination, the Bears are effectively playing a man short on offense with their tight end crisis.

Ten NFL tight ends have by themselves currently as many or more receptions as the Bears five tight ends combined (22).

Austin Hooper  Falcons    42

Darren Waller  Raiders    37

Mark Andrews Ravens    34

Zach Ertz          Phila.        33

Evan Engram   Giants       33

Travis Kelce     Chiefs       32

George Kittle    49ers        31

Will Dissly         Seahawks        23

Jason Witten    Cowboys 22

Greg Olsen       Panthers  22

Twenty-nine tight ends have as many or more receptions as Burton. Two teams (Houston, Tampa Bay) have two tight ends with more than Burton’s 11. The Baltimore Ravens, including Andrews, have three.

Delanie Walker Titans      21

Gerald Everett Rams        20

Tyler Higbee    Rams        16

Jared Cook      Saints       15

Darren Fells     Texans     15

Tyler Eifert        Bengals   15

TJ Hockenson Lions        15

Jimmy Graham Packers  14

Vance McDonald Steelers 14

Jack Doyle       Colts         14

James O’Shaughnessy Jaguars 14

Noah Fant        Broncos   14

O.J. Howard     Bucs 13

Geoff Swaim    Jaguars    13

Jordan Akins    Texans     13

Hayden Hurst   Ravens    13

Cameron Brate Bucs        12

Hunter Henry   Chargers  12

Nick Boyle        Ravens    11

Bears

Trey Burton               11

Adam Shaheen        7

Ben Braunecker       2

J.P. Holtz                   2

Bradley Sowell 0      

Burton’s $8 million average annual cost ranks eighth among tight ends, according to numbers compiled by Overthecap.com and Sportrac.com.

Burton was fourth among Bears with 54 receptions last season, six for touchdowns. But he was inactive for the playoff loss because of a reported groin strain, a sports-hernia injury that required offseason surgery. He suffered a second, unrelated groin injury early this season.

Shaheen was set back by injuries annually (chest in 2017, foot/ankle in 2018, back in 2019) but is now approaching “bust” status, a second-round draft choice who has played more than half the snaps only once in his 24-game, three-year career.

Braunecker has been a four-phase special teams player. Holtz was a free-agent pickup who has seen spot duty. Sowell, a converted tackle, has played 11 total snaps in what to this point has been a failed position change.

For the Chicago offense, no tight end has secured the position and the offense has suffered for it.

“It's a very important position,” Nagy insisted, “because in our offense, Trey [Burton], for example, that's our ‘adjustor.’ It's not just the Saints or anybody else. If you go ‘Tiger,’ or ‘12’ (one back, two tight ends) personnel, are [the defenses] going to go base or nickel? So that's where that piece comes in. With Trey, he's able to do well vs. man and well vs. zone so it just helps us out.”

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With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With apologies to Khalil Mack, the Bears defense on Tuesday officially lost the player it could arguably least afford to lose when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was placed on injured reserve with the elbow injury suffered early in the loss to the Oakland Raiders in London.

Perhaps “lost” isn’t entirely accurate, since “he’s going to be with us in meetings and for game-planning and on the sidelines on game days,” said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. “You’re going to feel his presence. But we’ve got a good group with guys who can step into that role and play well.

“He’ll be a voice on the sideline, the classroom, everything we do. His personality will still be here… . He’s part of us, the Bears family, this organization.”

But great units are a combination of personalities as well as talents, and Hicks has been a defining presence both on and off the football field since he was signed as a free agent in 2016.

Hicks has been a vital influence with young players. Hicks and veteran defensive end Willie Young began a weekly dinner out with then-rookie Leonard Floyd. When the Bears landed a late-round gem in defensive lineman Bilal Nichols in the 2018 draft, Hicks was again a presence.

“He pretty much molded me into the young player I am,” Nichols said. “It just hurt to see him go through that and catch those types of breaks because I know how hard he worked.”

But the absence of Hicks projects to have its obviously most serious impact on the field, at a time when the Bears are struggling to stay within hailing distance of leaders in both the NFC North as well as the NFC in general.

The absence of any consistent offensive play underscores the importance of the defense remaining among the NFL’s best.

Linchpin figure

In a league where the margin between division leader and missing the playoffs is sometimes alarmingly thin, the Bears will be wary of players feeling some need to break their assignment integrity and take out-of-scheme risks to make a play because of missing Hicks.

“I remember last year when we lost Khalil Mack for the Buffalo game and Jets game, and we had some guys who came in and filled in those shoes and did pretty well,” Rodgers said. “We expect the thing. The ‘next guy up’ mentality is real. There’s a reason why we build the roster the way we build it.

“We didn’t have Akiem for the Minnesota game and I thought we played pretty well in that game. It’s all about understanding what your job is and what your role is, how to execute and execute under pressure, and do what we do. We’re not asking anybody to go outside the framework of the defense or do anything extra special. We’re asking you to do your job because you’re one of 11 in the defense.”

It is Rodgers’ task to help players modulate and avoid trying to do too much. The proverbial “take your game to another level,” which is hugely insulting because it presumes a player wasn’t giving the max previously.

And Rodgers is correct, that the Bears without Hicks allowed their season-low points (6) and second-lowest yardage total (222) of the season in the win over Minnesota. That game was one of only two in which the Vikings (4-2) failed to score 28 or more points, and whether the Bears could throttle Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and that offense again so thoroughly without Hicks would be questionable.

But the fact remains that Hicks rates as the central figure on a very good defense. Without Hicks for most of the Oakland game, the Bears allowed their highest point (24) and yardage (398) totals of the season and allowed more rushing yards (169) than in any other two 2019 games combined.

The Bears were a top-10 defense before Mack arrived at the start of last season. With Hicks missing all of one game (Minnesota), most of another (Oakland) and playing less than half the snaps in a third with a knee injury (Washington), they rank sixth in yards and third in points allowed.

The Bears ranked a dismal 20th in both points and yards allowed in 2015, the year before the Hicks signing. They immediately improved to 15th in scoring defense in 2016, then into the top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2017.

The NFL then took notice last season, with Hicks selected to his first Pro Bowl and being given the fourth-highest rating among defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus.

One player CAN make that much difference

That the Bears performed well without all or part of Hicks vs. Washington and Minnesota does suggest encouragement, particularly if Nichols can play well with a hand injury that cost him the last three games.

The Oakland game points in an entirely opposite direction. It falls to the Bears collectively to keep the Hicks loss from having the kind of devastating effect that a handful of season-ending injuries had on past Bears defenses:

DT Henry Melton, 2013

The 2013 Bears broke fast (3-0) under new coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The defense and a portion of the season collapsed when Melton, voted to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and franchise-tagged by the Bears in 2013, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in game three against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A defense that included Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman allowed 24.7 ppg and 330 ypg for the three games Melton played. Over the final 13 games those indicators ballooned to 31.1 ppg. and 409 yards.

MLB Brian Urlacher, 2009

The Bears lost their Hall of Fame middle linebacker and linchpin at the end of the first half of the first game, in Green Bay. The defense still had Lance Briggs, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman, but Brown said after the season that the unit never made up for the loss of both the performance and leadership levels 54 represented.

From 2005-2012, Urlacher’s missed season was one of only two in which the Bears finished sub-.500.

DL Dan Hampton, 1989

The Bears opened 4-0. Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the team that had reached the 1988 NFC Championship game and still had Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, William Perry, Mike Singletary and Donnell Woolford proceeded to go 2-10 the rest of the way.

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Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

mahomes_and_watson.jpg
USA TODAY

Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

As seasons play out, most good teams improve. Some pretenders fall off. Some surprises emerge. So while the Bears were idle in their off-week (not “bye” week – a bye is when you advance in a tournament without playing, as in “first-round bye in the playoffs”) – their first-place schedule underwent some genuinely intriguing twists.

And this is all before the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football.

At roughly the one-third point of the season, elements of the Bears’ schedule, the preseason fifth-hardest based on combined 2018 winning percentages of their opponents, have come into some interesting focus – some parts more difficult, some not so much.

Toughening up

The New Orleans Saints (Oct. 20), who some prematurely wrote off after quarterback Drew Brees tore a ligament in his right hand, gathered even more downhill momentum with Teddy Bridgewater, in place of Brees. Simply put, Bridgewater has consistently played like the No. 1 pick he once was in Minnesota with his career on the Pro Bowl trajectory it was before his catastrophic knee injury in the Vikings’ 2016 training camp.

The 5-1 Saints’ 13-6 win over Jacksonville was their fourth in four Bridgewater starts, with him completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdown passes vs. two interceptions over those starts.

Meanwhile, the Vikings (Dec. 29), the same Minnesota Vikings whom the Bears seemingly extinguished a couple weeks back, put 38 points on the Philadelphia Eagles to reach 4-2 with quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing for four touchdowns, three to Stefon Diggs.

Why this particularly matters is that Cousins has completed 44 of 56 passes over his past two games and suddenly looks like anything but the supposed weak link in a team with Super Bowl aspirations and talent. If Cousins is in fact emerging as the quarterback the Vikings thought they were getting, this is a serious concern the Bears.

The Vikings already run the football better than the Bears. They are the equal of the Bears on defense. If they’ve now gained an edge on the Bears at quarterback… .

Out (AFC) West

On the hopeful side, the once-thought-invincible Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 22) lost for the second straight week to a team that committed to running the football. On its 41 rushing attempts, Houston netted 192 yards and three touchdowns, which are nearly as many yards as the Bears have rushed for in their last three games combined, and one more touchdown than the Bears have rushed for all season.

The Texans-Chiefs game was the first meeting between the quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) that coach Matt Nagy was involved in drafting at Kansas City, and the quarterback (Deshaun Watson) that the John Fox staff thought it was getting until informed otherwise by general manager Ryan Pace a couple hours before the 2017 draft.

After a playoff finish in 2018, the L.A. Chargers (Oct. 27) fell behind the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers and a third-string quarterback 24-0 in the third quarter and through six games have lost as many games (four) as they did all last season.

The Super Bowl Curse, which causes Super Bowl losers to miss the playoffs the following season, may be claiming the L.A. Rams (Nov. 17), who sagged to 3-3 with a 20-7 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The NFC L’East

The NFC East suddenly looks eminently beatable, playing its way into being the only NFL division with exactly zero teams above .500.

Besides the doormat Washington Redskins, who were out-tanked by the Miami Dolphins, and defense-lite (five of six games allowing 28 or more points) New York Giants (Nov. 24), the Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 3) were on the receiving end of Cousins’ efforts in the 38-20 thumping in Minnesota. That was followed by the Dallas Cowboys (Dec. 5) struggling against and losing to the New York Jets – yes, the JETS.