Broncos' opener was underwhelming, but Bears should beware Denver early in the season

Broncos' opener was underwhelming, but Bears should beware Denver early in the season

In case you didn't stay up until midnight to watch it: Vic Fangio’s head coaching debut produced an uninspiring result on both sides of the ball in the Denver Broncos’ 24-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Monday. 

The Broncos didn’t score their first touchdown until just before the two minute warning (though Bears fans reading this might appreciate that they even scored a touchdown). This Joe Flacco-led offense shouldn’t inspire much fear in a Bears’ defense that stifled Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last week, with sloppy, inconsistent play defining this group's evening. Losing high-priced free agent right tackle Ja’Wuan James to an apparent knee injury is something to watch this week — if he doesn’t play, an already-shaky Broncos offensive line will have an even tougher challenge blocking for a largely-immobile quarterback on Sunday. 

Perhaps more worrying for Denver was how sub-optimal their defensive performance was. The Broncos appeared to miss ex-Bears slot corner Bryce Callahan, who was scratched with a foot injury: 

Callahan suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams last year. The Raiders picked on his backup, Isaac Yiadom, with receiver Tyrell Williams and tight end Darren Waller finding plenty of success when matched up against him. Along with James, Callahan’s status on a short week leading up to Sunday’s game should be closely monitored in Chicago. 

The Broncos allowed 6.6 yards per play and were surgically picked apart by Derek Carr, who completed 22 of 26 passes for 259 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Credit the Raiders’ offensive line and scheme here, too, as Carr wasn’t sacked by a Broncos front featuring Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. The Broncos didn’t generate a takeaway, either. 

We’ll dive deeper into this matchup later in the week, but on the surface, Denver’s Week 1 showing was underwhelming. For what it’s worth, it did come on the road in a charged-up atmosphere (anyone watching the game on TV could hear the “F*** AB” chants). The Coliseum did not look like an easy place to play Monday night. 

Returning back to Colorado should help. Bizarrely, Denver is an incredibly difficult place to play early in the season: The Broncos are 22-2 in Week 1 or Week 2 home games since John Elway retired before the 1999 season, and have won a dozen such games in a row. More narrowly: The Broncos haven’t lost at home in Week 2 of the regular season since 1979, a streak spanning 22 games.  

Is that relevant for the two teams that’ll meet this Sunday? Not entirely. But for whatever reason, there’s something in the thin air of Denver that's consistently given the Broncos an advantage early in the season for 40 years, whether Elway, Peyton Manning or Case Keenum is the quarterback. 

“All streaks are a little different,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “I don’t know the relevance behind early in the season. I just know for us that we know where we’re at right now. And whether it’s in Denver or at home, we want to be able to play better football.”

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Contract decisions coming for Bears defense as questions hang over LB Danny Trevathan

Contract decisions coming for Bears defense as questions hang over LB Danny Trevathan

As 2018 came to its bumpy playoff-loss ending, the Bears could look toward the coming offseason without major crisis decisions looming for what was then an elite defense. They’d prepared contingencies for possible departures of safety Adrian Amos and nickel back Bryce Callahan.

This offseason they will have further-reaching calls to make, beginning at inside linebacker where two of their top three players are coming out of a contract: Danny Trevathan, also off an elbow injury suffered against Detroit, and Nick Kwiatkoski, coming off a second defense-leading performance in a backup role.

The Bears made a decision earlier this year to keep Nick Kwiatkoski for the final year of his rookie contract. The former college teammate of wide receiver Kevin White had played his way under the NFL’s “Proven Performance Escalator” from $720,000 up to a fourth-year salary $2.025 million, a not-insignificant tab for a reserve linebacker on a defense fortified with major dollars invested on the line (Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks), at linebacker (Khalil Mack, Trevathan) and cornerback (Prince Amukamara, Kyle Fuller), with decisions pending at both safety spots.

Possibly before this season is done, the Bears could secure Kwiatkoski with another deal, particularly after Kwiatkoski has stepped in and keyed the defense in place of Roquan Smith (Minnesota) and on Sunday when Trevathan went down with a severe elbow injury.

“Right now honestly I’m not thinking about it because there’s a lot of football to play and it’ll take care of itself,” he told NBC Sports Chicago last week. “For me, I feel like whatever happens, happens.”

What has happened is that twice Kwiatkoski, until now a four-phase leader on special teams, has helped the Bears make their decision. Against the Lions, Kwiatkoski’s third-quarter interception, the first of his career, set up the Bears’ third, final and ultimately deciding touchdown.

“Ryan [Pace, GM] and his personnel guys, they created this depth chart throughout our team where when guys go down you're able to have guys step up,” said coach Matt Nagy. “Kwit has done that, and that's what it's all about.”

Kwiatkoski’s is not the only critical depth-chart decision the Bears have upcoming for their defense.

Besides calls like whether Amukamara is playing at a level commensurate with a $9 million base, or whether to go longer-term on a deal for safety HaHa Clinton-Dix. Defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris will be a restricted free agent. They picked up Leonard Floyd’s fifth-year option but now need to assess whether he is worth either $13.2 million this year or a long-term deal.

And defensive lineman Nick Williams, leading the Bears with six sacks, is going to be worth more than the $895,000 they landed him for this year.

But the Trevathan injury, besides presenting player and team with a difficult decision on injured reserve, also adds a complicating factor in determining where the quarterback of the defense falls among their priorities. His four-year deal, with $15.5 million guaranteed, averaged $7 million per season, with base salaries of $5.8 million in the last two.

There is zero question where the former Denver Bronco wants to finish his career.

“This city’s been nothing but good to me,” Trevathan said. “It’s all I think about, all I want to be. Chicago is a linebacker’s dream. It’ll take care of itself, I’m sure.

“Everybody has a role. I just wanted to do my job and be the best ‘Danny Trevathan’ I can be, and the best Bear I can be. That’s all I can do. My Mom always told me that things would take care of themselves if you work your tail off.”

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Akiem Hicks talks patience and his friendship with Nick Williams

Akiem Hicks talks patience and his friendship with Nick Williams

The Bears have been playing without Akiem Hicks since Week 4 when Hicks was placed on injured reserve after dislocating his elbow during the Bears trip across the pond to the play the Oakland Raiders. If that Week 4 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings feels like a long time ago, it’s because it has been, and the Bears have been feeling Hicks’ absence.

Hicks spoke at an event at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago this week about his time on IR and when he thinks he’ll be back on the field.

“I try not to make too many projections,” Hicks said. “I have no projections, I just want to be healthy and contribute to this football team.”

When asked about what he missed most while being on IR, Hicks kept his answer simple.

“Just being with the boys,” he said. “It’s a different feeling Saturday night at the hotel when everybody is getting prepared and locking in for the game and you’re sitting there spectating. As much as you try to involve yourself, giving them advice and pushing them in the right direction, the true moment, the battle, the competition you’re going to miss. You just have to accept that.”

“One thing that has improved on my time away is patience, I understand that it was my moment and I have to be comfortable with this time away.”

Hicks was asked about Nick Williams, who has been filling in for him at defensive end, with Hicks having nothing but kind words to say.

“Just a stud,” Hicks said. “He’s shown that he can be a dominant defensive tackle.”

Hicks certainly isn’t wrong. Nick Williams is currently leading the Bears in sacks, with six sacks to his name this season. Hicks also touched on the long-standing friendship he and Williams have shared over their two years as Bears.

 “Myself and Nick Williams have a long relationship over these past two years,” Hicks said. “It feels like we’ve been friends forever. He was very supportive of me throughout his time here. It’s unfortunate that I’m on IR, but it’s a great opportunity to be supportive of him as well.”

“If there was anybody who was going to come up for me and play the time that I’ve missed, I’m glad it was Nick,” Hicks said. “I challenge you to pick somebody in the crowd more excited than me when he makes a play.” 

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