Bears

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”

 

 

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

2018 depth chart

Tackles

1. Charles Leno
Usage: 16 games, 99.3 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.9 million cap hit

Leno’s steady improvement since being picked in the seventh round of Phil Emery’s final draft continued in 2018, with the 27-year-old allowing 32 pressures on 634 pass blocking snaps — roughly in line with pressure rates of veterans like the Rams’ Andrew Whitworth and the Giants’ Nate Solder. Leno was solid as a run blocker, though as is the case with the rest of the line (and the coaching staff, and the running back unit) there’s room for improvement. 

His durability is important, too: The only snaps he missed in 2018 were in that season-ending win over the Minnesota Vikings, when Matt Nagy pulled a number of starters in the fourth quarter. The last time Leno didn’t play 100 percent of his team’s offense snaps in a game previous was Week 3 of the 2015 season. 

Meanwhile, Leno’s 2019 cap hit ranks 20th among left tackles, per Spotrac. The contract extension he signed prior to the 2017 season looked even better in 2018, as Leno continued to build on the upside he showed early in his career. 

2. Bobby Massie 
Usage: 16 games, 99.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $3.8 million cap hit

Only three tackles with over 1,000 snaps allowed fewer pressures than Massie — those being the Chiefs’ Mitchell Schwartz, the Seahawks’ Duane Brown and the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley. That’s good company in which to be. 

Additionally, only four tackles with over 1,000 snaps committed fewer penalties than Massie’s four, and he allowed just one sack, two hits and 23 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. With that backdrop, Ryan Pace’s move to sign Massie to a contract extension looks smart — especially given how his contract is structured, keeping his cap hit low in 2019. With Leno and Massie together again, the Bears can move forward with confidence their tackles will keep Mitch Trubisky upright again this season. 

3. Bradley Sowell
Usage: 16 games, 4.7 percent of offensive snaps, 17.7 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1.8 million cap hit

Sowell fits well as a swing tackle who was used in a few different ways last year: As a sixth offensive lineman (30 snaps, one of which was on “Santa’s Sleigh”), as a fullback (eight snaps, all in Week 17 against the Vikings) and in the slot (one snap). The question for Pace, though: Do all those traits make him worth keeping in the face of a potential $1.5 million in cap savings by cutting him?

The answer is, probably, yes. Sowell played well in 2017 as both a guard and a tackle, and his athleticism does allow Nagy to do some outside-the-box things with him. But without much cap space available, perhaps Pace will roll the dice with an unproven backup for cheap. 

4. Rashaad Coward
Usage: 0 games
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Coward had a trial by fire in 2018, when he had to learn how to play right tackle while largely lining up against Khalil Mack during mid-week practices at Halas Hall. He’s an intriguing prospect, one the Bears weren’t willing to risk losing by trying to sneak him onto the practice squad last year. Depending on the kind of growth he showed under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, he could be back in a reserve role in 2019. 

5. Cornelius Lucas
Usage (with New Orleans Saints): 1 game, 5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Lucas is a five-year veteran who’s appeared in 37 games in his career, but only played in once in each of the last two seasons (lone starts with the Rams in 2017 and Saints in 2018). If the Bears were to part with Sowell, he’d have an opportunity to compete to be the team’s swing tackle this year. 

6. Dejon Allen
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Allen spent 2018 on the Bears’ practice squad, and the 6-foot-3, 290 pound Hawaii alum will have a shot at sticking around as a practice squad player again in 2019. 

Guards

1. James Daniels
Usage: 16 games, 70.9 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,579,581 cap hit

Daniels steadily improved throughout his rookie season, and acquitted himself well as the Bears muted the impact Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald had on their 15-6 win over the Rams in December. His future looks bright as the Bears seem to move forward with Cody Whitehair as their center and Daniels locked in at left guard. 

“We like where he's headed,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said last month. “He's a guy that again is kind of a quietly confident, he's naturally a quiet guy and the more you're around him, I think he just has that calmness. … We believe in him. It's not a situation where we are going 'Hey we have to turn this way or that way or the other.’ He's going to have some tough matchups and we expect him to win them."

2. Kyle Long
Usage: 8 games, 47.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.5 million cap hit

Long seems like a candidate to have his contract re-structured, as the Bears value his presence but also may not be keen on committing $8.5 million to a guard — and a guard who hasn’t played a full season since 2015. The Bears declined to pick up Josh Sitton's $8 million option a year ago, opting to replace him with a combination of Eric Kush and James Daniels. 

When healthy, Long is critical to the Bears’ success running the ball. The good news is he said on locker cleanout day he feels confident in his health — “no knives this offseason,” he quipped. “It’s gonna be pretty awesome. Jettisoning Long, too, would leave a significant hole in the right side of an offensive line that otherwise is returning all of its starters from 2018. How the Bears approach Long in the coming weeks and months will be an important storyline to follow. 

3. Bryan Witzmann
Usage: 10 games, 49.6 percent of offensive snaps, 10.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Witzmann lent a steady hand in place of Long from Weeks 8-16, allowing only 16 pressures in 306 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He didn’t allow a pressure against the Rams in Week 14, and the Bears’ offensive line didn’t fall apart after he swapped in for the injured Long. He played in all five of the Bears’ games in December, which represented Jordan Howard’s best stretch of the season, too. The Bears could do worse with a backup guard. 

4. Eric Kush 
Usage: 15 games, 32 percent of offensive snaps, 14.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Kush began the season as the team’s starting left guard and struggled to run block consistently. He began rotating with Daniels in Week 4, then rotated with Witzmann in Week 9 and didn’t play an offensive snap after that. Based on that lack of usage, the Bears will likely move on from him this offseason. 

5. Willie Beavers
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Beavers, a former fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, has bounced around practice squads over the last three years, including the Bears’ in 2018. 

Centers

1. Cody Whitehair
Usage: 16 games, 100 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,344,180 cap hit

The Bears will need to work out an extension for Whitehair, who played every single one of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018 and earned a trip to Orlando as a Pro Bowl alternate. His steady presence, ability to read opposing defenses and good relationship with Trubisky is important for the Bears’ offense. 

What Whitehair’s extension could look like will be interesting to see, presuming he indeed signs one sometime between the start of training camp and the beginning of the season. Perhaps something similar (and a little richer) than the three-year, $27 million extension signed by Seahawks center Justin Britt (a 2014 second-round pick) will be the starting point. 

2. James Daniels
Usage: 0 snaps at center

Daniels played 122 snaps at center during the preseason but didn’t play at all there during the regular season. He’ll likely remain the team’s backup center going forward, though. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5. Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018). 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5

Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018).  

Previous needs & grades: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears aim to accomplish at the NFL Combine?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears aim to accomplish at the NFL Combine?

With the NFL Combine starting next week, JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan look at if the Bears should still focus their draft strategy on taking the best players available, or if needs at running back and/or kicker should supersede that.

Plus, the gang dives into what questions they want to hear answered from Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy next week and wonders if the thought of trading a draft pick for a running back is a good idea.

1:00: What questions do we want answered by Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy next week?

7:40: Do the Bears need to shift away from taking the best player available to drafting for need?

16:20: Robbie Gould is likely to get tagged by the 49ers. Now what?

20:45: Thoughts on trading a pick for a running back…like Cleveland’s Duke Johnson?

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Under Center Podcast

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