Lance Briggs sits down with his former teammate, fellow Bears linebacker, and friend Brian Urlacher leading up to this weekend’s Hall of Fame announcement when #54 finds out if he’s going in on the first ballot. Urlacher explains why waiting for this decision is nothing compared to how stressful it was playing next to Briggs. Plus the two discuss favorite teammates, coordinators and whether or not Urlacher’s HOF bust will have hair.
As the Bears leave Denver and prepare for Kansas City, sorting through a couple of conundrums on the interior of their offensive line—James Daniels or Cody Whitehair at center? Best five?—a budding conclusion is this:
Mixed preseason numbers notwithstanding, the Bears stand on the brink of a potentially elite offensive line, in the hands of one of the most highly regarded coaches in the game.
It has not performed to “elite” yet, although not with traces of upside. A hyper-conservative run game that averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2017, with defenses facing neither a pass offense nor subterfuge, is plodding to 3.8 ypc through three preseason games.
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once every 11.6 pass plays as a rookie; this preseason, he and Chase Daniel have fared a bit better, sacked once every 15.8 pass plays (No. 2 Daniel is included because his protection includes offensive linemen factoring into current deliberations). Against the Denver Broncos, albeit without rush leaders Bradley Chubb and Von Miller playing the entire game, Bears quarterbacks were sacked just twice in 44 pass plays, with a total of five hits.
But consider a bigger picture, beyond one game or even one season:
Right guard Kyle Long turns 30 in December and the roster has zero offensive linemen currently older than 29 years of age. While the spotlight was on adding weapons around quarterback Mitch Trubisky, GM Ryan Pace was also continuing a methodology that included making sure the ONLY weapons around Trubisky are ones wearing the same uniform.
“It’s up to us to find the guys who want to work hard and have the right attitude about getting better,” said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. “If you have that, we’ll overcome things like never being in a [three-point] stance or how to get leverage in the running game. We have guys who are tough enough to do it.”
And ones who will be around for awhile.
Four of the projected starting five are under some significant degree of contract control: Daniels, Long and left tackle Charles Leno are signed through 2021, Whitehair through 2019. Right tackle Bobby Massie becomes a free agent after this season but Rashaad Coward, a promising prospect at either guard or tackle after converting from defense this spring, does not hit unrestricted free agency until 2021, with the Bears holding future tender-offer options on the 23-year-old former nose tackle.
“[Defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio pointed out when I first got here that we’ve got a young guy [Coward] who really has some good traits about him as a football player,” Hiestand said. “He’s tough. He works his tail off. He’s learning on the job really well right now. Very positive growth.”
The overall situation is the result of some organizational commitment – if Daniels starts and Whitehair moves to center, the Bears will have a No. 1 (Long) and two No. 2’s as the three individuals closer to the football than anyone not named Trubisky.
And the result of luck – Leno was the 246th player taken in the 2014 draft, meaning that GM Phil Emery phoned in picks of Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Ka’Deem Carey and David Fales, plus a punter (Pat O’Donnell) before opting for Leno in the seventh round.
A titanic offensive line is no solution by itself (besides the obvious fact that things dubbed as “titanic” can, you know, sink).
The Dallas Cowboys fielded an offensive line in 2015 that included No. 1’s Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, plus rookie La’El Collins, with a top-10 grade but undrafted over character concerns. That Cowboys team went 4-12.
With Frederick, Martin and Smith still in place (Collins was injured), the 2016 Cowboys 180’ed to 13-3 after they got the quarterback (Dak Prescott) and running back (Ezekiel Elliott) things addressed. In 2017, the line even added another No. 1 pick (Jonathan Cooper) but the Cowboys dipped to 9-7 after Elliott was suspended for six games and averaged a full yard per carry less than the year before, and Prescott more than tripled his interceptions (to 13 from 4).
Even elite protectors have their limits if the protectees don’t do enough with the protection.
Health is a critical, annual issue, but where injuries have thrown several recent offensive lines into chaos. The Bears started four different right guards in 2017; Whitehair started at a different spot each of the final three games.
“I think our biggest thing,” said Whitehair, “is playing together under one set of eyes, seeing the field together and playing together.”
Preseason games are about isolated goods and bads, snapshots really, rather than sweeping overalls. All in the eye of the beholder. And for the Bears, after losses to Baltimore and Cincinnati in Matt Nagy’s first efforts as a head coach, getting out of Denver with a 24-23 win over the Broncos looked pretty good in the eyes of any Bears beholder.
Saturday’s preseason game three was a collection of snapshots for the Bears, playing their third “practice” game, but the first with enough of the starters on offense and defense to matter, or at least as much as these can matter.
The Bears achieved their first win under Nagy on the right arm of No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel, pressed into extra duty when Tyler Bray was hurt in the third quarter, and who completed 19 of 28 passes for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner just inside the two-minute warning on a 12-yard throw to tight end Ben Braunecker. The win was preserved when cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc punched the ball out of the hands of Denver receiver Isaiah McKenzie and linebacker Isaiah Irving gathered in the loose football to end a potential Denver comeback drive at the Chicago 38.
Did Cre'Von LeBlanc just perfectly execute the Peanut Punch?!!! pic.twitter.com/H5VZAQ297v— Bears Talk (@NBCSBears) August 19, 2018
Before all of that, in his longest appearance of the presesason, quarterback Mitch Trubisky started and directed a pair of sustained drives, the first covering 51 yards to a missed field-goal attempt, and a second going 75 yards and culminating in a touchdown. Combined with the work by Daniel, the Bears put up five drives 50 yards or longer. Trubisky completed 9 of 14 passes for 90 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and the No. 1 offense produced 10 first downs.
Notably perhaps, the Trubisky score came in a fashion that was previewed more than a few times throughout camp, and that projects as a template for a staple in the offense under Nagy:
A high-percentage flip going to tight end Trey Burton cutting across the field and going seven yards for Trubisky’s first TD pass of the preseason. The design of the play forced the Denver secondary to drop in coverage of Bears wide receivers and left rush linebacker Von Miller needing to choose between dropping into a short zone or going after Trubisky. Miller did the latter and Burton, who caught 4 of 5 passes directed to him for 45 yards, was alone in the underneath zone.
“I’m just trying to be who I am, do what the coaches ask me to do and go wherever that leads,” Burton told the FOX 32 broadcast. “Obviously, every week and every game is different so whatever my role is, I’m down for it.”
Trubisky did suffer his first interception over the span of two preseasons and 71 pass attempts, but appeared to be victimized when running back Tarik Cohen broke off the route on a short in-cut and failed to break back toward Trubisky. The throw was to where Cohen was supposed to be but was instead an easy pick for Denver safety Justin Simmons.
“I think [Cohen] learned he can’t do that,” Nagy said.
But the passing offense overall was functional under Trubisky, not insignificant in the context of the quarterback in a new offense with a complement of receivers largely unfamiliar with him. And some who hadn’t graced stat sheets to date.
Kevin White came up with his first two catches of the preseason and followed each with some nifty running after the catches. White also drew a 37-yard pass interference penalty that accounted for about half the yardage on the Trubisky touchdown drive.
Rookie Anthony Miller caught 3 passes for 33 yards, with a long of 19 yards. Allen Robinson started but played sparingly in the first half in the first test of his surgically repaired left ACL and was not targeted. Taylor Gabriel, with a foot injury, did not play for the third straight game.