Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

The operative Bears word was “competition” throughout the offseason within every position group. With that mantra came turnover, and of the 14 offensive linemen presently on the Bears roster, exactly four were under Bears contract this time last year, and only one of those finished the 2015 season at the position he currently occupies. Of the 14, only one is older than 27, and that one (guard Ted Larsen) just turned 29.

The Bears ran the football more than 46 percent of the time last season, noteworthy if only because 6-10 teams are typically throwing the ball predominantly because they’re behind. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and others within the organization, topped by coach John Fox, have been blunt about their intention to run the football even more, all of which demands an offensive line with command of the line of scrimmage, which the Bears did not have often enough last year.

One case was that the Bears started seven different offensive line combinations in 2015, only one of them for more than three straight games and with only one player – Kyle Long – starting all 16 games at the same position – right tackle. Lest there be too much continuity for a group that requires it more than most, Long is back at right guard, and the other four starters from game one last season are no longer on the roster.

On the plus side, Charles Leno Jr. established himself to the organization’s satisfaction as the starting left tackle, and Hroniss Grasu will start training camp as the No. 1 center after starting eight of the last 12 games in the spot for which he was drafted.

“We got a lot to look forward to, Chicago has a lot to look forward to with,” Long said. “Got a lot of youth and the guys who are ‘older guys’ are not that old, so we're fired up about it and we know that there's a lot ahead for this group.”

Establishing that has been in process all offseason and increases exponentially in training camp, when pads come on for the first time since game 16 last season, in a stretch approaching seven months.

Offseason adjustments

As they did on defense, the Bears were aggressive in free agency and followed that with targeted moves in the draft. GM Ryan Pace signed Larsen and right tackle Bobby Massie, both from Arizona and both from a now-perennial playoff team under coach Bruce Arians.

Both Larsen and Massie were installed as starters, although Larsen, who took a starting job from No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper late last season, was absent for unspecified reasons late in OTA’s. In his place, Cody Whitehair spent extensive practice team at left guard and acquitted himself as the Bears hoped a No. 2 draft pick would. Whitehair emerging as a starter sooner rather than later might be a mild surprise, although Long and Grasu both started as rookies, albeit because of injury in Grasu’s case.

“The curiosity really is the type of kid he is,” said coordinator Dowell Loggains during spring practices. “We drafted a very high character guy that has played a lot of football. He’s tough. He’s the type of player that coach Fox wants. When you talk about a throwback, old school guy, that’s Cody.”

Depth-charting

RT    Bobby Massie

RG   Kyle Long

C      Hroniss Grasu

LG    Ted Larsen/Cody Whitehair

LT    Charles Leno

The mix

Nick Becton

Adrian Bellard

Nate Chandler

Cornelius Edison

John Kling

Martin Wallace

Jason Weaver

Donovan Williams

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…how dominant the Bears’ right side can become. Long and Massie are twin-towers: 6-6, 325’ish pounds, and physical, mauling blockers. “We are going to look good on the right side,” said line coach Dave Magazu.

Looking good breaking the huddle will be one thing; the run-based Bears moved Long back to guard and signed Massie to look good standing over opponents, and live sessions in training camp will be about forging these two into the Bruise Brothers.

…whether Hroniss Grasu is physically up to the demands in the middle. He was not as a rookie and was set back by a couple of injuries, and the organization thought the situation dictated signing a veteran, the since-retired Manny Ramirez. The Bears drafted Whitehair in the second round but Grasu is a key to the line.

“I think he got a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger,” Magazu said. “He’s over 300 [pounds]; there were times [last season] when he was under 300. He is a competitor. He’s smart, he’s tough, he loves playing football. He knows what he needs to work on and he takes it very personally.”

…is Cody Whitehair the sleeper of the ’16 draft class? Most No. 2’s hardly qualify as “sleepers” but offensive linemen do not often win jobs outright before the starts of their rookie seasons. Whitehair has had opportunities with Ted Larsen missing time in OTA’s and has impressed. Now that the pads are coming on… ?

“I think we’ve got a really good group,” said quarterback Jay Cutler during OTA sessions last month.  “We don’t have to say much to them. Hroniss in the middle kind of controlling them. You know Kyle, he has let everyone know in Chicago that he is happy to be back at guard and he works out with Bobby so he’s known Bobby forever and Chuck is on the left side and he is kind of consistent every day.

“It’s a really good group. I think we’ve got some depth on the inside. It is just going to be experience with those guys. Like the backfield, there is going to be some growing pains and there is going to be some stuff in preseason that we have to fix. Overall, really happy with how they have progressed through the offseason.”

(Too) Bold Predictions: Leonard Floyd scores the 1st Bears touchdown of the season

(Too) Bold Predictions: Leonard Floyd scores the 1st Bears touchdown of the season

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

J.J. Stankevitz: 
1. The Bears' first touchdown of 2019 will be scored by...Leonard Floyd.
The thought here: Denver's offense is not designed to get the ball out quick, and Joe Flacco is generally immobile in the pocket. As long as the Bears' downfield coverage is as good as it was last week (save for one play-action bomb Aaron Rodgers hit), Floyd and Khalil Mack will have plenty of chances to tee off on Flacco. So one of those chances will lead to a strip-sack deep in Broncos territory, with Floyd scooping it up and jogging into the end zone. 

2. Mitch Trubisky will have a passer rating of 95.4.
That was Trubisky's passer rating in 2018...which was 33.3 points higher than his rating in Week 1. Generally speaking, it's hard to imagine Trubisky being significantly worse in 2019 than he was in 2018, even in light of how bad things were against the Packers. So even against a Vic Fangio defense, Trubisky will put up numbers close to or matching his per-game averages in 2018: 66.6 completion percentage, one touchdown, one interception, 230 yards, two sacks. And that'll be good enough for the Bears to win. 

Cam Ellis
1. The Bears will double their season touchdown total in the 1st quarter
This is, admittedly, just a round-about way of saying the Bears will actually get into the end zone this week, which would typically not be very bold. And yet, here we are. After 10 days of having to hear about the run game issues in Week 1, the bet here is that Nagy goes to David Montgomery early and often. Even with Vic Fangio at the helm, the Broncos' defense doesn't yet look like the intimidating sides he's been synonymous with. Let's say Montgomery gets in first from 10-15 and then Trubisky hits Anthony Miller for the 2nd. 

2. Eddy Pineiro will hit his first NFL field goal from 50+ yards
This game has Pineiro's name all over it. Consider: 

a. The way the offense played in Week 1 
b. The thin air
c. How frequently Nagy's decision to not try Pineiro from distance in Week 1 was questioned. 

The Bears spent all summer talking about the 'leg talent' Pineiro had, and while that alone didn't win him the job, it certainly didn't hurt (*Elliot Fry nods sadly*). They also frequently talk about getting Pineiro in a rhythm, and what better place to let him rip some than Denver in September? Since (Too) Bold Predictions are really just thinly-veiled optimism, let's say he sneaks one in from 53.

Three keys and prediction: Bears at Broncos

Three keys and prediction: Bears at Broncos

1. Let David Montgomery eat. Before the season, one of the narratives surrounding the Bears' offense was turning over 75 percent of the running back personnel from 2018 to 2019 would allow Matt Nagy's run scheme to flourish, which in turn would help Mitch Trubisky be a better quarterback. Having Trubisky pass 45 times with only 12 rushing plays to a player in the backfield in Week 1, then, hardly fit that narrative. 

A better run-pass balance will only help Trubisky be more comfortable going through his reads in the pocket, which should lead to him being more efficient. It has to happen this week, too, given the looming specter of Broncos edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb 10 days after the Packers generated a ton of pressure and five sacks on the pass-happy Bears. It’ll be a lot easier for Miller and Chubb to get after Trubisky if they can reasonably know a pass play is coming. 

So this brings us to the main point here: The Bears need to get Montgomery going. They didn’t trade up within the third round, sacrificing a 2020 fourth-round pick, to draft a running back who only gets seven touches. Yes, Montgomery will share time with Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen (assuming Cohen doesn’t line up out wide or in the slot on nearly every snap he takes again), but committing to a better run-pass balance — with Montgomery leading it — will work wonders for the Bears’ offense. 

The Oakland Raiders did this in Week 1, with rookie Josh Jacobs rushing 23 times for 85 yards (3.7 yards/carry)…while Derek Carr completed 22 of 26 passes in a 24-16 win. 

2. Don’t let Joe Flacco push the ball downfield. Flacco completed seven of 11 passes that traveled at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in Denver’s season opener, but only one of those traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Broncos’ offense isn’t totally designed to get the ball out quick and scheme out edge rushers, but it might have to with big-ticket free agent right tackle Ja’Wuan James out (though the team trusts backup Elijah Wilkinson). The Bears’ defense should be good enough to make the necessary tackles and plays on those short throws to keep Denver out of the end zone. 

The goal, then, will be to not let Flacco hit a deep shot to Courtland Sutton or Emanuel Sanders, be it on play action or a straight drop-back. The good news is the Bears paired their coverage and pass rush well against Green Bay in Week 1, with cornerbacks and safeties generally not letting things develop downfield while Leonard Floyd/Khalil Mack/Roy Robertson-Harris/Akiem Hicks/etc. got after Aaron Rodgers. Do the same and Denver’s offense will have a tough time getting on the scoreboard. 

3. Win on first down. The best way for the Bears’ defense to deal with the attitude and heat facing them Sunday will be to not allow positive plays on first down. Denver’s offense wasn’t totally inefficient in Week 1, and reached Raiders territory on six of its eight possessions — yet didn’t score a touchdown until its last drive of the game. The Bears would do well to keep the Broncos from having the kind of extended drives they had on Monday (7.6 plays per drive) given the conditions Sunday.

The worry here is if Denver is able to extend drives, the Bears’ defense will get gassed quickly and might be more prone to allowing those drives to end in points than a Raiders defense high on inspiration but middling on talent was. So this means getting a good pass rush if Flacco drops back on first down, or having Akiem Hicks boss the interior while Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan get downhill to stop the run. Do that, and Denver’s offense likely won’t be good enough to overcome second- and third-and-long downs. 

Prediction: Bears 19, Broncos 16. The Broncos haven’t lost at home in Week 2 since 1979, and have a 12-game winning streak in Week 1 or Week 2 home games. Beneath those numbers are two things: First, the Broncos have been one of the NFL’s best franchises over the last 40 years; and second, it’s often difficult to play on the road at altitude early in the season, when players aren’t quite in peak football shape yet. 

The altitude will, of course, be present on Sunday. A good Broncos team will not. This game will nonetheless be close, but the team with the better roster will win. And that team is the Bears.