Bears find nuggets — and some fool’s gold? — amid struggles

Bears find nuggets — and some fool’s gold? — amid struggles

The season that has now lurched downward to its 2-9 point has given the Bears little in the way of overall satisfaction. But it has not been without value already in giving the organization some very meaningful, albeit unwanted, evaluations of what their depth chart of the future may look like.

Some of it has been supremely concerning. Without Alshon Jeffery (suspended) and Kevin White (injured), receivers Josh Bellamy, Cam Meredith and Marquess Wilson in particular were pressed into service. The result – with each committing multiple dropped passes in Sunday’s 27-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans – served to suggest strongly that the Bears do not have a dependable alternative to Jeffery, franchise-tagged for this year but a looming issue again next offseason.

Meredith looked like a player after a combined 20 catches in the Indianapolis and Jacksonville games. On Sunday he dropped more of the nine balls thrown to him (3) than he caught (2). Wilson caught a career-best eight passes but dropped a pair, one a touchdown there for the taking. Wilson, beset repeatedly by injuries, is a free agent after this season; is he depth worth pursuing?

“I think Marquess Wilson, it was his second game this season,” said coach John Fox. “He hasn’t been playing football for months and months.”

Because Jeffery is still on suspension for two more games and White is not expected back, the receivers will get additional chances.

But the Titans released veteran cornerback Perrish Cox after Sunday’s game. The Bears have rookie Daniel Braverman on practice squad; Fox does not have any history of scapegoating or making examples of players, but he has sent messages… .

Overshadowed by the drops by receivers and running backs was a decidedly different scenario playing out because of absent, injured starters.

With guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton down, the Bears started Eric Kush as left guard and Ted Larsen at right. The only other time Kush and Larsen both started was against Minnesota, the only Bears win in the past seven weeks. Against the Vikings the offensive line allowed just one sack; the Titans got none, despite the Bears far behind and throwing the football 33 times in the fourth quarter alone.

Meaning: the Kush-Larsen line has allowed just one sack in 86 pass plays. The Bears rushed for a season-high 158 yards and 5.4 yards per carry against Minnesota; running backs netted 95 yards on 20 carries vs. Tennessee, a 4.8-yard clip.

Put another way, the Bears appear to have found some offensive-line nuggets amid the injury carnage.

“I just feel like [Kush and Larsen] do a great job in practice getting themselves ready for the game and then just be able to start the game from start to finish,” said running back Jordan Howard. “I feel like they can get into a rhythm and not worry about messing up and they can follow their assignments correctly.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski started alongside Danny Trevathan in place of suspended inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Kwiatkoski finished with four tackles in addition to spinning out of a blitz to pursue and force a throwaway by Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Quarterback Matt Barkley likely played his way at the very least into an NFL training camp next year (probably Chicago’s), throwing 54 passes, shaking off dropped balls to have his team in position for a comeback win. Barkley impressed at least one teammate who knew exactly what Barkley has gone through.

“Guys like me are few and far between,” said defensive end Willie Young, a seventh-round draft pick who has played his way into a career. “But if we get an opportunity, the only thing we know how to do is take advantage of it. Whatever happens after that, happens. I play on the edge. I honestly feel like [Barkley] played on the edge also.”

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was an impressive blend of running, receiving and special teams play. He quickly became a household name. The combination of his diminutive frame and oversized personality made him a fan favorite, especially when he started gaining yards in chunks.

    In fact, of all running backs with a minimum of 80 carries last season, Cohen had the highest percentage of runs that went for 15 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cohen will have a big role in new coach Matt Nagy's offense this season because of everything he offers a play-caller. He's a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield and can chew up yards on the ground like any traditional running back. He's a hold-your-breath talent who can turn a bad play into a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    Cohen had 370 rushing yards, 353 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns in what can be described as a limited role last year. John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn't seem to ever figure out how to best use Cohen's skill set. That should be no issue for Nagy and Mark Helfrich, the team's new offensive coordinator, who both bring a creative offensive approach to Chicago.

    Jordan Howard will be the starter and will do most of the heavy lifting. But Cohen is going to have a much bigger role than he had as a rookie, and that should result in more big plays and points on the board.