Bears Grades: Defense finally gets takeaways, but not enough key stops in loss

Bears Grades: Defense finally gets takeaways, but not enough key stops in loss

DETROIT – Matthew Stafford has not been giving the football away much this season. His five interceptions before Sunday were a big part of why the Lions win close games, and win them late.

So it was particularly frustrating for the Bears, among the NFL’s poorest at catching opponents’ passes, who intercepted Stafford twice in the second half, once in their own end zone, the second returned all the way into the Lions’, and still lost despite leading in the fourth quarter.

The reason was defensive failures to end Detroit drives sooner rather than later. The Lions converted 50 percent (6 of 12) on third downs and had 34 minutes time of possession, to 26 for the Bears.

“We had an opportunity defensively to close it out,” said linebacker Willie Young said. “We have to close it out.”

Five of Detroit’s first six possessions went nine plays or longer, plus one of seven plays that covered 76 yards for the Lions’ final and winning touchdown, a seven-yard scramble by Stafford picking his way through a broken-down Bears defense that missed tackles and could not react decisively enough.

“I just was trying to stay on my feet and find that goal line,” Stafford said, “and it worked.”

The defense looked to wear down in the third quarter as the offense, which had stayed on the field for more than seven minutes on its first-quarter scoring drive, increasingly failed to sustain much behind inexperienced Matt Barkley against a road crowd and division leader.

The defense put San Francisco quarterbacks down six times last Sunday and shut off the first Detroit drive with a third-down swarm that got to Stafford three times. The aggressive mindset was evident early as the front seven drew five flags (three holding, one intentional grounding and one hands-to-the-face) in just the first three Detroit possessions.

But mistakes, including penalties totaling 28 yards on Detroit’s winning drive, were too frequent even in a game holding Stafford and the Lions to 20 points.

“Something that we struggle with, something that every week we go in and we say, ‘This is what we’re going to do better, and this is how we’re going to prepare in order to capitalize on those moments,’” said defensive end Akiem Hicks. “We had a great play by our defense, Cre’Von [LeBlanc] snagged that ball, took it back to the house. It’s in our hands at that point, you know what I mean?

“We have to finish together, and this is not a pointing finger of blame. This is both sides of the ball, special teams, we all need to put it in the pot and finish these games out. That’s what makes a difference between the team that’s three and whatever, and guys going to the playoffs.”

Defensive line: C

Pressure from Akiem Hicks produced the third-down sack of Stafford that ended Detroit’s first possession. Hicks broke up a third-down pass attempt in the third quarter, although Matt Prater was then able to convert a 54-yard field goal.

Mitch Unrein forced Stafford out of bounds with pursuit for a first-quarter sack. Losing nose tackle Eddie Goldman to an ankle injury was a setback in the second half, and the Lions did rush for 115 total yards.

Linebacker: B

Leonard Floyd continued his upward development, with repeated pressures on Stafford as well as solid recoveries against Lions rushing attempts. Floyd did allow Stafford to break contain for a long completion in the second quarter but he was utilized in multiple packages and roles, and disguised one rush showing pass coverage, then blitzing but adjusting to make the tackle on a Detroit run. Floyd had a hand in the first Bears sack, with pressure that sealed Stafford in the pocket and pushed him toward Akiem Hicks.

Floyd’s run defense was solid as well as his general discipline, with some exceptions in losing contain on pass rushes. Floyd did deflect one pass and was credited with 3 tackles.

Nick Kwiatkoski was solid starting again inside, netting a sack with a pursuit of Stafford in the second quarter and adding a second quarterback hit to go with a team-high8 tackles.

John Timu, filling in at the other inside linebacker spot, had 6 tackles, one for loss, but missed a tackle of Stafford on the quarterback’s winning scramble.

Pernell McPhee was an occasional factor in pass rush, getting some penetration although without credit for a hit or sack of Stafford. Willie Young was credited with 1 tackle and did not collect a hit on Stafford.

“It wasn’t a difficult task, it was just a matter of us closing it out,” Young said. “[Stafford] obviously beat us with his feet in that one particular play, but other than that that’s a great team.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Secondary: A-

The Bears still only have 7 interceptions on the season but two on consecutive Detroit possessions were nearly enough to take the game from the Lions. Cre’Von LeBlanc’s interception and 24-yard return for the Bears’ final points provided a lead, with LeBlanc getting the better of veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and breaking perfectly on Matthew Stafford’s pass.

“Being that I’m smaller than he is, I knew he would try to get into me to try to get separation,” LeBlanc said. “But I was firm with my coverage.”

Bryce Callahan deflected and Demontre Hurst intercepted a Stafford pass in the end zone to save a possible touchdown that would have put the Lions up by two scores early in the fourth quarter.

Callahan delivered a crucial pass breakup on third down in single coverage vs. Golden Tate to force the Lions to settle for a second-quarter field goal. LeBlanc timed his break perfectly to deflect a third-quarter slant to Tate

Tracy Porter was flagged for a pass-interference infraction and holding penalty in the second quarter that advanced Detroit’s second scoring drive. Porter was forced out of the game with an undisclosed illness late in the half.

Adrian Amos’ lack of impact plays over the last season-plus got him out of the starting lineup in favor of rookie Deon Bush (third straight start) and Harold Jones-Quartey back in the lineup. Amos started the second half after HJQ slipped down covering Anquan Boldin on Detroit’s touchdown pass at the end of the first half.

Stafford was able to elude the Bears’ pass rush on multiple occasions and found receivers open with the help of his self-generated extra time. “I think he did a great job of keeping plays alive,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “We knew that coming in, but I think our DB’s played a great game.”

Special teams: C     

Connor Barth was able to salvage a penalty shortened opening drive with a 38-yard field goal. Pat O’Donnell and the punt team put two of four punts inside the Detroit 20

Punt coverage was undisciplined in allowing a long return in the second quarter that was nullified by block in the back but missed tackles and lanes lost could have been disastrous. Punter Pat O’Donnell showed his athleticism running down returner Andre Roberts. Coverage failed to get to O’Donnell’s first punt of the second half, resulting in a touchback. Kickoff return started the offense at the Chicago 18 from Detroit’s third-quarter kickoff.

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.