Bears Grades: Defense finishes 2016 season with third straight game giving up 30-plus points

Bears Grades: Defense finishes 2016 season with third straight game giving up 30-plus points

MINNEAPOLIS – If the Bears were once, and not too long ago, among the top 10 defenses in the league, that distinction was not reflected in the final days and hours of the 2016 season.

The 38-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was the third straight game with the Bears allowing 30 or more points. With struggles against Green Bay (30 points), Washington (41) and now Minnesota, the Bears allowed an average of 36.3 points per over the final three games of a lost year.

Still, “I’m not frustrated right now,” insisted linebacker Willie Young. “There’s a lot of upside to look at.”

Not all of the points Sunday came on the defense’s watch. But the overall was another game marked by poor tackling, poor execution and a general lack of anything resembling NFL-grade football.

Minnesota scored on four of its first six possessions and piled up 244 yards to go with 24 points in the first half, with the Bears repeatedly suffering individual breakdowns at points of attack, and no one making impact plays, particularly in the back-seven, which was exploited throughout the game by quarterback Sam Bradford (25-of-33 passing for 250 yards, 3 touchdowns and a meaningless late interception) and a variety of receivers.

The defense was given less than no help by the offense and special teams, which turned the football over five times, including two possessions that permitted the Vikings to score 14 points needing to cover only 56 yards total in the first half.

Defensive line: D-

Akiem Hicks delivered another strong game in a lost cause, with disruptions and pursuit in multiple situations. But Bradford was never sacked and hit only once, while a very average Vikings run game netted 124 yards on 28 carries, including a 24-yard scramble by Bradford when discipline in rush lanes broke down.

Nose tackle C.J. Wilson led linemen with three tackles, one for a loss. But the Bears never gained any dominance along the front and were able to convert 6 of 12 third downs.

Linebacker: F

Jerrell Freeman had a team-high 10 tackles and 2 passes deflected. But he and Nick Kwiatkoski were too often a step slow getting off toward tackle targets, and too often unable to get off blocks in time to force plays. Kwiatkoski and Freeman were ineffective in coverage, particularly against tight end Kyle Rudolph, who finished the game with 11 catches for 117 yards and a 22-yard touchdown grab.

Sam Acho was beaten around the edge by Jerrick McKinnon for a 10-yard touchdown run off a Wildcat formation in the fourth quarter. Willie Young was in on 3 tackles but had no quarterback hits and was without a sack for the sixth time in the last seven games.

Pernell McPhee not making the trip because of the shoulder injury suffered last week against Washington did not help, particularly with Leonard Floyd inactive. The absence of two of the Bears three best pass rushers had a predictable effect. Christian Jones logged considerable time at outside linebacker in 4-3 nickel packages but got little pressure on Stafford in rush situations.

“What it comes down to is each individual doing his job to the best of their ability,” Young said. “Do your job, dominate the one-on-one battles and everything else will take care of itself.”

The problem was too many players too infrequently winning those battles.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Secondary: F

Team leader and No. 1 cornerback Tracy Porter overslept and was penalized by being left out of the starting lineup at the outset. The bigger problem was that too many of the other defensive backs appeared to sleep during the game.

The poor play and breakdowns that characterized too much of the secondary’s play against Green Bay and Washington resurfaced early. Cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc allowed Cordarelle Patterson to break behind him on a third-down play on the opening possession, giving up a 39-yard completion into the Bears red zone.

Then safety Adrian Amos was slow to react and then took a bad angle on a swing pass to running back Jerrick McKinnon, who scored from 21 yards out. Amos was out of position and lost the football on McKinnon’s fourth-quarter touchdown run.

Safety Harold Jones-Quartey made a failed flying tackle try that allowed Rudolph to get into the end zone for the Vikings second TD. Jones-Quartey missed a one-on-one tackle in the open field on McKinnon, contributing to a 26-yard burst in the fourth quarter.

Special teams: D-

Bralon Addison was brought in for a look in the return game and damaged things by mishandling a second-quarter punt in the Chicago end, leading to a Vikings TD and 24-7 lead, when a return and score potentially changes the game. Instead of the Bears getting the football at their 25 with time for one drive before halftime, the Vikings got the ball at the Chicago 21 and turned it into points.

Deonte Thompson returned a late-second quarter kickoff 64 yards to set up a field goal but little else was positive in special teams, something the Bears needed to be at least even with the Vikings. But Thompson failed to bring two fourth-quarter kickoff returns even to the 20, somehow an effective emblem for the all-around futililty of the game.

Punt coverage was woeful in allowing a 36-yard return by Marcus Sherels in the second quarter. Cordarrelle Patterson took advantage of slow kickoff coverage that appeared to assume Patterson would keep the opening boot in the end zone. Thirty-five yards later the Bears figured it out that he hadn’t.

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

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Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.”