Bears Grades: Defense unable to contain Marcus Mariota, takes blame for loss to Titans

Bears Grades: Defense unable to contain Marcus Mariota, takes blame for loss to Titans

The Bears’ latest disappointment in a season of them will be remembered largely for dropped passes and red-zone interceptions committed by the offense in the 27-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

That is not at all how members of the defense saw matters.

“The offense kept us in the game,” said cornerback Tracy Porter, measuring his words carefully and then pointing the thumb rather than any fingers of blame.

“I don’t even blame anybody on defense. I blame myself. I’m not trying to be politically correct or anything like that. If I make those two plays, we win the ballgame.”

That was a recurring theme within a defense that effectively blunted the NFL’s No. 2 rusher, holding Demarco Murray to 43 yards (less than half his per-game average) on 17 attempts (2.5 ypc).

“We knew that he was a bounce-out rusher, not someone who tries to chop it up in the middle,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks. “He got out a couple times but we did our best to contain him.”

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Yet for the eighth time in 11 games allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points.

The problem Sunday was quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Bears never sacked him or even got credit for a hit on him in 23 dropbacks. Mariota also broke four runs for a total of 46 yards, a couple coming on designed runs, one for a long of 29 yards.

Defensive line: C

The down-three were unable to take any real control of the line of scrimmage consistently enough by stopping the run and earning the right to get after the quarterback. Mariota was never sacked and not hit once, according to postgame stats.

Eddie Goldman was back at nose tackle and was credited with four solo tackles, the biggest on a shovel pass from Mariota to Murray for a crucial third-down stop in the fourth quarter. Cornelius Washington had three tackles.

Jonathan Bullard started in place of Mitch Unrein (inactive/back) but was credited with just one assisted tackle.

Linebacker: C-

The lack of pressure on Mariota from the rush-linbackers was concerning, although Pernell McPhee was in on four tackles and Willie Young had one tackle for loss.

The most devastating blow came late Sunday when Danny Trevathan went down with a knee injury that coach John Fox described only as “serious.” For much of the game, however, Trevathan was uncharacteristically slow at times in run fills, and neither he nor rookie Nick Kwiatkoski were effective in underneath coverage.

Kwiatkoski started his second game and was in on some plays but was badly out of position and slow to react to a 29-yard run by Mariota in the third quarter. Kwiatkoski did deliver a strong run-fill on a third-and-goal to force the Titans to settle for a field goal, and he spun out of a blitz to pursue and force a throwaway by Mariota on a third down in the fourth quarter.

“It felt more natural this time,” said Kwiatkoski, whose flow to the football was part of stopping Murray from gashing the defense. “It was something we saw on film and just one of those things we play for. Keep your options; fit your gap but also keep an eye on him, knowing he’ll move around in the backfield. We planned for it.”

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Sam Acho lost the edge on Derrick Henry’s 11-yard TD run in the first quarter, failing to establish contain on the edge and then being blocked cleanly by a back.

Secondary: D+

Adrian Amos continues to have coverage issues, being victimized twice in the first quarter by TE Delanie Walker on plays where Amos was effectively nowhere close to threatening the completions. He did break up a first-half sideline pass and collected a tackle for loss on a well-executed fourth-quarter blitz.

Tracy Porter was cleanly blocked and failed to deliver any force against second-quarter screen pass for 14 yards. He was also late with run support against a determined, physical Titans offense and took full responsibility for failed coverage on Tennessee’s 29-yard TD pass to Rashard Matthews.

Cre’Von LeBlanc was able to make two solo tackles in the open field.

But Mariota was able to pick the Bears apart too frequently, converting five of 11 third downs while completing 15 of 23 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 126.4 because of no turnovers.

“We on defense are supposed to get the ball for offense and we didn’t do a good job of it,” Porter said, adding, “I didn’t do a good job of it.”

Special teams: B+

Special teams recovered the first onside kick in nearly a year, giving the offense a major scoring opportunity to start the second half. Pat O’Donnell continues to be a bright spot, punting four times for a 45.5-yard average, although none inside the Tennessee 20.

Eddie Royal returned one punt, for just four yards. Returns in general again did little for Chicago field position, with a penalty and poor runback leaving the offense at the Chicago 8 on one drive and the 11 after one punt.

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

If the NFL’s proposed collective bargaining agreement is ratified, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs in 2020— a change that will immediately alter the league's player movement landscape in the coming weeks and months.

Under the proposed structure, the Los Angeles Rams would’ve been the NFC’s No. 7 seed in 2019, with the 8-8 Bears finishing one game out of a playoff spot (really, two games, given they lost to the Rams). But as the Tennessee Titans showed last year, just getting into the dance can spark an underdog run to a conference title game. The vast majority of the NFL — those not in full-on tank mode — should view the potential for a seventh playoff spot as a license to be more aggressive in the free agent and trade market as soon as a few weeks from now.

So, should the Bears look at this new CBA as reason to be more aggressive in pushing to acquire one of the big-name quarterbacks who will, or could, be available this year? After all, merely slightly better quarterback play could’ve leapfrogged the Bears past the Rams and into the playoffs a year ago.

The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton representing that upgrade feels tantalizing on the surface, right?

But the CBA’s addition of a seventh playoff team does not, as far as we know, also include an addition of significantly more cap space available to teams in 2020, even if the salary cap has increased 40 percent over the last five years. An extra $25 million is not walking through that door to add to the roughly $14 million the Bears currently have in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report.

So that means every reason we laid out why the Bears should not make a splash move at quarterback remains valid, even with the NFL lowering its postseason barrier to entry.

The Bears’ best bet in 2020 remains signing a cheaper quarterback like Case Keenum or Marcus Mariota (who shares an agent with Mitch Trubisky, potentially complicating things) and banking on roster improvements being the thing that gets them back into the playoffs. Adding a quarterback for $17 million — Dalton’s price — or more would hamstring the Bears’ ability to address critical needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, thus giving the Bears a worse roster around a quarterback who’s no sure bet to be good enough to cover for the holes his cap hit would create.

Does it feel like a good bet? No, and maybe feels worse if it’s easier to get in the playoffs in 2020. But a Trubisky-Keenum pairing, complete with a new starting right guard to help the run game and more than just Demetrius Harris to upgrade the tight end room, is a better bet than Dalton or Bridgewater and a worse roster around them.

Also: This new playoff structure will tilt the balance of power significantly toward the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The last time a team made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye was after the 2012 season, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens won the title. Otherwise, every Super Bowl participant since hasn't played on wild card weekend. 

So while the Bears may become closer to the playoffs if the new CBA is ratified, they won’t be closer to getting a No. 1 seed. And that holds true even if they were to find a way to sign Tom Brady.

Getting in the playoffs can spark something special. But the Bears’ best path back to meaningful January football still involves an inexpensive approach to addressing their blaring need for better quarterback play. 
Is it ideal? No.

But it’s far less ideal to be in this situation three years after taking the first quarterback off the board with 2017’s No. 2 overall pick. 

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Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

The Bears are expected to be extremely busy in their effort to upgrade at tight end this offseason. In fact, they've already made their first move with the signing of veteran Demetrius Harris, but it's unlikely he'll be the only new player added at the position over the next few months.

The most appealing free-agent tight end who's likely to hit the open market is Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper, who was recently dubbed the ideal target for Bears GM Ryan Pace once the spending frenzy gets started.

Hooper is exactly the type of performer the Bears currently lack. He can provide a reliable outlet to make life easier on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Granted, the 25-year-old tight end shouldn't be viewed as a Travis Kelce-like difference-maker in head coach Matt Nagy's scheme, but he's the best option in thin free-agent and weak draft classes.

Hooper would be the dream acquisition for Chicago, but the dollars are unlikely to make sense. According to Spotrac, Hooper's market value will command a five-year, $49.9 million deal, or $9.9 million per season. If the Bears inked Hooper to a contract like that, they'd have nearly $19 million tied up in tight ends in 2020 (Trey Burton's contract counts as $8.5 million against the cap next season).

As much as Bears fans want more production at tight end, that's just too steep a price to pay regardless of how important the position is for Nagy's offense.

The better route for Pace to pursue is the 2020 NFL Draft, where Chicago could be the first team to draft a tight end in April. This year's class of tight end prospects is without a clear first-rounder and with the Bears' first pick coming at No. 43 overall, there's a good chance they could have their pick of the litter.

Prospects like Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, and Washington's Hunter Bryant will all be given strong consideration in the first half of the second round.

It'll be another strike against Pace's work in free agency if he's forced out of the Hooper market because of the contract he gave Burton in 2018. But maybe it's for the best. He hasn't been very good at identifying tight ends since taking over as Chicago's GM in 2015 -- Khari Lee, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Burton -- and probably shouldn't be trusted with the checkbook while searching for another one this offseason.

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