Bears Grades: Hroniss Grasu has 'great' debut at center


Bears Grades: Hroniss Grasu has 'great' debut at center

Amid the cut-off tape, shoes and bric-a-brac, the feet of left tackle Charles Leno Jr. after Sunday’s 18-17 Bears win over the Kansas City Chiefs was a game jersey. Not Leno’s; a Chiefs jersey No. 91, worn by rush-linebacker Tamba Hali, a gift from Hali to Leno, the latter a young offensive lineman who had just effectively shut out one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL.

Did Leno give his to Hali? “He didn’t want mine,” Leno said, with a very contented smile.

Kansas City edge-rush terrors Hali and Justin Houston were each limited to 2 tackles, no sacks, no quarterback hits, no tackles for loss, by Bears tackles Leno and Kyle Long.

But the Bears-Chiefs story line up front really centered around rookie Hroniss Grasu being told not long before the game that he would be starting at center in his first NFL game ever. But the game ultimately was marked by superb protection of quarterback Jay Cutler in the crucial fourth-drives on which the Bears were penalty free and sack-free.

[MORE: Bears Grades: Cutler leads Bears to another comeback win

Grasu appears to have settled the question of Bears starting future for the short term and very likely the long term.

“He was on the whole thing,” said guard Matt Slauson. “He did great, stepped in there as a rookie and I thought he did great.”

It was far from easy. Kansas City threw both their nose tackles (Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard) into multiple sets against the Bears, lined up over the gaps immediately to either side of Grasu, and in situations that Bears linemen said were unusual points on the field. Howard was able to get by Grasu in the second series to sack Cutler, leading to a fumble that was recovered for a Chiefs touchdown. The fault was not entirely on Grasu, however; guards Slauson and Vladimir Ducasse were not able to seal to the inside and exact assignments were difficult to pick out in the breakdown.

More important, breakdowns like that disappeared. Grasu may have been inactive over the first four games but he was hardly inactive Sunday or in the weeks leading up to this.

“Even when I was inactive the last couple of weeks, I was preparing like I was playing,” Grasu said. “These guys, the O-line, the whole offense, accepted me. They brought me in with open arms and they really made me feel comfortable. When we were out there, there was no panic for any of us.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Slauson returned to his familiar spot at left guard and was instrumental triggering the Bears’ silent count as well as making line calls with this being Grasu’s first NFL game of any kind other than preseason.

The center makes the initial “point” identifying the middle linebacker and other keys, communicates, and then is ready to go. But Sunday was Grasu’s first NFL moment and had enough to do with snapping the football and contending with a strong inside pass rush.

So when things changed, he didn’t always have time, particularly when the Bears were in shotgun, waiting for Slauson to tap him on the left hip to begin the snap count.

“But I do [have time],” Slauson said. “I’m watching for the ‘heel’ [quarterback lifting his heel to signal] and when I get the heel, if [the Chiefs] move, I’ve got time to call a move over here or wherever, and then give the tap.”

Moon's Grade: A-

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 21 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.