Bears

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

“The all-important third preseason game… .”

Or is it?

The short answer is yes, because “it'll be the most extended play of the starters we have available will play,” said coach John Fox.

In fact, it has been said that before training camps ever begin, upwards of 45 roster spots are pretty well decided. And the combination of camp time and first two preseason games have taken care of perhaps all but the finest of tunings of roster decisions.

“You know we've got some guys that we've evaluated on a lot of football plays before the third preseason game,” Fox said, “so albeit it is important, we have a pretty good idea about some of our players.”

[MORE: Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game]

So while individual players are tasked with taking steps up in their development – wide receiver Kevin White with just two catches so far, for instance – the focus now shifts from predominantly player evaluation to broader questions of how well whole units are performing together. Each unit has its own challenges in a preseason that is still waiting for the Bears’ first win:

Next step for offense

The shutout at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Game 1 was jolting, preseason or not. The 11 points by the offense in New England was promising.

Now what?

The offensive production last season was disappointing but yet respectable because of the unmatched parts Cutler needed to work with because of injuries at receiver besides losing No. 1 tailback Matt Forte for three full games and most of a fourth. Scoring: 23rd. Rushing yards: 11th. Plus Cutler’s career-best passer composite: 92.3.

That won’t be good enough in 2016. Regardless of the myriad changes ranging from coordinator on through running back, tight end and the offensive line, Cutler himself set the bar by pre-emptively ruling out possible excuses.

“Solely just Year 1 to Year 2,” Cutler said. “I think there’s going to be less thinking. I think we have a better idea of what we like in the offense; what we don’t like in the offense; where we need to improve; what we need to add. I think personnel-wise we’re getting better and better.”

The offense won’t put its entire playbook on display against the Chiefs. But “need to improve” is the mantra, and that extends through the running-back “committee,” the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field, and the receivers from White in his biggest dose of playing time to tight ends tasked with replacing Martellus Bennett as well as contributing to a run game that forms the foundation of the offense.

Defensive dominance, if you please

Upgrading the defense was the foremost priority of the 2016 offseason, beginning with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan and lineman Akiem Hicks, and on into the draft when the Bears invested seven of their nine draft picks, including two of the first three, on that side of the football.

“I think we have a chance to be a better defense than we were last year, but the proof will be in the pudding,” coordinator Vic Fangio is on record saying. “Practice is the quiz; the games are the final exam. So until we start playing and see exactly what we’ve got, that will determine the true answer to that question. But I think we have a chance to be better.”

The first two preseason games involved the No. 1 defense but not to the degree that Game 3 will. And as of now, no starting quarterback has been sacked by a Bear, and no defensive starter has a sack through two games, although rotation’ers Sam Acho, Jonathan Bullard, Leonard Floyd and Cornelius Washington have at least a partial sack.

The Kansas City offense was No. 3 in rushing average, sixth in rushing yards per game and ninth in points per game last season. The Bears have yet to make a definitive statement that they are close to an elite defense, which is a prerequisite to moving significantly past the 6-10 record in 2015.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

How “special” are ‘teams?

The Bears were a respectable 12th in the special-teams ranking of Dallas Morning News legend Rick Gosselin, a mix of 22 categories that produces a meaningful evaluation of special teams. But the Broncos’ average starting position was their 32, vs. the Bears’ at the Chicago 21. Based on 12 possessions, that loosely translates into 132 field-position yards the Broncos had on the Bears.

The Patriots’ average start was the New England 32; the Bears’ was their own 24, meaning eight yards average on 10 possessions. However, one New England possession started at the Chicago 15 because of a Brian Hoyer interception, skewing the overall.

Meaning: The Bears improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in gaining field position. That needs to develop into a trend that benefits both the offensive and defensive units.

The overall goal is clear: “Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season; they call it preseason for reasons; it’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players.”

Bears grades: High marks for Mitch Trubisky, Matt Nagy, and Khalil Mack

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USA Today

Bears grades: High marks for Mitch Trubisky, Matt Nagy, and Khalil Mack

Quarterback – A-
We’ll start with the bad, being the interception that ended the Bears’ first drive on the Cowboys’ 1-yard line. Trubisky admitted after the game that he was trying to extend the play and “didn’t make a smart decision.” Otherwise, he was efficient through the air; he threw the ball better against the Lions, but his all-around performance on Thursday night, against a better team, makes it feel like the Cowboys’ win was his best game of the year. The Bears aren’t falling over themselves to tell us what, but something finally clicked during that four-game losing streak, and Trubisky looked way more comfortable in the offense than at any point prior. Mike Pettine, Mike Zimmer and Andy Reid will all have a better knowledge of how to scheme the Bears, but having Trubisky playing at his highest level of self-confidence going into the toughest stretch of the season is never a bad thing. 

Running Backs – B+ 
Montgomery’s stats (20 rushes, 86 yards, 1 fumble) could be seen as underwhelming, but truth be told, the Bears will take the rookie averaging almost four-and-a-half yards a carry any game of the year. The fumble came at a bad time in the game on a bad part of the field, but as Nagy even admitted afterwards, they gave him the ball on the very next play – the Bears aren’t concerned. Tarik Cohen (3 rushes for 7 yards) had an all-around quiet night, but weirdly struggled with fielding punts. The offense has shown it can win featuring either, but still struggles finding room for both simultaneously. 

Wide Receivers – A- 
It was a strange night for pass catchers. Seven different guys had catches, and Tarik Cohen led the team in receptions (6). No one had more receiving yards than JP Holtz, who got 30 of his 56 yards on one screen pass. Two of Allen Robinson’s five catches were touchdowns from inside the 10, and Riley Ridley had his first NFL grab. Jesper Horsted had four catches for 14 yards and Cordarrelle Patterson had one catch for twice as many yards (33). None of it made any sense, but it worked (?), and was kind of fun (!). 

Tight Ends – B 
Horsted is clearly earning the coaching staff’s trust, and even if the JP Holtz passing revolution ends up being a fluke, the Bears now have 60 minutes of tape to point to as evidence that yeah, the tight ends really *are* that important to this offense. It wasn’t perfect: Horsted got flagged for two false starts, admitting after the game that the Cowboys’ front seven was the best he’d seen and noting that Robert Quinn had “incredible speed” and DeMarcus Lawerence had “strength like I’ve really never seen before.” It’s absolutely still a work in progress, but the Bears finally have a tight end situation they can work with. 

Offensive Line – B
The Bears passed for 242 yards and rushed for 151, so credit for both of those starts on the line. They allowed the Cowboys’ pass-rush to sack Trubisky twice and hit him three other times, but the quarterback stayed upright for most of the game, and the line did a great job moving the pocket for him on some of his rollouts and scrambles. Charles Leno got much of the (deserved) credit for sealing off Dallas’ edge rusher on Trubisky’s touchdown run, but James Daniels also does a great job of keeping the gap open. They even stayed away from penalties, too. 

Defensive Line – C
Zeke Elliot is still very good, but it was a generally forgettable performance from the defensive line on Thursday night. Elliot ran for 81 yards on 19 rushes, which is not entirely the D-line’s fault but nonetheless not great. No one on the line had more than one tackle, which, again, not great. The Bears were able to sack Dak Prescott twice, but those sacks came from Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson. Akiem Hicks, come on down! 

Inside Linebackers – B+ 
Nick Kwiatkoski was the only Bears player to finish the game with double-digit tackles (10), and Kevin Pierre-Louis (4 tackles, 1 QBH, 1 TFL, 2 Pass Deflections) filled in admirably for Roquan Smith, who left the game after suffering a pectoral injury on the first drive of the game. Kwiatkkoski hasn’t missed a beat since becoming the starter in Danny Trevathan’s absence, but ‘KPL’ has only started one game in his career – back in 2015 with Seattle. Matt Nagy wouldn’t comment on Trevathan’s availability going forward, but reading the tea leaves over the last couple weeks would indicate that there’s a chance he’s back before the season ends. Chuck Pagano’s going to have to get real creative if it’s KPL-Kwiatkoski for the rest of the way, but on Thursday they provided some optimism. 

Edge Rushers – A 
Another quiet game for Leonard Floyd, but if you’re of the He-Impacts-The-Pocket camp, Thursday was fine for you. Then, of course, there was Khalil Mack: 

A! 

Secondary – B- 
Kyle Fuller and Kevin Tolliver tied each other for second-most tackles (7) of anyone on the Bears’ defense Thursday night. Fuller was particularly good, and Tolliver held his own in relief of Prince Amukamara, who was out all week with a hamstring injury. Prescott ended the night 27-49 with 334 yards, and Tolliver admitted after the game that some of the garbage time yardage that Dallas piled up left a bad taste in the secondary’s mouth. Eddie Jackson had a sack, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had six total tackles too. Teams have been able to break off big passing plays against them more often of late, but no one’s playing exceptionally poorly. 


Special Teams – B+
Eddie Pineiro had seven points (4 XP’s, 1 FG) and has continued to bounce back since his poor performance against the Rams. Pat O’Donnell only punted four times but landed all four inside the 20-yard line. Tarik Cohen fumbled two punts, but was fortunate enough not to lose any. Cordarrelle Patterson did Cordarrelle Patterson things on kick returns. It was nothing too exciting, so it gets the least exciting grade possible. 

Coaching – A
The Bears ran the ball more often than they threw it, which almost definitely makes Matt Nagy scream into his hands when no one’s watching. But to his credit, he’s adjusted to what this personnel does well, and that’s a credit to his ability as a gameplanner that got so frequently panned earlier in the year. David Montgomery got 20 touches, Trubisky got the ball out early and often, and multiple Bears players talked after the game about how there was a better attention to detail through all four quarters. They clearly had a beat on Dallas’ defense: Trubisky even mentioned that on his option touchdown run, the offense easily recognized the Cowboys’ ‘squeeze-and-scrape’ concept. All this starts with Nagy, so he earns high grades for the week. 

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

Trey Burton's nagging injuries and Adam Shaheen's lack of development created a tight end crisis for the Bears through the first half of the 2019 season, but with Burton on injured reserve and Shaheen seemingly no longer in the team's plans, someone had to rise from the ashes and take over the starting job.

Enter J.P. Holtz, the 26-year-old unknown commodity whose under-the-radar signing with the Bears was hardly noticed by the fanbase. GM Ryan Pace claimed Holtz off waivers on Sept. 11 after a brief stint with the Washington Redskins, where he spent 2018 and the start of 2019 bouncing between the practice squad and active roster.

Holtz initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh. He signed with the Browns in May 2016 and spent the end of that season on Cleveland's practice squad. 

Needless to say, Holtz's journey to the Bears' starting lineup has been anything but traditional. But in Week 14's game against the Dallas Cowboys, he provided the Bears' offense with its first legitimately productive game at tight end. Holtz finished Thursday's game with three catches for 56 yards and had the longest catch of any Bears receiver (30 yards). He was the highest-graded player on Chicago's offense, per Pro Football Focus. His 79.2 grade was better than Burton's top mark in 2019 (67.6) and would've qualified as Burton's third-best game of 2018, too. 

Holtz out-snapped fellow tight end Jesper Horsted, 37-31, and appears to have taken a slight lead over Horsted for reps moving forward. That said, both players have surprisingly looked like better fits for what Matt Nagy wants to do in his offense than either Burton or Shaheen. Horsted had four catches for 36 yards on Thursday.

Holtz and Horsted combined for seven catches and 92 yards. That's more yards in one game than Burton managed in the eight games he played, total.

It would be unfair to expect similar production from Holtz from here on out considering he was never a pass-catcher at any point in his career. In college, Holtz never topped more than 24 catches in a season and recorded a career-high 350 yards his senior year. But we've seen players' roles change once they get to the NFL before. Take 49ers superstar George Kittle, for example. His career-high in receiving yards at Iowa was just 314. We know what kind of weapon he's turned into as a pro.

No, Holtz isn't the next Kittle. But he doesn't have to be. He just has to be the guy we saw Thursday night who made plays for an offense desperate for a playmaking tight end.

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