Bears need early “turnaround” vs. Eagles

Bears need early “turnaround” vs. Eagles

No game is insignificant in a sport where the season consists of only 16 of them, but some games take on added significance for a variety of reasons. And Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles is one of those games, for many of those reasons.

The obvious is to avoid an 0-2 start. The Bears have reached the playoffs after losing two of their first three games (1977, 1994, 2005) but never after losing their first two. And for a franchise still working to shake free of any vestiges of the losing culture of Marc Trestman, the need is there to avoid a second straight start under John Fox losing the first two (first three last year).

One of the ancillary things the Bears did this offseason was to bring in free agents from winning programs (Arizona, Denver, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England). Ex-Bronco Danny Trevathan never lost a season opener before last weekend. Right tackle Bobby Massie lost only one in four years as a Cardinal. (Josh Sitton and the Packers did lose week one three of the last four years, but with Aaron Rodgers, all of those seasons ended in the playoffs).

“The first game by itself doesn’t matter,” Massie said. “All the games obviously count for the season but in our case, there’s no change, because it wasn’t like we got blown out 60-0 or something. We had opportunities but just couldn’t capitalize on them, and nobody’s down or approaching anything differently.”

The Bears are entering the stretch of their season that offers perhaps the greatest chance for upward movement. The Philadelphia game begins a run of five straight games against opponents without winning records in 2015. After that come the Packers and Vikings, and after the Bears were the only NFC North team not to win in week one, this weekend began with the Bears already looking up at a difficult division.

The mission statement is pretty simple: “We want to limit turnovers, we have to be more efficient on third down, we have to keep the chains moving,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “We have to stay on the field.

“We got into a situation there in the second half [vs. Houston] where we got behind and we got in a little bit of a ‘throw’ situation with going against that front… Second down we have to improve on, I thought we were really good on first down, second down we have to get a little bit better in that area. We watched the film, there wasn't anything crazy on there that we have to change.”

Own the middle

With their signing of Sitton, the Bears field a tandem of Pro Bowl guards (Kyle Long) flanking a second-round draft choice. That is the strength of an offense that Fox envisions with a dominant running team.

The problem is that the middle also is a defensive strength of the Eagles, beginning with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and backed by veteran safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod (13 combined seasons). And running their defense is coordinator Jim Schwartz, a Bears nemesis while Detroit Lions head coach.

“The Eagles are strong up the middle,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “’91’ [Cox] is a really good player. The ‘Mike’ linebacker [Jordan Hicks] is a good player and the safeties are both good.

“I worked with Jim Schwartz for multiple years in Tennessee. I know that that’s how he believes in building a football team. Those guys quarterback the defense. They’re smart and you have to make sure what they’re doing and where they’re lined up because they can be a big problem for you.”

Get the rook

The objective of the Bears defense is to be a big problem for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, a rookie making his second start. Wentz benefited last week by his team getting up 10-0 on the Cleveland Browns, who didn’t score until mid-second quarter, and Wentz never played from behind on his way to 278 passing yards and two TD’s without an interception.

But the Bears called unflattering stereotypes of rookie quarterbacks “myths” and one member of the defense has seen Wentz up close.

“Cannon for an arm, not afraid to run it, so he’s not one-dimensional by any means,” said cornerback Deiondre’ Hall, who faced Wentz more than once while playing at Northern Iowa and Wentz was at North Dakota State. “A lot of his check-down passes to his tight ends was what he did a lot of NDSU. He wasn’t running it as much but we definitely know they have it in their system.”

And the winner is…

The Bears’ 1-7 record in Soldier Field was perhaps the biggest mystery of the 2015 season, with glaring late-game mistakes by veterans leading to losses to Minnesota, San Francisco and Washington. The defensive front-seven can take over this game by disrupting Wentz, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s creativity with blitzes in particular have the potential to control the game if the edge rushers can get home more than they did at Houston.

Bears 20, Eagles 13

View from the Moon ’16 record:    1-0

Bears have good news on Trey Burton, but tight end questions linger

Bears have good news on Trey Burton, but tight end questions linger

DECATUR, Ill. — The Bears do not expect Trey Burton to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list, clearing up a question that’s lingered ever since the team revealed the tight end underwent sports hernia surgery earlier this year. 

But while Burton will participate to some extent in camp — general manager Ryan Pace said the team will be “smart” about his workload — the Bears will nonetheless have some important questions to answer about their group of tight ends in the coming weeks. 

Specifically: The Bears can help Mitch Trubisky be a more efficient and productive quarterback by being more effective when using 12 personnel (two tight ends, one running back). It’s an area of the offense Matt Nagy wasn’t able to maximize in 2018, with Adam Shaheen missing more than half the season due to a foot injury and a concussion, and Dion Sims proving to be ineffective when he was on the field. 

“It's all predicated based off of matchups, and so who are you going against and do you like your tight ends or do you like your other skill guys,” Nagy said. 

Ideally, Shaheen will be more available than he has been over his first two years in the league, during which he’s missed 13 games. The same goes for Burton: The Bears’ offense struggled to overcome his sudden absence in the playoffs, with the trickle-down effect being the Philadelphia Eagles successfully limiting what Tarik Cohen could do in that loss. 

The Bears like their receivers — it’s arguably the deepest unit on the team — and primarily used 11 personnel last year (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller the primary targets. With Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley now on the roster, it’s may be unrealistic to expect the Bears to use 12 personnel any more frequently than they did last year (17 percent, which was even with the NFL average). 

But when the Bears do use 12 personnel, there’s room for improvement in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. While in 12 personnel in 2018, the Bears averaged about a yard per carry and two yards per pass attempt less than league average; Trubisky and Chase Daniel combined for a passer rating of 85 in 12 personnel, about 17 points lower than the league average. 

The point here is that throwing out of 12 personnel is, per Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview, is more efficient than throwing from 11 personnel. It makes sense: 12 personnel forces teams to play their base defense instead of having five defensive backs on the field in nickel. Getting the athleticism of Burton and Shaheen matched up against linebackers more frequently would seem to be a positive for the Bears. 

The Bears liked what they saw from Shaheen during training camp last year before he injured his foot in a preseason game, and Pace was pleased with how the 2017 second-round pick looked during spring practices. 

“Very encouraged last year, very encouraged in the preseason, and he knows this, he’s just got to stay healthy,” Pace said. “He’s had a great offseason. He’s just got to keep on stacking positive day after positive day. Same thing with Trey. And we’re excited about (Ben) Braunecker. There are a lot of younger pieces in play. We’re excited to see that play out. 

“Nagy utilizes the tight end position a lot. Part of it, especially for Shaheen, is just staying healthy.”

Shaheen still is a relative unknown, though. The Bears haven’t seen him handle a large workload much — he played more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in a given game just three times in his career. He’s only logged 17 receptions and 175 yards since entering the league; Burton surpassed those totals against the AFC East in 2018 (four games, 18 receptions, 195 yards). 

Bradley Sowell (a converted offensive lineman) and the group of Dax Raymond, Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted and Ellis Richardson (undrafted free agents) are even more unknown in terms of tight end depth, too. How the Bears are able to develop depth at both the “Y” (in-line) and “U” (move) tight end positions in Bourbonnais will be an important storyline to follow. 

Last week, we looked at how passing to running backs on first down can help Trubisky and the Bears’ offense be better in 2019. Consider better production from 12 personnel to be another path to the kind of critical offensive growth the Bears need. 

As Bears' critical kicking competition starts back up, Ryan Pace is keeping his options open

As Bears' critical kicking competition starts back up, Ryan Pace is keeping his options open

DECATUR, Ill. — The Bears will report to Bourbonnais for training camp on Thursday with everything on the table regarding their kicking competition — well, everything but making a trade for Robbie Gould. 

Elliott Fry or Eddy Pineiro could emerge from training camp and four preseason games as the clear-cut choice to be the Bears’ placekicker when the 2019 season opens Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. Alternatively, both could not do enough to convince Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ brass that they’re the solution to the most glaring weakness on an otherwise Super Bowl-caliber roster. 

So not only will Pineiro and Fry be competing against each other, they’ll be competing against a group of kickers around the league who could wind up on the trading block or the waiver wire in the coming weeks. 

"We’re watching all the teams, all the competitive situations around the league — one of them will be kicker," Pace said. "We’re just watching that progress as we go forward. We know right now where we stand, where some of those battles are occurring. We’re watching those. And I’m sure there will be ones that will pop up that might surprise us."
The first 11 questions of Pace and Matt Nagy’s pre-training-camp press conference on Sunday involved the kicking position in some way, an indication of a few things. 

First and foremost is what’s at stake for the Bears with this kicking battle. 2018’s season ended well short of the Super Bowl when Cody Parkey’s 43-yard kick double-doinked off the uprights at Soldier Field; if the 2019 Bears — with a stronger roster — suffer the same fate, it’ll go down as one of the biggest, most gutting disappointments in franchise history. 

Second is an indication of how deep the Bears’ roster is: What else, really, is there to talk about in terms of training camp battles besides kicker? There will be a heated competition at the bottom of the team’s wide receiver depth chart, and the Bears need better play (and better health) from their tight ends. But this is a strong, talented roster across all units — except for kicker. 

That’s not to say the Bears aren’t without their questions, from how good Mitch Trubisky will be to how the defense adjusts to Chuck Pagano’s scheme to how this team handles the high expectations created by 2018’s success. But those are topics that’ll play out during the regular season; the kicking battle has to be solved by Week 1’s kickoff. 

And final reason for the "hyper focus," as Pace put it, on the kicking competition is the overwhelming interest in the topic from fans. Bears chairman George McCaskey said on Sunday his team’s kicking situation has come up in every interaction he’s had with fans over the last six and a half months. 

“Thanks for the reminder,” McCaskey said he’s responded. “We’re working on that.”

How the competition between Fry and Pineiro plays out in Bourbonnais and then into preseason games will be fascinating to follow. Nagy hinted during the spring at throwing some curveballs at each kicker, and while he said Sunday he doesn’t plan on calling for field goal attempts on third down during preseason games, he did say he’s going to do what he can to make sure each kicker gets as many chances as possible to be evaluated. 

“We need to figure out this position, right? We need to understand it’s a crucial spot first we’ve got to get right,” Nagy said. “I think the more opportunities that you have for these guys to prove who the are and what they could do, we’ll take ‘em. 

“So there may be some questionable playcalls in the preseason. I’ll just leave it at that and we’ll go from there.”

For now, Pace characterized Fry and Pineiro as “even” heading into training camp. So may the best kicker win, whether he'll be in Bourbonnais on Thursday or not. 

“Those guys are going to battle it out,” Pace said. “Obviously we’re scouring the waiver wire as we go forward. And it’s kind of open competition.”