Bears

Bears' playoff hopes on the brink after loss

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Bears' playoff hopes on the brink after loss

This time there was no Marion Barber, no Roy Williams to blame. The offense gave as many points as it scored. The defense did about the same. And the Bears playoff hopes moved so close to the brink that, with a trip to Green Bay coming up next Sunday, any scenarios by which the Bears could make the playoffs didnt seem worth figuring out anymore.

The 38-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks (7-7), in which Seattle scored 31 unanswered points in the second half, allowed yet another team to slip by the Bears, who were 7-3 this time a month ago and wondering who besides themselves would be in the wild-card round.

Until someone tells us were eliminated or something like that, said coach Lovie Smith, well continue to play, but theres disappointment right now.

Uphill run

But no Bears team has ever lost four straight games and made the postseason that year. And the suspicion after Sundays death spiral in the second half is that the Bears are not done losing this season.

The Bears have lost in stunning overtime fashion in Denver and to Kansas City by way of a Hail Mary heave at the end of halftime. This week, they were blown out in the second half as the defense allowed 202 yards and appeared rocked into submission by lack of help from the offense or special teams.

Its been a tough way to lose, said defensive end Israel Idonije, who scored on a fumble recovery in the end zone in the first quarter. All of these losses have been extremely tough to swallow.

The Bears can still qualify for the playoffs if they win at Green Bay and Minnesota, and the Detroit Lions lose the rest of their games. But the Bears have not won in a month and there is little reason to suspect they will start now, even against a Packers team that finally lost and has little to play for now beyond late-playoff seeding.

Hanie disastrous

Caleb Hanie completed just 7-of-15 passes through three quarters for 92 yards. He had a 25-yard TD pass but also had a crushing interception returned for a touchdown by a Seattle defensive lineman.

Hanie finished with 10-for-23 passing for 111 yards and three interceptions, the last returned 42 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Brandon Browner late in the fourth quarter.

Hes had his ups and downs. Its just something hell learn from, said wide receiver Roy Williams, who may given the best indicator for Hanies future.

Best of luck to him the rest of the way.

No. 2 quarterback Josh McCown came on with five minutes to play and was unable to make any difference. It will be an NFL-grade surprise if McCown is not under center with the No. 1 offense this week after the Bears futility reached 0-4 under Hanie.

The defense put points of its own on the board but was pushed around in a listless second half, 137 yards in the third quarter, and appeared to be simply going through the motions as Seattle rolled off 31 unanswered points in the second half, albeit with huge help from Hanie.

Hurtin Bears unravel

This defeat was marked by several scary injury moments. Wide receiver Johnny Knox had to be carted off the field after suffering a back injury following his fumble in the first quarter. Safety Chris Conte was lost to a foot injury in the second quarter.

After going in with their first halftime lead in four games, the Bears came unhinged.

The defense allowed Seattle only 40 yards in the first quarter and 44 in the second. The Seahawks virtually matched those two plays on their opening drive of the third quarter, with Marshawn Lynch finishing an 80-yard drive with a three-yard scrum into the end zone.

The drive included Tarvaris Jackson completions covering 33 and 43 yards, the longest plays other than the Kansas City Hail Mary in the past three games.

That was followed by a nightmare dj vu for Hanie as he responded to a blitz in his face by linebacker K.J. Wright and unloaded a pass right into the midsection of 323-pound defensive end Red Bryant.

Bryant did exactly what Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji did with a similar Hanie gaffe in the NFC Championship game: returned it for a touchdown, covering 20 yards and putting Seattle ahead 21-14.

The disasters gave the Seahawks 14 points in the span of 50 seconds.

Finally

The Chicago offense got into Seattles end of the field three times in the first half. The third time was the charm, ending with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hanie to Kahlil Bell.

That throw gave Hanie a brief stay of job execution after an otherwise punchless offensive first half in which the Bears totaled 168 yards of offense.

The score gave the Bears their first halftime lead at 14-7 with Hanie as their quarterback. The difference was that the offense converted all three third-down opportunities on a 57-yard drive, the Bears longest under Hanie since the fourth quarter of the Oakland game.

Horrible beginnings

A team desperately needing a fast start suffered anything but. Hanie was nearly intercepted by defensive end Chris Clemons dropping into coverage on Hanies first attempt. Then Hanie completely overthrew a wide-open Bell on a third-down attempt inside the Seattle 40.

Far worse, Knox caught a third-down pass on the previous possession, had the first down but then fumbled. The ball was recovered by Seattle but that was secondary to a frightening injury to Knox, who was bent backwards by defensive end Anthony Hargrove.

Knox was carted off the field, done for the game, but fortunately able to move his extremities sometime later.

The fumble was turned into points despite the Bears throwing the Seahawks for losses on three straight plays starting at the Chicago 1. But on a short field-goal attempt, Corey Graham used teammates to gain additional height trying to block the kick.

The leverage personal-foul call gave Seattle a break that became 7 points when Marshawn Lynch powered in for a touchdown.

Explosive answer

The defense picked up both the offense and special teams as Peppers slipped down on his pass rush, got back to his feet and arrived with second-effort in time to knock the ball out of Jacksons hand before the Seattle quarterback could start his arm forward.

The resulting sack-fumble, in the end zone, was recovered by Idonije to give the Bears their first first-half touchdown under Hanie since the Oakland game.

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”

With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

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With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

As encouraging as some elements of the 2017 season was for the Bears defense, it wasn’t enough. Ranking in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed left linchpins like lineman Akiem Hicks setting “top five” as a declared goal.

With what has happened within the last 13 days – from the first preseason game vs. Baltimore through the long-anticipated arrival of Roquan Smith – the Bears have had arguably seen a handful of developments that could put “elite” within reach of a defense intent on being just that.

The developments have been the play of linebackers Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving, and now topped off by the Smith addition. The reasons are obvious – a linebacker-dependent defense (as all 3-4’s inherently are) has moved to the brink of realizing impact from not one, not two, but possibly three.

None is being given a leading role in an already good defense. But what they all represent are high-speed additions in a sport where speed rules and rivals pad-level in importance. Fitts and Irving have flashed off the edges, and Smith was the No. 8 pick of the draft for his speed in getting to targets, followed of course what he does to them when he gets there.

How any change occurs remains to play out, and Vic Fangio has used rotations in his front seven’s. One scenario could be Smith easing in as part of nickel packages, where the Bears have used a 4-2 front and would have Smith and Danny Trevathan as their ILB’s. Likewise, Fitts and Irving present edge options in that package as well as in base 3-4.

Perspective, please

Understand: No criticism of any sort is directed at either of the incumbents. No knock on Nick Kwiatkoski, who has in two seasons and this training camp established himself as an NFL inside linebacker. Nor is it a diss of Sam Acho, who is a physical edge presence with some pass-rush pop. The Bears need both, REALLY need both. 

But the 1983 Bears ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed with Al Harris as part of a linebacker corps that included Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson. Jim Finks drafted Wilber Marshall in the 1984 first round and Ron Rivera in the second. Harris remained the starter but the Bears also jumped to third in points allowed with Marshall and first the two years after that.

Elite.

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said years later that Marshall – nicknamed “Pit Bull”by teammates – was the single best individual player on that elite defense, and the player that took things to another level entirely. And as Marshall told Hall of Fame NFL writer Rick “Goose” Gosselin, who created the special-teams ranking system used by every NFL team and now hosts "Talk of Fame Radio:”

"They had Mike [Singletary] sitting on the sidelines when I’m playing middle linebacker on third down. So I wasn’t just a rush guy, like the guys on the end that you see them go 90 percent of the time."

Sounding like a bill of particulars for Smith.

Best guess that Smith – wearing the No. 58 that Marshall wore – will have a new level of impact for a defense that just added a piece with a chance to earn the designation of “elite.”

Fitts and Irving are younger, faster options on the edge. Fitts is bigger and faster (4.69 sec. 40) than Irving, but one can never be too rich, too thin or have too many edge rushers.

And Smith, who had 6.5 sacks last season at Georgia (his only credited sacks in three seasons there), projects to be the fastest Bears linebacker with a documented 4.51-sec. time in the 40 – faster than Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and…well, you get the point.

And speed is the route to “elite.”