Bears

Bears' roster decisions come with complications

Bears' roster decisions come with complications

Some NFL roster decisions are clear; one NFL coach once remarked that he typically had a pretty good idea of who 50 of his final 53 players would be before training camp ever started.

But by the end of training camps, those assumptions can fall prey to circumstances that make final calls far more difficult than simply knowing who your best 53 football players are. For the Bears this weekend, the difficult moments will extend beyond the unpleasant task of a coach needing to inform a young man that he’s been cut.

Start with the general guideline that most coaches like to give their offensive and defensive coordinators 25 slots, plus three for special teams. The trouble with that equation is that injuries or the threat of them within a position group cannot be dismissed, and one side of the football may lose headcount in the interests of the overall.

By the time you’re reading this, most decisions will have been made and some made public. But consider the complications (and you make the calls):

Secondary considerations

The Bears’ three top cornerbacks (Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter) all have been on the injury list this preseason. That points toward keeping an extra corner, meaning six. But while Sherrick McManis is listed as and has played corner, he is almost exclusively a special-teams fixture.

Do the Bears have the luxury of keeping a sixth cornerback whose value is only on special teams? Because other needs lurk.

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The same problem exists at safety, where starters Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey are in place, backed up by rookies/draft picks Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson. Demontre Hurst can work as a reserve nickel corner. But as with the cornerback situation, can the Bears tie up a roster spot with Chris Prosinski, who like McManis is effectively a special-teamer.

The Bears keeping both McManis and Prosinski starts squeezing things elsewhere.

Line-backing

One “benefit” of a 3-4 scheme is that it necessitates more linebackers than a 4-3 based around a Lance Briggs, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Brian Urlacher. Reserve linebackers are axiomatic to good special teams because of the size-speed combination.

But the Bears face a conundrum with Pernell McPhee and the linebacker’s knee, which is expected to keep him down for at least the first several games. If the Bears decide McPhee can contribute sooner than the first half of the season, which placing him on the PUP list would cost, then he is included in the initial 53.

But his unavailability projects to needing an extra linebacker in the meantime. Sam Acho gives the Bears special-teams impact and leadership and can staff an OLB spot.

Can the Bears hold open a spot at outside linebacker for McPhee, given that Leonard Floyd, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young don’t play special teams other than kick-block?

Risky up front

Because the trickle-down effect of all these situations affect each other. The Bears cannot realistically keep an extra cornerback, safety and linebacker without the risk of exposure on the defensive line.

And “risk” is the operative word. The Bears finished 2015 with only one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) who was with them in training camp. A variety of issues left them short-handed, and if that group struggles, so does everything behind it.

The Bears went light with five defensive linemen last year in Week 1, and roster squeezes elsewhere may force that scenario on them again. But which five?

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Cornelius Washington has had a strong preseason but has injury history that includes going on IR after game last season. Can the Bears gamble on Washington’s health, particularly with no depth behind Eddie Goldman at nose tackle? Will Sutton is a coaches’ favorite, can play nose, but is undersized. Ego Ferguson was largely invisible before Thursday, has played both nose and five-technique, but also is coming off season-ending knee surgery.

Throw in the prospect of intense heat in Houston and the risks multiply.

And that’s just defense/special teams.

Easier calls…sorta’

Quarterback is a gimme; Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer. Running back, too: Ka’Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jordan Howard, who flashed for 107 rushing yards at Cleveland. After that:

Do the Bears stay with both Eddie Royal and Marc Mariani, both solid slot receivers? Cameron Meredith played his way off any bubble, and Josh Bellamy is a special-teamer. With Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, that’s six wide receivers for an offense that wants to be run-based. And none of them are answers on kickoff return.

A run-based offense uses tight ends and, in the Bears case, a fullback for now. The Bears used three-tight-end packages this preseason, although whether they have three workables among Zach Miller, Tony Moeaki, Greg Scruggs, Khari Lee and Rob Housler won’t be totally clear until the group starts trying to block Texans.

All of which trickles down, as it does on defense, to the line. The Bears have seven linemen active on game days. They have rostered as many as 10 offensive linemen, nine is preferable, but with squeezes elsewhere, one scenario is a reserve contingent of Mike Adams or Garry Williams (tackle), Amini Silatolu (guard) and Cornelius Edison (center). Edison is a young stopgap, and Adams and Silatolu are coming off major injuries.

Now, you make the calls.

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Packers

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Packers

1. Keep Aaron Jones in check. Aaron Rodgers is going to get his yards through the air, most likely. Stopping him would, of course, be great — but this is a guy who’s only thrown one interception in 495 attempts this year. The better way to key defensive success is to stop running back Aaron Jones, who’s averaging 5.6 yards per attempt in 11 games this year. Drilling deeper: Jones is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the five four wins in which he’s played; in seven losses, he’s still averaging 5.0 yards per carry. 

Perhaps, then, the best way to look at this is holding Jones to below 4.5 yards per carry, which the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals each did during Green Bay’s three-game losing streak. Also worth noting: The Bears have lost two of three games when an opposing running back averages over 4.5 yards per carry with at least 10 attempts (losses to Miami and New York, win over Detroit). And this defense just held Todd Gurley to 26 yards on 11 attempts, so it’s certainly up for the challenge. 

2. Efficient play from Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky was frustrated with his play against the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, which statistically was the worst game of his career. The Bears’ defense might be good enough to repeat its performance this weekend, but that’s a tall task with Rodgers on the opposite sideline. So the point here being: Trubisky will have to play significantly better than he did against the Rams for the Bears to be in a position to win. That means keeping his footwork sound and not overthrowing open receivers, and making smart decisions as he goes through his progressions. 

The good news: Those are two points Trubisky brought up during his media session this week, and in the four games before he injured his shoulder he had a 98.9 passer rating. More likely than not, Trubisky’s game against the Rams was an aberration, but he still has to prove it was on Sunday. 

3. Get the lead, and don’t give Rodgers a chance. The Bears have steadily improved when it comes to finishing games in the fourth quarter since blowing a 20-point lead in that Week 1 loss, to the point where the Rams were entirely ineffective in the final 15 minutes of last weekend’s 15-6 win. But Rodgers remains a bogeyman of sorts — the Bears’ defense is mentally strong, but still has something to prove if it gets a fourth quarter lead and has to keep Rodgers from leading a comeback. 

The same goes for Matt Nagy and the offense: While Rodgers led that comeback, the Bears’ offense sputtered behind conservative playcalling and poor play by Trubisky. If given the chance on Sunday, that can’t happen again.  

Prediction: Bears 24, Packers 20. The Bears are a better team than the Packers, plain and simple. But until this franchise proves it can reliably beat Rodgers, who’s won 16 of his 20 regular season meetings with the Bears, these rivalry games shouldn’t be met with overconfidence. We'll say Rodgers keeps it close, but the Bears this time make enough plays down the stretch to win, clinching the NFC North and effectively eliminating the Packers from playoff contention.

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Packers

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Packers

1. Keep Aaron Jones in check. Aaron Rodgers is going to get his yards through the air, most likely. Stopping him would, of course, be great — but this is a guy who’s only thrown one interception in 495 attempts this year. The better way to key defensive success is to stop running back Aaron Jones, who’s averaging 5.6 yards per attempt in 11 games this year. Drilling deeper: Jones is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the five four wins in which he’s played; in seven losses, he’s still averaging 5.0 yards per carry. 

Perhaps, then, the best way to look at this is holding Jones to below 4.5 yards per carry, which the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals each did during Green Bay’s three-game losing streak. Also worth noting: The Bears have lost two of three games when an opposing running back averages over 4.5 yards per carry with at least 10 attempts (losses to Miami and New York, win over Detroit). And this defense just held Todd Gurley to 26 yards on 11 attempts, so it’s certainly up for the challenge. 

2. Efficient play from Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky was frustrated with his play against the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, which statistically was the worst game of his career. The Bears’ defense might be good enough to repeat its performance this weekend, but that’s a tall task with Rodgers on the opposite sideline. So the point here being: Trubisky will have to play significantly better than he did against the Rams for the Bears to be in a position to win. That means keeping his footwork sound and not overthrowing open receivers, and making smart decisions as he goes through his progressions. 

The good news: Those are two points Trubisky brought up during his media session this week, and in the four games before he injured his shoulder he had a 98.9 passer rating. More likely than not, Trubisky’s game against the Rams was an aberration, but he still has to prove it was on Sunday. 

3. Get the lead, and don’t give Rodgers a chance. The Bears have steadily improved when it comes to finishing games in the fourth quarter since blowing a 20-point lead in that Week 1 loss, to the point where the Rams were entirely ineffective in the final 15 minutes of last weekend’s 15-6 win. But Rodgers remains a bogeyman of sorts — the Bears’ defense is mentally strong, but still has something to prove if it gets a fourth quarter lead and has to keep Rodgers from leading a comeback. 

The same goes for Matt Nagy and the offense: While Rodgers led that comeback, the Bears’ offense sputtered behind conservative playcalling and poor play by Trubisky. If given the chance on Sunday, that can’t happen again.  

Prediction: Bears 24, Packers 20. The Bears are a better team than the Packers, plain and simple. But until this franchise proves it can reliably beat Rodgers, who’s won 16 of his 20 regular season meetings with the Bears, these rivalry games shouldn’t be met with overconfidence. We'll say Rodgers keeps it close, but the Bears this time make enough plays down the stretch to win, clinching the NFC North and effectively eliminating the Packers from playoff contention.