Bears-Texans: And the winner is...

Bears-Texans: And the winner is...

HOUSTON – The Bears, particularly the new ones coming from winning programs, have goals that transcend win totals or statistics. And if the money brought them to Chicago, it was about instilling an attitude of wanting more.

“The attitude has got to spread like wildfire,” said linebacker Danny Trevathan, from Super Bowl champion Denver and voted by teammates as one of the two defensive co-captains with Pernell McPhee.

“These guys have got to be hungry, like I said, they are. I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys. We’ve just got to keep pushing it and keep having great days.”

The first of those days needs to be Sunday in Houston. And realistically, it will be up to Trevathan and the defense to put that “hungry” into meaningful action.

The last time the Bears saw Brock Osweiler they put him on the ground more times (five) than any quarterback they faced in 2015, and had his Denver Broncos reeling through the fourth quarter of a two-point loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

Osweiler doesn’t have a Super Bowl offense in front of him now, after signing a $72 million contract this offseason to take him away from Denver. But whether the Bears can get to Osweiler the way they did last time they faced each other is a franchise-grade question.

The reason is that the Bears since the close of 2015 invested nearly $50 million in free agents, a contract extension for Willie Young, their top pass rusher over the past two seasons, and a pair of high draft choices. The clear mission statement was upgrading a defense that now is tasked with being the strength of a team building toward what it envisions to be a perennial championship contender.

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“Ya’ know, I think we upgraded our talent and I think it’s a big part,” said coach John Fox. “I’m excited. I think you’ll see improvement from our defensive side of the ball.”

The surprise, inside and outside the organization, will be if the Bears don’t see a massive improvement. Fox philosophically favors a dominant defense getting the football for a run-based offense, a formula that gave Lovie Smith a very respectable 81-63 Chicago record.

The offense may struggle as it settles in behind new coordinator Dowell Loggains and without Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and a made-over offensive line. But defense typically travels well, and with their offense opening the season on the road against a top-10 defense, the challenge to the Bears’ defense is obvious and immediate.

And for all of the upgrades, there are still questions in the position groups most responsible for dealing with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (111 catches) and rookie speed receiver Will Fuller, a first-round pick this year out of Notre Dame.

“We’re basically a very similar group on the back end [secondary] right now,” said coordinator Vic Fangio. “That hasn’t changed a whole lot. I think we’ve gotten better in spots but it still has to be a better all 11.

The standard way to enhance a secondary is to put the quarterback in distress, something the Bears did too infrequently last season (35 total sacks) and did not often enough deliver the kind of assault they mounted against Osweiler last November. While upgrades at linebacker were a priority, the pass rush was the overriding offseason focus.

“We've got a lot of different types of rushers going forward with the power rushers and speed rushers and if we can get some push inside with those big D-lineman,” said GM Ryan Pace, “so that's going to be good to see.”

The Bears don’t have rush-linebacker Pernell McPhee, on the PUP list as he tries to come back from offseason knee surgery. And cornerback Kyle Fuller isn’t expected to be back from knee surgery yet.

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But adding Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard were part of the front-seven buildup that is now expected to harass Osweiler enough to disrupt his rhythm and that of an offense that struggled last year under current Bear Brian Hoyer.

And in the process, form into something with an identity that has been missing for too much of the past several years, aided by veterans with a mission.

“You can definitely have that chemistry a lot quicker because when you have veteran guys who've played the game, you know what to expect.,” said cornerback Tracy Porter. “The transition is a little bit smoother but you still need that experience of playing together.”

Which begins in earnest Sunday afternoon.

And the winner is...

The Bears will be better than popular consensus. Which means they will win some games they’re not expected to, games like Sunday’s vs. the Texans.

But football is a game of matchups, and the strengths of the Texans, specifically the elite front seven based around J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, are precisely what a still-forming offense of Jay Cutler and his receivers and the Bears’ post-Forte running game do not need for game one.

The Bears’ defense will not be trampled by the Houston offense. The Bears’ offense just won’t be able to do enough yet in what is a winnable game to open 2016. I predicted this game as an “L” back when the schedule came out and still do.

Prediction: Texans 17, Bears 14

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

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: 


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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