Bears

Next couple weeks a critical opportunity for Brian Hoyer, Bears

Next couple weeks a critical opportunity for Brian Hoyer, Bears

One overarching NFL reality is that with extremely rare exception, the quarterback position is always a matter for discussion and planning.

Even in Green Bay when Brett Favre was setting the standard for durability, the Packers were about succession planning, cycling through quality backups (Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Matt Hasselbeck) until one – Aaron Rodgers – was needed.

Even in New England, where Tom Brady wasn’t missing a game for 14 of the last 15 seasons, yet the Patriots were drafting quarterbacks in the second or third rounds of three of the last six drafts.

What the Bears are confronting last weekend and this Sunday is a template for what could be their tactics for the position in the year or years ahead. The Philadelphia Eagles with Carson Wentz and Dallas Cowboys with Dak Prescott are starting (and winning with) rookies who were selected into a depth chart presumably already set with a starter in place. And the Bears have faced a situation in their recent past eerily similar to one just three years ago that, had it been handled differently, might have positioned the Bears somewhere similar to where Dallas and Philadelphia now find themselves.

With Jay Cutler in the final year of his contract calling for guaranteed money, 2016 was clearly a prove-it year for him irrespective of the Bears’ failure to invest a meaningful draft pick in a possible successor. Now Cutler is injured and Brian Hoyer is the presumptive starter, setting up a potential scenario not altogether unlike what they faced in 2013 when Josh McCown stepped in twice when Cutler was hurt.

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McCown played the best football of his career, giving the Bears the option of re-signing him as a placeholder and pursuing a young apprentice, which the Marc Trestman coaching staff favored, or signing Cutler to a massive contract and committing to him as a franchise quarterback, which GM Phil Emery did.

Hoyer may or may not play remotely as well as McCown did. But this is not entirely a position competition between Cutler and Hoyer, any more than Cutler-McCown was. Should Hoyer perform creditably, however, as he did last year to get the Houston Texans into the playoffs, he gives the Bears another “McCown Option” – an affordable, competent-if-unspectacular veteran who starts until such time as the young quarterback is ready. That could be as early as the draft pick’s rookie season – as Wentz was correctly judged to be in Philadelphia, as Russell Wilson once was in Seattle, and Prescott is demonstrating in Dallas.

Wentz was not going to start for Philadelphia before the Eagles were offered a can’t-refuse offer by the Minnesota Vikings for Sam Bradford. Prescott was not drafted to be a starter, but Tony Romo’s preseason back injury and Kellen Moore’s broken ankle changed whatever QB plan the Cowboys had.

If there’s a twist to the situation it lies in the fact that it is far from necessary to believe that winning quarterbacks lie only in the first round. Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick, is still riding the Los Angeles Rams bench. Paxton Lynch, grabbed by Denver at the end of round one, wasn’t able to take the Broncos’ starting job away from Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick of the 2015 draft whose only action last season was one kneel-down.

But Jacoby Brissett, New England’s third-round pick this year, and Cody Kessler, Cleveland’s 2016 No. 3 pick, are starting, jokes about Cleveland notwithstanding.

The Bears looked closely at Marcus Mariota going into the 2015 draft. But they were faced with a franchise decision of expending massive draft capital in a trade, something they did once upon a time in 2009 for Cutler and didn’t want to do again with other needs to fill.

Ryan Pace has had 15 draft choices in his two drafts as Bears general manager. None were invested in a quarterback. He will not go a third draft weekend without discussing the quarterback the Bears selected in (insert round here).

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.