Bears

Not yet time for Bears to 'find out what they have' in Hroniss Grasu

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Not yet time for Bears to 'find out what they have' in Hroniss Grasu

In some unwanted way, some of the latest injury misfortunes to befall the Bears might have forced them into some unwanted decision-making but also delivered some solutions along with the problems.

If there is a problem, it is that none of the solutions cleanly address the center position, for which Matt Slauson is eminently capable but does not address the longer term.

The Bears used a third-round draft choice on Hroniss Grasu, a former Oregon teammate of Kyle Long. And Grasu might qualify as the next-man-up at center, as coach John Fox said, “at some point.”

One temptation could be the “see what they’ve got” approach of inserting Grasu at center between Slauson at left guard and either Vladimir Ducasse or Patrick Omameh at right, operating on the premise that a third-round pick merits an in-depth look. That could happen.

But the Bears have not by any means relegated the 2015 regular season into an extension of training camp and preseason (or if they have, Pernell McPhee obviously didn’t get the memo). General manager Ryan Pace is highly unlikely to step out of character and demand his draft choice be installed, as some in his job have done. And the internal ethic of the NFL is that you earn a job, period, and unless Grasu has won it, simply handing the rookie a job because of draft status is its own mistake.

[MORE BEARS: Shuffled Bears secondary doing far more than just surviving]

Perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was the Bears’ third-round pick in the 1998 draft. The Bears also had Casey Wiegmann, who’d won the job during training camp and started 15 games even through that disastrous 4-12 season.

Kreutz started just one game that year, then won the job the following camp and preseason in an extremely uncomfortable (for both players) competition — difficult not due to problems between the two, just that each knew the other deserved to be a starting NFL center, as Kreutz later explained. Both were right; Kreutz went to six Pro Bowls while Wiegmann starred at Kansas City and Denver.

But the reality was that Kreutz, one of the great centers in the history of a franchise with a history of excellent centers, wasn’t ready to win the starting job as a rookie.

Grasu’s size is not an issue; Will Montgomery weighs 304 pounds, and Grasu is in that range. Functional strength is always a question with even college stars transitioning to the NFL. And center involves technique as much as strength.

“Back when we had Taylor Boggs as our backup, he learned how to do it just by watching film of other small-type guys,” Slauson said. “So that's what I told Hroniss to do is just get a lot of tape of smaller, older guys using all their tricks.”

[MORE BEARS: Seventh-ranked Bears defense done with 'new' label]

Elsewhere, the concussion and shoulder miseries for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, on top of his earlier back issues, thrust unheralded Charles Leno into the starting lineup against the Oakland Raiders. Leno, who failed to hold onto the right-tackle opportunity he was presented in preseason, produced evidence that the Bears have at least an interim solution at left tackle (Long being the presumptive longer-term answer).

Line coach Dave Magazu already had pegged Leno through the offseason as a versatile option at virtually any of the line spots. Assuming Bushrod’s return, the Bears discovered an option at one of the most difficult positions on the field.

The loss of Montgomery to a broken leg created an immediate need at center, which was ably filled by two people: Slauson moving over into Montgomery’s spot, and Omameh, signed in September after his release by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, handling left guard.

Omameh’s play raises questions about his possibly supplanting penalty-plagued Ducasse at right guard.

Whatever the solution, “I know people get tired of hearing it, but it is a next-man-up approach,” Fox said. “It happens at a lot of positions in a lot of football games in the National Football League. All your backups ... have to be ready to play in a moment’s notice, particularly in the O-line because it is such a group dynamic.

“It’s five guys knowing exactly what the other guy is doing with line calls, pass-protection alerts. We run some no-huddle, so there’s a lot of checks at the line. I think we had maybe a couple high shotgun snaps — I know we had the one center-quarterback exchange problem that resulted in a turnover. But the good news was our guys overcame it.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

Hub Arkush, Sam Panayotovich and Ben Pope join Kelly Crull on the panel.

0:00- Mitch Trubisky practices again and he got all of the first-team reps. So will his return help the Bears upset the Saints on Sunday?

8:30- KC Johnson joins Kelly to discuss Luol Deng retiring a Bull, Wendell Carter, Jr.'s thumb injury and to preview the Bulls' preseason finale.

14:00- Ben has the latest on the Blackhawks including Jeremy Colliton's goaltender plans for the week. He also tells us if we should be worried about Jonathan Toews' slow start to the season.

21:00- Will Perdue joins the panel to talk about the importance of a good start this season for the Bulls. Plus, he has his

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per SharpFootballStats.com, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better.