Willie Young

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

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USA TODAY

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

A month ago, the Bears could reasonably describe their depth at inside linebacker as strong, and maybe as the strongest unit on the team. 

But on Monday, the Bears will be without the trio of players who comprised that depth: Jerrell Freeman is on injured reserve with a pectoral tear; Nick Kwiatkoski’s pec injury isn’t as serious but will keep him sidelined; and Danny Trevathan will serve his one-game suspension for the helmet-to-helmet hit he leveled on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams last week. 

Trevathan will be back next week and Kwiatkoski appears to have avoided injured reserve, meaning he can be expected back at some point this season. But without them, the Bears will roll with Christian Jones, John Timu and Jonathan Anderson (the latter two began the season on the practice squad) against the Minnesota Vikings. 

“It's a concern, but at least we're playing with guys that were here that were in camp,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “That was the one position on defense, when we went to the 53 and practice squad where we did have guys, we had four active and two on practice squad and now all six of them have played, so (we) feel good about that in that we're not having somebody in off the street having to learn a new system and I think they'll all do fine.”

Jones and Timu have seen a decent amount of snaps alongside Trevathan this year: In the last three weeks, Jones’ defensive snap counts are 47, 36 and 28 while Timu played 17 snaps against Pittsburgh and 19 against Green Bay (Anderson has not played a defensive snap since Week 2). 

Timu, who’s played in 20 games over the last three years, will handle the defensive calls on Monday.

“We’re confident in John,” Fangio said. “John knows our defense. He’s been here for three years. The game’s not too big for him. He loves to play. He is instinctive and smart. So we think he’ll go in there and do fine.”

Added linebacker Pernell McPhee: “Timu’s a very good player, a very smart player, a very patient player. I think his play on the field shows how much he’s studying and how much he’s really locked in throughout the week.”

The Bears may be without two other starters, too: Saturday’s final injury report listed outside linebacker Willie Young (tricep) as doubtful, while cornerback Marcus Cooper is questionable with back spasms. Going back further, the Bears are also without veteran safety Quintin Demps, who handled a lot of the communication duties for this defense. 

But the Vikings will be without rookie Dalvin Cook (74 carries, 354 yards, 2 TDs), who tore his ACL last week. Backups Jerick McKinnon (2.6 yards/attempt) and Latavius Murray (2.7 yards/attempt) haven’t inspired much fear in 2017. And the expectation at Halas Hall is that quarterback Sam Bradford will start, though he’s listed as questionable on the Vikings’ final injury report. 

So in the matchup of the Bears' defense against the Vikings' offense, the group that gets the most out of its depth guys may be the one that swings that battle on Monday. 

“Any time you lose a starter — I think there's a reason they're the starter — but you know I feel good about our backups,” coach John Fox said. “I feel good about the replacement people we've had in there. We've got more depth this season than we've had in the past so I feel confident in the people we'll have out there and the options we have.”

Bears Week 2 grades: The loss to Tampa Bay was as bad as you thought

Bears Week 2 grades: The loss to Tampa Bay was as bad as you thought

QUARTERBACK: F

The two interceptions and lost fumble charged to Glennon are impossible to get past. The first interception came on a quick gain play when Glennon locked into the stick route ran by tight end Dion Sims and failed to see linebacker Kwon Alexander, who jumped the route to pick the pass off (tight end Adam Shaheen was open on the play, too). Glennon said he could’ve got the ball out sooner or moved better in the pocket on the fumble he lost when his arm was hit. And on his final interception — a pick six — Glennon thought he saw Josh Bellamy beat cornerback Robert McClain, but the throw was still dangerous and he admitted he should've gone to another progression. Glennon’s decision-making simply has to be better. 

RUNNING BACK: D-

Tarik Cohen (seven carries, 13 yards) and Jordan Howard (nine carries, seven yards) were ineffective on the ground, though Cohen caught eight passes for 55 yards and continues to be a factor in the passing game. Neither Howard — who declined to speak to reporters for the second consecutive game — nor Cohen got much help from the Bears’ offensive line, for what it’s worth, and credit should be given to a disruptive Tampa Bay front seven. But for the Bears’ offense to be at its best, it has to get more than 20 yards on 16 carries from its running backs. 

WIDE RECEIVER: C+

While this was still a game, the Bears’ receivers did what was asked of them, consistently getting open and catching the ball over the middle. Kendall Wright in particular was involved early and often, which was a good sign after a quiet first half last week against Atlanta. Still, there will be a ceiling on how good this unit can be so long as they don’t have someone who can stretch the field — in other words, until Markus Wheaton plays. And for as solid as this unit was in the first half, it combined for four drops in the in the fourth quarter. That can’t happen even if a game is out of reach. 

TIGHT END: C-

Some of the Bears’ ineffectiveness running the football falls on the tight ends, too. Zach Miller had six catches for 42 yards and was a reliable target for Glennon, though the only time Sims was targeted was on that pass Alexander picked off. Shaheen only played a handful of plays and wasn’t a factor, though it might've been nice to see him get an opportunity to catch some passes in the second half. 

OL: D-

Gerald McCoy and the Buccaneers’ front seven gave the Bears’ offensive line fits, and even before Tom Compton’s game-ending hip injury, this unit was struggling to get a consistent push for Howard and Cohen. The Bears will have to hope Kyle Long — who didn’t travel to Tampa — can return to the lineup in Week 3 against Pittsburgh. But if there are concerns about playing Mitchell Trubisky behind this offensive line, it’s worth noting Glennon was only sacked once on Sunday. 

DL: C-

Eddie Goldman recorded a sack, a hurry and a tackle for a loss while Akiem Hicks stuffed Charles Sims on third-and-one to force the punt Cohen fumbled. Mitch Unrein had a tackle for a loss and a hurry, too. This unit made the fewest mistakes of any on the Bears’ defense, but also didn’t get enough pressure on Jameis Winston, who was largely unbothered in the pocket. 

LB: C-

Danny Trevathan was whistled for two holding penalties and Willie Young was flagged for another, all of which allowed the Buccaneers to convert third downs and keep scoring drives alive. Losing Nick Kwiatkoski to a pec injury hurt. Positives here: Willie Young recording his first sack of the year and Pernell McPhee forcing a fumble, which was recovered by Leonard Floyd for the Bears’ first takeaway of 2017. 

DB: C-

Mike Evans got his against the secondary, catching seven passes for 93 yards with a touchdown (that touchdown came on a perfectly-placed back-shoulder throw, which gave Marcus Cooper no chance to make a play on it). The most egregious of those catches was a 17-yard gain on third-and-5 late in the second quarter that led to a Nick Folk field goal. The Bears were able to bottle up DeSean Jackson, who only caught three passes for 39 yards, while tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard combined for three catches and 41 yards. 

For the defense as a whole, they were dealt sudden-change short fields and extended drives, which was made worse by the sweltering heat of Tampa. A C- grade across the board seems right. 

“Just because the ball was in their hands doesn’t mean they have to score,” Hicks said. “I think collectively we can do a little bit better.” 

SPECIAL TEAMS - F

Cohen’s ill-fated attempt to field a punt led to a predictable fumble and Buccaneers touchdown. It was the major rookie mistake, one he admitted was “dumb” after the game: “If I had to do it again I would just stay away from the ball,” Cohen said. Tanner Gentry committed an unnecessary roughness penalty on a kick return that backed the Bears up to their own 12-yard line at the end of the first quarter. 

COACHING - F

The Bears were sloppy not only with those four turnovers, but with the eight penalties the team committed, and mental mistakes don't reflect well on a coaching staff. John Fox is now 0-8 in September as coach of the Bears, with those eight defeats coming by an average of 15.6 points. And too, this loss didn’t show any improvement from 2016’s 36-10 defeat in Tampa, a notable concern in Fox’s third year in Chicago. 

Pernell McPhee’s return would be an important boost for Bears’ pass rush

Pernell McPhee’s return would be an important boost for Bears’ pass rush

Pernell McPhee didn’t show up to training camp in late July expecting to be paced on the physically unable to perform list. So when the Bears found an issue with his knee during physicals, it caught the veteran outside linebacker off guard.

“It was surprising,” McPhee said. “But a lot of things happen for a reason. Some things you can’t prepare for. You’ve just got to take that challenge and go with the best way you know. Just getting ready for whatever’s coming.”

McPhee didn’t come off the PUP list during training camp, remaining largely out of sight in Bourbonnais. He was activated over the weekend and was in attendance for his first practice on Monday, giving him a short window to prepare if he’s able to play on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

McPhee didn’t guarantee that he’ll play Sunday (“that’s God’s will,” he said) but when he does return, he expects to play at 100 percent.

“I just got to be smart,” McPhee, who missed time with knee injuries in 2015 and 2016, said. “I’m going to go 100 percent every time until my body totally breaks down. Just being smart and making the plays that present itself for me. And just helping my team win the best way I can.

“… You can’t worry about injuries. That’s part of football. You’ve just got to worry about attacking the next day, the next day, the next moment.”

The Bears, too, don’t want McPhee to hold back when he plays.

“You can't coach it carefully and you can't play it carefully,” coach John Fox said. “It's not a careful game, it's not chess.”

Whenever McPhee does play his first snap — preseason included — of the 2017 season, his return would be a welcome addition to an outside linebacker group that saw Lamarr Houston placed on injured reserve over the weekend. Adding a guy with 10 sacks in 23 games with the Bears would help strengthen a unit headlined by Willie Young (7 1/2 sacks in 2016) and Leonard Floyd (7 sacks in 2016).

Without McPhee, though, the Bears’ front seven played well during its August dress rehearsal for the regular season. Floyd, in particular, had an excellent preseason, while the rest of the Bears’ defensive line and linebackers flashed some reasons for optimism.

“They were animals,” McPhee said. “I’ve been excited all camp watching them, of course the preseason if you look at it, they looked like some animals. I’m excited to join them.”