Cubs

Offensive grades: Did the coaches blow the game?

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Offensive grades: Did the coaches blow the game?

Coach Lovie Smith said afterwards that he should have taken the field goal in the second quarter rather than go for it (unsuccessfully) on fourth and less than a yard. The decision may have been curious, but more was responsible for the Bears letting the Seattle Seahawks leave Soldier Field with a win.

The Bears could have been up 17-0 at the midpoint of the second quarter. But they eschewed a field goal and failed on a fourth-and-one at the Seattle 15, and Earl Bennett dropped a wide-open TD pass. The offense was respectable but put up basically the average point total (17) that Seattle allows (16.8).

The offense finished with 358 yards, the first of eight times they have gotten more than 250 yards and lost in 2012. This game marked the first time in the 26 games when Jay Cutler has had a passer rating of 100 or better than the Bears have lost.

QUARTERBACK A

Jay Cutler was confronted with first-rate pressure from Seattle edge rushers Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons, with big physical corners covering favorite-target Brandon Marshall. But he was accurate and finished with 17 completions in 26 attempts for 233 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, and a rating of 119.6.

The performance was even more noteworthy because he was without injured receivers Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester and proceeded to lose Earl Bennett to a concussion late in the first half.

Cutler ran four times for 27 yards and displayed more than simply settling for a few yards. Three of his four runs picked up first downs.

RUNNING BACK B-

Matt Fortes falling-down catch at the goal line in the third quarter was a game-changer, a 12-yard TD catch to take advantage of two Seattle penalties.

The Seahawks committed early to stuffing Forte and he managed minus-2 yards on his first four carries, but Michael Bush got tough yards on very physical carries in the fourth quarter.

Forte (21-66) and Bush (7-39) accounted for 105 rushing yards and Forte was a factor in the pass game after Bennett was hurt. Forte caught three passes for 30 yards.

RECEIVERS B

Brandon Marshall was targeted on 14 of Cutlers 26 pass attempts, catching 10 for 165 yards. His 56-yard grab late in regulation gave the Bears a chance for the game-tying field goal and he repeatedly made difficult catches against Seattles physical corners

Earl Bennett turned a takeaway into points with a 12-yard TD pass on the first possession, his first TD since Nov. 7 last season vs. Eagles. But he will surely remember even more the drop of a ball five yards behind any Seahawk defender earlier, costing the offense a score. His leaving with a possible concussion in the first half was a major setback to a receiver corps already missing Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester with injuries.

Kyle Adams blocking helped get Bennett into the end zone. Evan Rodriguez caught a pass for a first-down pickup.

OFFENSIVE LINE B-

The revamped line of JMarcus Webb-Edwin Williams-Roberto Garza-Gabe Carimi-Jonathan Scott stood up well against the interior power of the Seattle front and allowed some pressure but few hits from a very good pass rush.

James Brown in his first NFL experience worked as the third tight end and threw a key seal block on the right edge for a third-down Forte conversion.

The Seahawks finished with one sack of Cutler and Bears running backs averaged 4.4 yards per carry after Seattles initial burst of holding Forte to minus-2 yards on his first four carries.

COACHING A-

This is a tough one and depends on whether you believe the fourth-down try was a good idea or bad one.

Play design on Earl Bennetts 12-yard TD catch on the first possession was superb. Bennett was started on the right side, motioned all the way across to the left and was all alone. Coaches also beautifully structured the TD pass to Matt Forte coming out of the backfield, outside Brandon Marshall and into a coverage mismatch.

The Seahawks stuffed Matt Forte on his first four runs but the offense ran seven times vs. nine passes in the first quarter, which helped Marshall against safety help. The Bears finished with 28 called running plays to 27 pass plays, plus four Cutler runs that were not necessarily breakdowns in protection but more his choice.

But the decision to go for a fourth-down conversion at the Seattle 15 in the second quarter was surprising, against a good defense in game without much scoring expected. Coaches effectively took points off the board early in the game and allowed the Seahawks to steal momentum.

And yet, it was a chance to stick an early dagger in the heart of a good but wavering Seattle defense. Even after the miss on Bushs run Lovie Smith was correct, a team should be able to pick up less than one yard with a 240-pound running back the Bears were giving Seattle the ball at its 15-yard line. It should not have come down to a missed half-yard.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Shepard

Head coach: John Rone

Assistant coaches: Andrew Porter, Ron Rivera, Chris Lewis, Ryan McGuire and Clint Connelly

How they fared in 2017: 8-2 (5-1 South Suburban Red Conference). Shepard made the Class 6A state football playoff field. The Astros lost to Marmion Academy in opening round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Leyden

Sept. 1 @ Stagg

Sept 7 vs Hillcrest

Sept. 14 vs Eisenhower

Sept. 21 @ Richards

Sept. 28 @ Oak Lawn

Oct. 5 vs Reavis

Oct. 12 vs Evergreen Park

Oct. 19 @ Argo

Biggest storyline: First-year head coach John Rone. Can the Astros challenge once again for the South Suburban Red conference title under a new head coach?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Chris Harrison and TE/DE Kevin Graham

Biggest holes to fill: The Astros bring back 10 returning starters (five offense, five defense). Overall depth could also be a concern.  

EDGY's Early Take: Shepard will be led by former Eisenhower assistant Rone, who was able to retain an experienced staff at Shepard. It will help ease the transition from former head coach Dominic Passolano this summer. If the Astros can get off to a good early start they have the overall talent to again make a state playoff appearance in 2018. Can they challenge conference power Richards in the South Suburban Red race?