By Robert Zeglinski
Let’s be honest. As expected, the dominance of the ’85 Bears did not make a re-appearance on Sunday. Everyone expected the modern Bears to fall as they did, 23-14 against the Texans, the reigning AFC South champions.
Of course, there aren’t moral victories since they came up short, but believe, that in spots, the Bears actually resembled a good football team. Good teams don’t play well selectively though, so the Bears are far from quality, at least yet. A team that has 18 new starters on both sides of the ball is going to have stretches where everything looks discombobulated.
Chicago has upgraded many positions, but a lot of that talent is still green, and most of that talent, has never played together. In two halves on Sunday, we saw this stark contrast.
Jay Cutler carried over his efficient play from a season ago against a monstrous Houston defense and finished the first half with a blistering 141.8 passer rating. When given time, Cutler will pick any defense apart. A new look offensive line seemed to be giving him just that.
Complimented by a defense that took the ball away on a Tracey Porter interception, the Bears held a 14-10 lead at the half, but the warning signs were present.
A lot of the success the Bears offense enjoyed early stemmed from simply throwing the ball up to your best and really only consistent playmaker in Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is a tremendous talent (four receptions, 105 yards) that showcased his ability to high point the ball on two dimes from Cutler, setting up both of the Bears’ scores, but you can game plan around an offense with just one guy to truly worry about.
Jeffery was held without a catch in the second half, as the Texans bracketed him and dared Cutler to test other options, which he couldn’t successfully do. If the formula on offense is based on jump balls to your number one receiver, this offense will have deeper set issues.
And simply put, Houston’s offensive line pushed the Bears front seven around. Houston routinely worked its way to the second level, getting plenty of movement on the Bears’ defensive line. Chicago needs to anchor better in the future as this team is built around the defense.
The Texans were among the teams that were the worst possible matchup for the new-look Bears in the first week. Houston was well equipped to take advantage of all of the new moving parts on the offensive line, on the back end, and the general lack of continuity. They’re just decisively a better team right now. The Texans dominated the time of possession – 36:19 to the Bears’ 23:41 – and both of their fronts corralled the Bears’ offensive and defensive lines, the recipe for success in this league.
But the Bears didn’t do themselves any favors either.
If Cutler doesn’t fumble a snap from rookie center Cody Whitehair on fourth and short in Texans’ territory late in the first quarter, maybe the Bears build a daunting 14-0 lead.
If rookie receiver Kevin White doesn’t stop running his route on a miscommunication with Cutler on the Bears’ first possession of the second half – where Cutler threw the ball to an area he believed White would be – perhaps the Bears offense isn’t thrown out of sync. When you gain just three first downs in 30 minutes though, it’s fair to blame it on more than one play. Momentum is a fickle concept.
If John Fox challenges the spot on Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler’s sneak on third and one in the third quarter, where the Bears appeared to stand him straight up, perhaps the Texans kick a field goal, and the Bears maintain striking distance.
Yet, if you’re playing hypotheticals in this league, you won’t come out on top. It’s just rationalizing. The disparity in talent and experience between teams will be on display as the deciding factor in most cases, as it was on Sunday.
But the former “what-ifs” can and likely will improve. Whitehair and White are two young, potentially dynamic but inexperienced building blocks. The latter is in-game-decision making we’ve seen before from Fox. Stay tuned.
With Whitehair’s gaffe, both men accepted the blame for the play’s execution but Whitehair was at fault, given he engaged his block too early. He even said, “It was on me, I just got to hike it a little bit higher.” The rookie had a fine debut on short notice considering he had 10 meaningful snaps at center in the preseason. But he’s going to have to improve on the finer details.
As noted, even Cutler, who was sacked five times and hit 13, understands the process for Whitehair and the rest of the offensive line. “I’d say it’s just time and experience.”
For perspective, the Bears would do well to set up two to three step drops in a quicker passing game while the guys up front gel. First year offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains needs to dial up a more manageable game plan while everything settles, otherwise the fine wine of the aging Cutler won’t last long.
That ideal extends to White too. White looked lost on the field, as a technical raw rookie should in his first action in 16 months. Cutler did take the blame on his interception, “It left my hand, it’s my responsibility”, but that’s just leadership covering up for the clearly uncomfortable White.
Getting the ball to White on short patterns in space early and often needs to be a priority to give the rookie a measure of comfort as he grows.
The 2016 Bears are better than last year’s iteration. The defense featuring inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman – who combined for 28 tackles – along with nose Eddie Goldman and rookie outside linebacker, Leonard Floyd, is noticeably more athletic and talented. As a whole, the Bears from the second half on Sunday won’t be the team they are two months from now.
It isn’t time to be bearish or bullish on any stock of this team. Time will tell whether an investment is worthy of being made.
Week 2 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
The Bears didn’t win a home game until October in their only victory at Soldier Field last season. A prime time matchup at home against a rookie quarterback in Philadelphia must feel like a godsend.
When the Bears are on defense: The Eagles are a step down from all of the explosiveness the Texans offered. While rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, propelled the Eagles to a 29-10 win against the Browns – setting or tying several rookie records – it’s a different animal to go on the road on national television against a competent defense.
No one’s going to confuse Cleveland’s defense for last year’s Broncos, so a front seven that is dramatically more talented in Chicago under the tutelage of one of the league’s best coordinators in Vic Fangio, figures to have fun. The key here will be to rattle Wentz. No quarterback can play well under constant duress and that’s magnified when said player is only playing his second professional game. You can expect the Bears to throw the book at Wentz, mixing up coverages, zone blitzes, etc. The Bears will also likely be the aggressor in the trenches this time around.
The Eagles do have some talent at the skill positions in receiver Jordan Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz, but with Kyle Fuller’s return and Trevathan’s skill in covering tight ends, both don’t present matchup problems for Philadelphia to exploit.
When the Bears are on offense: The Bears won’t face a team with as talented a defense like the Texans until Minnesota at home on Halloween. That being said, the Eagles have some lynchpins on a rebuilding defense.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the best defensive linemen in football. The 25-year-old is a matchup problem on the interior for almost every offensive line, except these Bears. Given the interior trio of Pro Bowlers Josh Sitton, Kyle Long, and the young Whitehair, it’s hard to see Cox making much of an impact, provided the Bears’ trio plays up to expectations. Cox can transcend individual blocks though, so you have to double team him and watch for stunts and twists. This is something the Bears struggled with against Houston given their lack of chemistry, but they had to deal with more pass rush threats there.
On the outside, former Texan Connor Barwin is another of the game’s best edge defenders. After right tackle Bobby Massie consistently had Whitney Mercilus and JJ Watt run by him, Barwin presents a new concern. It’s fair to expect Philadelphia to line Barwin up against Massie as much as possible given his pass protection struggles. Loggains needs to be conscientious and have guys like tight end Zach Miller and fullback Paul Lasike offer chip blocks to slow Barwin down.
A ground game that saw just 18 carries last week also needs to get going and take pressure off of Chicago’s tackles. Expect a better commitment to the committee approach between Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and Jordan Howard. There’s no reason the Bears can’t run against the Eagles’ relatively weaker linebacker core of Mychal Kendricks and company.
Early pick: Bears 30 Eagles 17