By Robert Zeglinski
This Bears’ roller coaster never stops turning. Given how lineup decisions and general injuries have this season turned up on its head, one would have to be the second coming of Nostradamus to figure what’s in store in for Chicago following their 29-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The Bears themselves seem to have no semblance of foresight.
You start with a skeleton of a defense that while mustering up five sacks against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, couldn’t maintain consistent pressure. Outside linebacker Willie Young enjoyed padding his own season statistics with three of those sacks. Taking a glance at the box score would tell you the defense threw Luck off of rhythm and disrupted the passing attack. Indianapolis was only 3/12 on third down, way beyond any quality efficiency. But those three conversions were each on third and long as Luck routinely sidestepped Bears rushers finding receivers down field.
While the Bears brought Luck down thanks to the league’s worst offensive line, they didn’t make him feel uncomfortable. The Luck-T.Y Hilton combination burned Chicago to the tune of 171 yards. There was never a moment where you felt like Luck would make a mistake. When you go 28/39 with 322 yards and two touchdowns, it’s fair to label a perfect day for a generational quarterback. With a better pass rush, maybe Hilton doesn’t burn the inexperienced Jacoby Glenn on the game-winning touchdown, as perhaps, Luck never delivers the ball on time.
This is where Chicago would have been served to mix up coverages, send different looks and blitzes to rattle their largest obstacle. While three of Chicago’s top four pass rushers are currently sidelined in Pernell McPhee, Leonard Floyd, and Lamarr Houston, it’s no excuse for a four-man pass rush to be non-existent. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – considered a defensive savant – has worked wonders with his severely hobbled unit. After all, coming in, somehow Chicago had a top 10 passing defense (Luck inflated those numbers). But it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a concerted plan to fix one of the team’s primary flaws.
Whatever stunts and schemes Fangio is trying aren’t working. The case here is both of being stubborn with game-planning and not having enough capable impact talent. The latter isn’t the fault of the genius. The former is.
Young echoed the same sentiment when asked if the pass rush mustered enough: “No – because we didn’t win.” At least Chicago understands its problems defensively. A boost of a healthy Floyd and the imminent return of McPhee – last season’s most dynamic defensive player – could prove to be the straw that stirs the drink.
Offensively, the Bears have now put up over 400 yards of offense – a sparkling 522 on Sunday – in two consecutive weeks, but there couldn’t be any more questions. Unlike Chicago’s defense, the attack has a full compliment of players sans the injured second-year receiver Kevin White. The offensive line is intact and has only allowed two sacks in three weeks. Rookie tailback Jordan Howard picked up his second consecutive 100-yard rushing day. And backup quarterback Brian Hoyer continues to spread the ball around to the likes of Eddie Royal, Zach Miller, Cameron Meredith, and on the rare occasion, the Bears’ best player in Alshon Jeffery.
And yet, for all of the efficiency Hoyer has displayed in filling in for the injured Jay Cutler, he hasn’t pushed the ball down field enough or had the most explosive player involved in the way he should be. Each of the past three weeks has had Jeffery be just third on the team in targets, with Sunday pushing him to number four-receiver status. For one of the NFL’s top talents to be receiving less looks than the adequate Royal and Miller, speaks volumes of a flawed prerogative.
Often times, you forget Jeffery is on the field and wonder if he’s hurt or injured. Hoyer’s presence of mind to not go towards Jeffery has translated to just 22 measly total targets in five weeks for the pending unrestricted free agent. It’s not ideal in any sense of the word to have your best player be so limited as a non-factor almost by choice, but it’s easy to understand.
Hoyer isn’t going to be a guy that can test the field vertically. Most of Chicago’s successful passing attack recently has derived from short to intermediate quick timing routes with Hoyer making quick decisions often on his first or second read. Jeffery is more of a possession receiver often with the coverage and attention rolled over to his side of the field. That requires confidence and a stronger arm for a number one option – something Hoyer does not possess.
Still, it doesn’t excuse Chicago for throwing a fade route in the red zone to a 5-foot-9 receiver in Royal instead of one of football’s best jump-ball artists in Jeffery. It doesn’t excuse Hoyer not even looking Jeffery’s way on the game’s final play where film revealed Jeffery to come wide open in the end zone as Hoyer forced a ball into the sunlight to Meredith.
When asked about that fateful final play that ended in Jeffery waving his arms in frustration and slamming his helmet on the sideline, Hoyer called it, “A play you’d like to have back.” While you can blame Hoyer for not going through his progressions, at least appreciate his honesty in defeat.
Head coach John Fox on the other hand, continues to cast everything in doubt, sticking to a theme of confusion. His defiance only creates more questions.
“I think when you’re out there playing quarterback, it looks a little different than when you’re up in the press box having hot dogs”, said a slightly testy Fox to reporters on Monday.
When further pressed on the status of Cutler and the difference between him and Hoyer, Fox admitted, “we don’t have a plan” and clarified or lack thereof; “Moving forward, I can’t predict the future.”
A quarterback controversy is not the brunt of the Bears’ issues, but something is amiss when you have the NFL’s second best offense yardage-wise over three weeks and are scoring only 17 points a game – well below the league average. If Cutler receives anything close to the protection and running game over the past month, you better believe that Chicago has more points. You better believe Cutler looks toward Jeffery with the game on the line.
Fox clearly prefers Hoyer out there as he’s less mistake prone in playing not to lose as his defense can win him the game. It’s a conservative mindset. But when the defense is in shambles, how can you expect them to push for victory? How can you then expect Hoyer to win a shootout against the likes of someone like Luck?
With this season transitioning towards a focus on developing young players as the Bears are mired in last place, Fox should be prepared to defend this illogical hill as the heat grows. There won’t be a long string on this outfoxing much longer.
Week 6 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville was one of the league’s most hyped teams in the preseason. Many thought they were on the brink of contention in a weak AFC South. An early 1-3 record says the franchise isn’t progressing towards that direction at all.
When the Bears are on defense: Quarterback Blake Bortles was supposed to take the next step in vaulting Jacksonville towards a bright future. Every bit of hope rested on the 6-foot-4 24-year-old. His third season was to be a coming-out party. It hasn’t worked out in that fashion.
The Jaguars are last in the league offensively, and are scoring just 21 points a game – good for 19th. An inefficient Bortles who boasts a mediocre 79.4 passer rating through one month would be the guy to blame here. Bortles greatly struggles with putting the ball on target consistently and often airmails his receivers altogether.
This is a quarterback who relies on his athleticism instead of technique, instead of letting his athletic ability compliment his technique like any franchise passer. Jacksonville has plenty of explosive targets on offense in receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, as well as tight end Julius Thomas. But they can’t reach whatever their potential is if Bortles can’t deliver them the ball.
Chicago has an opportunity to scheme around coverages and show more exotic looks to an inaccurate player who doesn’t go through his progressions. Bortles is closer to mediocrity than anything Andrew Luck is. This is not the kind of player that elevates his teammate’s level of play. With corner Deiondre’ Hall back in the fold, Chicago will have a full stock in it’s secondary ready to make plays on mistimed Bortles throws.
Bortles is tied for fifth in the league in interceptions after all.
You can bait and switch often to fool like a quarterback like him, forcing plenty of mistakes and turnovers. A gunslinger without success presents an opportunity for Chicago to be a little more opportunistic in giving the ball back to their offense.
When the Bears are on offense: There’s no reason for the Bears to change anything they’ve been doing with Hoyer or whoever’s under center. While Jacksonville currently has the league’s 11th ranked defense DVOA-wise, this is a hardly a team you can trust to stop an offense on a consistent basis.
Provided Chicago continues to concentrate on feeding the ball to Howard and the offensive line keeps the quarterback clean, the Bears should put up enough points to allow the defense to close the Jaguars offense out. If Hoyer is again the starter, don’t expect Jeffery to get the ball with stalwart rookie corner Jalen Ramsey likely shadowing him. With a player like Ramsey, the Bears are actually better served spreading the ball around in the fashion they have.
If Cutler plays, there’s no reason they wouldn’t test Ramsey, but even that’s playing a dangerous game. Play within the confines of what you’ve done well, and you’ll be in position to win. This won’t be a shootout or pretty by any means whatsoever. Bortles isn’t capable of doing that. The Jaguars and Bears themselves aren’t capable of putting on those kinds of fireworks.
Grind it out, maintain possession, and the conservative Fox mindset may work on this rare instance.
Early pick: Bears 20 Jaguars 16