Bears Takeaways: Week 15
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
The Bears lost another heartbreaker this week to the dreaded Packers, 30-27. It was a strange game with the Bears looking overmatched for most of the first quarter and all of the third, but outplaying the Packers in the 2nd and 4th quarters.
It actually isn’t that strange at all, as the Bears having been playing well for about half of all their games this season. They just can’t seem to stay consistent over the course of a full game this year.
Quarterback Matt Barkley almost pulled off an amazing comeback with the Bears down 27-10 going into the 4th quarter, but once again came up just short. Unlike the last two losses, there is no obvious target to blame this one on. There were no bad drops in the end zone or consecutive penalties to sabotage last minute drives, though a holding call on TE Logan Paulson did move the Bears from the 3-yard line to the 13 on their final possession.
Still, Barkley had a first down and goal from the 13-yard line and couldn’t get the Bears in the end zone to take the lead. The Bears settled for a field goal after a bad pass from Barkley on 3rd & three that was almost intercepted at the goal line.
Barkley and the Bears also left enough time on the clock for Aaron Rodgers to work his magic and drive the Packers down the field for a game-winning field goal as time expired. It was a valiant effort by Barkley, but the Bears just aren’t as talented on either side of the ball as the Packers, and can’t afford to turn the ball over four times and still win the game.
There were some positive signs for the Bears, as there have been the last few weeks, but they just didn’t play a complete game and couldn’t recover from a brutal third quarter where they turned the ball over three times and gave up 17 unanswered points.
I’ll cover both the positive and negatives from Sunday’s loss in my takeaways below.
1.) Matt Barkley is showing us something new every week.
This week it was Barkley’s impressive resiliency. Some QBs wouldn’t be able to bounce back from turning the ball over on four consecutive drives, especially one Bears fans know well, but Barkley seemed unfazed.
He came out to start the fourth quarter slinging the ball with touch and accuracy to march the Bears down the field for scores on three straight drives to end the game. In his last four starts, Barkley has shown excellent poise in the pocket, above-average accuracy, and today proved that he won’t implode after a few mistakes. He may be 1-3 as a starter, but Barkley has played well enough that the Bears could easily be 4-0 in the first four starts of Barkley’s NFL career.
Of Barkley’s four turnovers, one was on an end-of-half hail mary, one on a blind-side strip-sack, one was on a play where the target (Daniel Brown) was held, and on the fourth there appeared to be a miscommunication with rookie Daniel Braverman, wasn’t even looking for the ball. I’m not absolving Barkley of blame, but none of the turnovers were egregiously bad plays.
I wasn’t too optimistic about the Matt Barkley experience, but he has shown me enough that I think he deserves a chance to win the Bears starting quarterback gig in 2017. Granted that could change if the Bears trade for Garappolo or draft a rookie who proves he’s ready to start, but Barkley has shown more than enough to at least be in the mix for the starting QB job next year.
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2.) Why isn’t Jordan Howard getting twenty plus carries per game?
The Bears are 3-0 when Howard gets 20 or more carries. They only have three wins on the season. This seems pretty simple to me, but for some reason Bears OC Dowell Loggains just won’t run the ball enough to utilize Howard correctly.
Howard is a big, powerful running back who gets better late in games when defenses are worn down trying to bring down the 230-pound back. We saw it this week as Howard gained 63 of his 90 yards in the second half.
Howard gained 113 yards from scrimmage with a touchdown and an average of 5.3 yards per carry on Sunday. He’s now averaging over five yards per carry on the season, but on a brutally cold day, the Bears only gave him the ball 17 times. That’s more than most weeks, but still not enough.
The Bears have an offensive line that is becoming one of the league’s better units, a QB making only his 4th NFL start, and a suspect receiving core… There is no reason not to make Howard the focus of the offense, but for some unknown reason Loggains has been reluctant to feature Howard on a weekly basis.
Hopefully, the Bears new OC next season will utilize one of the Bears few offensive weapons properly.
3.) The Bears have a good offensive line
It was hard to even type that headline after so many years in a row of having one of the worst offensive lines in the league, but this year’s o-line is getting better every week. On Sunday they kept Barkley clean for the most part, the exception being Charles Leno Jr getting roasted by Julius Peppers for the Packers only sack of the game.
The Packers defense has destroyed Bears QBs the last few seasons, but Sunday was a different story. Matt Barkley does get rid of the ball much quicker than Cutler, but on most throws he had plenty of time to find an open receiver.
There weren’t many holes for Jordan Howard in the first half, but there were in the second as the Bears o-line wore down a solid Packers front seven. There aren’t a ton of bright spots from this season, but the development of a solid offensive line is a big one.
The Cowboys are a good example of how quickly things can turn around with good offensive line play. The Bears obviously still need a quarterback, but with the entire o-line expected to be back next season and all but Josh Sitton under 30 years old, it’s one of the few things the Bears don’t need to worry about for 2017.
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4.) The Bears are fourth in the league in sacks
The Bears came into Sunday’s game tied for sixth in the NFL with 33 sacks and added four more on Sunday to move into fourth in the league. They could have easily had double that number, which has been the case the last two weeks as well, but the Bears young front seven haven’t finished as many players as they should have.
Aaron Rodgers is one of the hardest QBs in the league to wrap up in the pocket, but the Bears let him escape too often on Sunday despite his gimpy calf. The fact that the Bears are getting to opposing QBs is what’s important though. After a non-existent pass rush last season, the Bears are putting pressure on QBs consistently.
The Bears run defense struggled on Sunday, but that looked to me like more of an issue with the linebackers and safeties than the defensive line. The defensive line wasn’t being blown off the line of scrimmage and almost had Packers running back Ty Montgomery in the backfield on his two longest runs, only to watch him weave through the Bears linebackers and secondary.
Pernell McPhee played his best game of the season with two sacks and a strong presence on the edge verse the run. CJ Wilson, filling in for Eddie Goldman, had a sack and a tackle for loss against the run. Journeymen Mitch Unrein wasn’t credited with any tackles but was in the backfield often, pressuring Rodgers and disrupting run lanes.
Different players are stepping up every week to give the Bears a d-line (I’m including OLBs, since they are basically DEs in Fangio’s scheme) that is on pace for their most sacks in over two decades. The combination of Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young., Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Goldman should be even better next year and the Bears have solid depth in Mitch Unrein, Cornelius Washington and rookie Jonathan Bullard, which gives the Bears a reason to be optimistic about the future.
After many years of mediocracy on both the offensive and defensive lines, the Bears appear to have above-average units in place on both sides of the ball. There are plenty of questions elsewhere on the team in 2017, but having their lines in place is a significant step towards being a competitive team in the near future.
5.) The Bears might not have a good safety on the roster.
Adrian Amos, Harold Jones-Quartey, Deon Bush, Chris Prosinski, or Demonte Hurst… It doesn’t matter who the Bears put at the back of their defense, they keep making critical mistakes that are costing the Bears wins.
There were plenty more mistakes on Sunday. The Bears safeties consistently picked the wrong gaps in run support which allowed Ty Montgomery to have a career day. Even when they managed to be in the right place, they missed the tackle.
The Bears d-line did a solid job maintaining their gaps and getting in the backfield, but once Montgomery got through the line, the safeties (and John TImu) were no help. They didn’t do much in coverage either, though Demontre Hurst had a sack and Deon Bush broke up a key third-down pass in the end zone (though he should have caught it).
The safeties have caught some flack for not being deep on the Packers 60-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson that set up the Packers game-winning field goal, but it sounds like they were doing what the defensive scheme called for. So the pass to Nelson was on Fangio, but that doesn’t absolve the safeties from how they played the rest of the game (and season).
The Bears keep spending mid round picks on the safety position and that strategy just isn’t working. The Bears need to either spend some of their ample cap room on a legitimate starter or use a day two pick to draft one with actual starting potential. The black hole at safety has gone on way too long for the Bears and the rest of the defense deserves better.
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6.) Josh Bellamy continues to be an enigma
After Matt Barkley somehow escaped an all-out blitz on third down, he lofted a bomb about fifty yards downfield. It wasn’t a pretty pass, it wobbled a bit and was underthrown, but Bellamy got both hands on it and then dropped it. Again. He also dropped a short pass that hit him squarely in the hands.
If Bellamy had started all season, he would surely break the NFL record for drops in a season, but he also made some really nice plays on Sunday. He took a screen pass and turned it into a 10-yard touchdown on sheer will. Bellamy just overpowered the corner matched up on him and drove him into the end zone with a stiff-arm for his first NFL touchdown.
Bellamy also made two exceptional plays on special teams. He pinned a punt at the 1-yard line and made an impressive tackle on the kickoff after his TD, stopping the Packers return man at the 15 yard-line.
On the day Bellamy had just one catch for a 10-yard TD, but like usual it could have been so much more.
7.) Deonte Thompson and Cameron Meredith impressed
The return of Alshon Jeffery was supposed to give Matt Barkley a legitimate receiving threat, but it was Deonte Thompson and Cameron Meredith who were Barkley’s most reliable targets for most of the game.
Thompson came into the game with just 11 catches on the season but had eight catches for 110 yards on Sunday. Meredith has flashed some starting-caliber ability throughout the year and did so again on Sunday with nine catches for 104 yards.
When was the last time two Bear receivers had 100+ yards in the same game? Jeff Graham and Curtis Conway maybe? What are the odds that it would happen with Thompson and Meredith? Two players who were probably the last two receivers on the depth chart to start the season?
Thompson, the Bears primary kick returner, has explosive speed but hasn’t been able to translate that to the receiver position. He had only two catches last season, but both went for over 30 yards. He was open deep twice on Sunday, but Barkley didn’t have the arm to get him the ball. He’s an intriguing talent though and gives the Bears a speedy deep threat that they don’t have anywhere else on the roster unless Kevin White can actually stay healthy.
Meredith, a former college QB, continues to impress with his ability to run after the catch. He caught two screen passes that he turned into double-digit gains with slick moves in the open field and enough strength to run through arm tackles. Meredith could be a dangerous weapon in the slot next year, where he can take advantage of his size advantage (6’3) against slot corners and ability to make people miss in the open field.
No one knows what the Bears are going to do with Alshon Jeffery, if Kevin White can stay healthy, if Eddie Royal will be on the roster, or if the Bears will use a high draft pick on a receiver, but the option of Jeffery and White on the outside with Meredith in the slot and Thompson as a deep threat has some legitimate potential (assuming the Bears have a QB that can get them the ball).
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
8.) I’ve seen enough of ILB John Timu
I was one of John Timu’s biggest supporters last season. He’s always going to struggle in coverage due to a lack of speed, but his run-stopping instincts were elite in college (338 tackles) and he played well in his rookie year when he led the Bears in tackles in three of his four starts.
I’m not sure what changed for Timu between this year and last, but his run-stopping skills seem to have regressed. The last two weeks Timu has missed multiple tackles and hasn’t been able to shed blocks quickly enough to be a factor against the run.
If Timu isn’t a plus against the run, there is no reason for him to be on the field since he’s already a liability in pass coverage. With Jerrell Freeman coming back this week, I think Timu may have had his last start with the Bears. His special teams skills may keep him on the roster, but the way he’s played the last two weeks doesn’t warrant any more time at ILB.
9.) Nick Kwiatkoski made some mistakes but continues to flash potential
Timu and the safeties weren’t the only problems with the run defense, rookie Nick Kwiatkoski made plenty of mistakes as well. He didn’t miss as many tackles as Timu, but overran way too many plays.
It was a step back for Kwiatkoski after an impressive start against the Lions last week, but there were still flashes of starting-caliber talent. DC Vic Fangio uses Kwiatkoski on blitzes more than he has with any other Bears ILB and he’s shown natural timing and a knack for picking the right gap .
Kwiatkoski got to Rodgers often Sunday but just couldn’t finish plays. He got his hands on Rodgers twice and hit him two other times but Rodgers is one of the most elusive pocket QBs in the league. Hopefully, Kwiatkoski will remember that next time. He’s shown enough in his last three starts to be in the mix for significant playing time in the future.
10.) Cre’Von LeBlanc got burned, but single coverage on Jordy Nelson is asking a lot
LeBlanc got burned on the last big play of the game and also earlier on a deep pas that DeVante Adams dropped in the end zone, but LeBlanc shouldn’t get too much criticism for his play Sunday. Generously listed at 5’10, 192, LeBlanc is a much better fit as a slot cornerback, but has been stuck playing outside since the Bears have no other healthy corners who can handle the job.
Considering the fact that LeBlanc is an undrafted rookie, undersized for the outside, and not playing his natural position, he’s done a heck of a job this year. He’s got good ball skills, surprising strength for his size, and the short area quickness that should play well in the slot. Before any judgments are made on LeBlanc’s ability, he should be given a chance to play his natural position next season.
11.) 2017 Draft position update
The Bears lost again so are still in pole position for the 4th overall pick. The 2-12 Jags are in the #3 slot and got close to pulling off a victory this week. They also just fired their head coach, which sometimes inspires teams to a late season win or two. If the Jags do manage to win another game and the Bears don’t, the Bears have the tie-breaker (right now at least) and would move ahead of the Jags into the third spot.
Both the Jets and Rams have four wins and the next two draft spots behind the Bears. I can’t see the Jets winning another game, but the Rams play the Niners this week so they shouldn’t concern the Bears much with a likely five wins. The Jets are a mess though and will be heavy underdogs in their two remaining games (NE, BUF).
So if the Bears end up winning one of their last two games, they will likely tie the Jets with four wins and lose the strength of schedule tie-breaker, dropping the Bears to the 5th pick.
There are still a lot of variables remaining, but if I had to make odds I would say the 4th overall pick is the Bears most likely scenario. Knowing the Bears though, they will probably win out and end up with a pick closer to tenth than first.
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