[January 10, 2014]
(The Sports Xchange) — A 180-degree turnabout by the Chicago
Bears under coach Marc Trestman in 2013 left them where they have been
six of the last seven years.
They once again watched the playoffs with one key thought going
through their minds.
"We don't want to be sitting here next year with 46 seconds left and
not be able to get to where we want to go," Trestman said.
The last-minute touchdown that put Green Bay into the playoffs with
a third straight division title left Trestman and general manager
Phil Emery knowing another offseason reconstruction project is in
order, but this time on the defensive side.
Impacted greatly by injuries, the Bears defense collapsed in a year
when they finally managed to reverse decades of futility on offense
to finish with more yardage (6,109), passing yardage (4,281) and
touchdown passes (32) under Trestman than in any season in franchise
Finishing last in rushing defense and 30th overall on defense may
have been the result of injuries to linebackers Lance Briggs and
D.J. Williams, cornerback Charles Tillman, and defensive tackle
Henry Melton, or it could have been the result of different
defensive coaches teaching a system they knew little about running.
It's a question they'll ponder over coming months.
The advancing age of their defense and injuries left Trestman and
general manager Phil Emery knowing they had to treat the defense
like when they added four offensive line starters and a tight end
"Chicago is about defense and playing a certain way," Trestman said.
"There's a toughness to the way we want to play, and that's what we
did in the first three games."
After those three games — all wins — the injuries occurred and the
Bears lost eight of 13. They dropped from leading the league in
forcing turnovers to middle of the pack. They were eighth in
interceptions even while tieing for last in sacks, and the lack of a
pass rush impacted them all year.
"As the season progressed and we had more injuries, we fell
dramatically," said Emery, who pointed out opponents averaged 6.4
yards per run from the ninth game on against the collapsing defense.
"We went from the beginning of the season of being a little over 20
percent (of) plays creating disruption against the pass," he said.
"When we first started having injuries we were in the 15 percent
"There was a dramatic dropoff. So we're going to examine all
aspects, but it starts with me. From a personnel perspective and
from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth.
We were at least one defensive lineman short."
The increased offensive production with both Jay Cutler and Josh
McCown at quarterback was remarkable. It seemed to matter little
which played as the offense moved up and down the field at will.
Trestman thinks what he saw from the offense will only improve
considering where it all started.
"I've had the opportunity to go to San Francisco and be part of a
good offense," he said. "I've had a chance in another instance to go
into Oakland and be part of a good offense. But when I went in
there, the system was in place, the language was in place, there was
a foundation that was in place.
"When we came in here last January, it wasn't in place. We had to
start over and the credit has to start with the players and the way,
particularly our quarterbacks Jay and Josh took control of the
Running back Matt Forte had his best year (career-highs 1,339
rushing yards, 74 catches, 594 yards) and wide receiver Alshon
Jeffery (89 catches, 1,421 yards) and wide receiver Brandon Marshall
(100-1,295) ranked as the best 1-2 receiver duo in the league.
None of those numbers mattered in the end, though, as it all seemed
like the Bears merely traded one losing approach for another.
Emery looked at 8-8 with a defeat in a season-ending division title
game and saw progress over a 10-6 mark under Lovie Smith when they
needed help to get into the playoffs but never got it.
"A year ago, we had to win those last two games and we had to have
other people lose games for us to go and we didn't," he said. "This
year, we were in control of that situation the last two games after
having all our ups and downs of our season and fighting adversity
and fighting injuries.
"We were still in a position the last two games to win it, so that
is a little bit different to me."
Different, perhaps, but the end result produced a very familiar
feeling of disappointment for all involved.
—Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has been added as a selection
to the 2014 Pro Bowl, the NFL announced Thursday.
Jeffery is replacing Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who
is unable to participate due to injury.
Jeffery will be making his first career Pro Bowl appearance after
ranking sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,421) and seventh in
yards from scrimmage (1,526, which ranked second in the league among
wide receivers). Jeffery had 89 receptions and seven touchdown
catches in his second year in the NFL, ranking 10th in the league in
"Just being from where I came from to where I am now, what I'm doing
... it's just special to be part of the success we're having as a
team," Jeffery said. "I'm extremely blessed and thankful for the
opportunity to play in the Pro Bowl."
Jeffery's 1,421 receiving yards in 2013 are second most in
single-season franchise history and his 89 receptions are sixth
Jeffery is the third Bears player to be named to the 2014 Pro Bowl
joining: running back Matt Forte and fellow wide receiver Brandon
Marshall. Jeffery and Marshall are the first pair of Bears wide
receivers to be named to the Pro Bowl in the same season.
—Defensive end Julius Peppers seems to rate high on the list of
Bears who are going to either be asked to take a pay cut or
restructure their contract, or be outright released.
His 7.5 sacks were his fewest as a Bear and fewest since he had 2.5
General manager Phil Emery said Peppers "had an 8-8 season."
"Obviously, Julius had a lot of good games, like a lot of our
players, and he had games that he would want back," Emery said. "And
I think Julius would say that, too.
"We will work through each and every player on our squad and to
determine where we're going with him in the future, and that process
is going to take time. But Julius is under contract. We're proud
that he's a Bear, and that's where we're at."
—The hiring of Lovie Smith in Tampa has led to plenty of
speculation about which Bears free agents will be heading south to
Defensive tackle Henry Melton is always on the possibility list, but
cornerback Charles Tillman seems to be a consensus future Buc based
largely on his close ties with Smith in the past.
The Bears' signing of Tim Jennings for $22 million over four years
seems to make Tillman's return less likely, but not a certainty.
Prior to Smith's hiring in Tampa, Tillman seemed to anticipate
something like this happening when he said, "I have some options. I
have some thoughts. I have some decisions that I have to make that's
what's best for myself and my family and my football career."
—The possibility middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic could move to
outside linebacker was suggested by no less an expert than Emery.
Bostic was drafted as a middle linebacker and played it this year
after D.J. Williams went on injured reserve.
"I made that comment because his skill set — he's a hit-and-run
player in terms of the guy can really cover ground," Emery said.
"He's very dynamic in his speed, and he's very dynamic in his
ability to hit and the physicalness and the impact of it."
Emery ranked Bostic second among Bears in terms of an ability to
"unload on another player in space and produce an impact tackle or
an impact hit."
Bostic often failed at a basic requirement in the middle this year.
He had trouble finding his way through blocking schemes to the ball
"He can improve dramatically in that going into his second season,"
—The Shea McClellin reboot is about to occur.
"Shea is capable of more, and it's our job and our responsibility as
coaches to get that out of him, and we're going to do everything we
can to do that," coach Marc Trestman said.
In two seasons, Emery's first first-round pick has 6.5 sacks and has
become a target for opposing running attacks. Coaches see his great
speed and figure there must be a way to get production from a player
they passed over Chandler Jones (17.5 sacks) and Whitney Mercilus
(13 sacks) to take.
"He was brought in to the Chicago Bears to be a rotational,
complementary pass rusher," Emery said. "The whole idea and thought
behind Shea is the high end of the athleticism he has and his speed
to handle the quarterbacks that we face and the mobility that they
have. The role model was some of the players that Lovie (Smith) had
in the past in terms of being somebody that comes in during the
nickel downs, primarily, and then goes anywhere from the high 40
percent to about 60-62 percent (of snaps) is the effective range of
a player that has the skill set that you're looking for."
The possibility they'll play 3-4 in some situations or go to a
different variation of the 4-3 all seems to hinge on McClellin.
—Melton's arrest for assault and public intoxication did not escape
Emery's scrutiny when he discussed the future of the defense.
Melton is a free agent, but is rehabbing from his torn anterior
cruciate ligament and Emery hasn't liked what he has seen in terms
of the arrest.
"The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine
that drives the defense," he said of Melton's spot. "And when he was
in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off
to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very
important part of the defense.
"So he knows, and that has been related to him that we signed you
for a reason. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously
he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that
he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Jay Cutler. Backups — Josh McCown,
Cutler described himself as "married" to coach Marc Trestman and
his system, and he displayed what the team needed to see in
terms of running and leading the offense to decide to pay him
about $22 million of next year's salary cap. Cutler has all the
throws and finally stepped forward and took the leadership role
with this team. What they really need to see now is Cutler
beating Green Bay, since he failed despite playing a solid game
against them with the playoffs on the line. Retaining McCown
might be difficult, but is preferable to keeping Palmer as
backup and drafting a young third quarterback or signing another
backup. McCown could draw interest as a backup from other teams,
but at age 34 the best he'll do elsewhere in terms of playing
time is a promise to let him compete to be a starter. He had
plenty of support to start in Chicago with his 109 passer
rating, but on the other hand he failed to beat two last-place
teams (Minnesota and St. Louis) in starts and another last-place
team (Washington) when he played most of the game. Any of those
wins would have given the Bears a playoff berth.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Matt Forte. Backups — Michael Bush,
Michael Ford, FB Tony Fiammetta.
Forte is among the top three all-around backs in the league and
at a peak as a player. He's coming off career bests in
receptions (74), receiving yards (594) and rushing yards (1,339)
and has been a good blocking back except for the prime-time
failure against Philadelphia. He even improved in goal line or
short yardage last year. Trestman's ability to use multi-purpose
backs definitely applied in Forte's case. Bush got very few
chances that weren't in short-yardage situations, but generally
appears too slow into the hole to be a power-style complement to
Forte. His $8.45 million cap figure over the next two years
makes him a prime candidate to be cut for salary-cap purposes.
The Bears would need to find a power back replacement, as Ford
is more a multi-purpose back in Forte's mold, but without as
much speed. They need this position filled to help preserve
Forte, too, as there has been a tendency to overwork him. The
Bears quickly locked Fiammetta up to a new deal based on his
ability to help free Forte off the edge with his run blocking,
and an ability to pick up blitzers on passes.
Bennett's hands eventually proved better than billed, after a
few games when he seemed plagued by drops. His ability to make
plays with good quickness for a big player and also his run
blocking on the edge proved critical in the offense when
defenses focused on Brandon Marshall. Rosario had no impact as a
receiver with one catch in 15 games and three starts. He was an
effective extra pass blocker, but showed no ability to separate
on short patterns. The Bears could use a second tight end with
better size that is more physical. They had Fendi Onobun on the
practice squad all year, and physically he shows he can be a
big-play type with reach, speed and athleticism like a wide
receiver. He also has skillets for hands and needs to work hard
at making the most simple catches.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery.
Backups — Earl Bennett, Marquess Wilson, Joe Anderson, Eric
Weems, Chris Williams.
It's difficult to deny Marshall's importance both as a target
and a decoy to take pressure off Jeffery, but he also led the
NFL in dropped passes (12), according to STATS Inc., and had a
huge drop on the last drive against Green Bay to ensure no
playoff berth. Still, Marshall and Jeffery together ranked as
the league's best receiver tandem and also strong blockers
downfield in the running game or screen game. The only thing the
Bears lack in those two is world class sprinter's speed,
although they make up for it with athleticism and the ability to
go vertical for difficult catches. Bennett reworked his contract
before last year, but could be a salary-cap victim with a $5
million cap number over the next two years. Replacing Bennett is
no easy matter, since he had an ability to find dead spots in
zones for third-down or goal-line catches. Wilson might have
better speed than the other receivers, but needs to work on his
strength and downfield blocking. Anderson is athletic with
decent hands and speed but finished the year on injured reserve
with two less serious injuries. Williams is a project, but has
good speed and, like Weems, has special teams value.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt
Slauson, C Roberto Garza, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills. Backups — C Taylor Boggs, G-T Eben Britton, T Jonathan Scott, T-G James
Brown, T Joe Long.
Bushrod came in with a big free-agent contract questioned by
many analysts, but finished an excellent season protecting
Cutler's blind side. He had only one poor game. The Bears
thought enough to give Slauson a new deal. He proved solid and
worked well in the inside-out pass blocking scheme. Garza does
not play like a 34 year old and has been very durable for a
player missing an anterior cruciate ligament, with only two
missed games since becoming a Bear. Only on a few occasions did
a player come up the "A gap," although Garza isn't the best
short-yardage blocker and sometimes gets overpowered. Long
played well enough as a rookie to be an alternate to the Pro
Bowl. His speed and strength made it easy for him to pull and
help with the edge rushing game and screen passes. It won't be
surprising if he eventually becomes a tackle because of his
athletic ability. Mills, who had surgery to repair a broken foot
bone when the season ended, has been burned by speed rushers and
is still developing in terms of footwork. That explains how Pro
Football Focus had him ranked among the league's worst
pass-blocking tackles all year. He was at his best sealing an
edge for Forte, but also had value pulling to block off the left
side in the run game. The Bears have a glut of backup tackles
and it's expected Scott could go. They've brought Brown, Boggs
and Britton along as young players in their system. Boggs might
be an answer when Garza retires, but he'll need to bulk up.
Britton produced all year as the sixth offensive lineman in run
blocking formations, and played effectively replacing an injured
Mills in the season finale. Joe Long has pedigree — as Jake
Long's brother — and was good enough that the Bears plucked him
from Pittsburgh's practice squad and put him on the active
roster when they already had a plenty of tackles. Could
challenge Mills in the future.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DT Corey Wootton, NT Jeremiah
Ratliff, RDE Julius Peppers, LDE Shea McClellin. Backups — DT
Henry Melton, DT Nate Collins, DT Landon Cohen, DE Cheta
Ozougwu, DE David Bass, DE Cornelius Washington.
Season-ending knee injuries suffered by Melton and Collins
turned this into a collection of waiver-wire pickups. Peppers
still is the best defensive lineman they have, although there
are 30.4 million reasons in unguaranteed salary dollars to think
he'll be cut unless he agrees to a drastically revised deal. He
is a non-factor on too many plays and often was completely taken
out by blockers on running plays. Wootton is no tackle, although
he tried playing it to help. He's very versatile and as a player
could also play end in a 3-4, he has value for a team that could
be switching either to a 3-4 or else a 4-3 hybrid that uses a
two-gap approach at times. Ratliff showed an ability to cave the
pocket, and will only get stronger. With experience in one- and
two-gap approaches, he also would be a free agent to keep.
McClellin has been an abysmal failure as an end with his hand on
the ground. From general manager Phil Emery's comments, they're
obviously looking at turning him into a pass-rushing linebacker
or some type of hybrid player. Collins is on course with his
rehab to return by training camp, as is Melton. But Melton also
had off-field problems after an arrest for being disorderly.
Their return depends greatly on if the scheme continues
emphasizing the three-technique role. Ozougwu is the young
project who can rush the passer but can't stop the run, while
Bass is the young end who can't rush the passer but plays the
run. Washington has to step up both as a rusher and run stopper
as he has been outperformed by many waiver-wire pickups despite
being a drafted.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Jonathan Bostic,
SLB James Anderson. Backups — MLB D.J. Williams, WLB Khaseem
Greene, LB Blake Costanzo, LB Jerry Franklin.
Briggs' shoulder fracture healed, but he appeared out of shape
when he returned. He remains the defense's best tackler and led
a poor tackling team in tackles for losses. Although they want
to get younger, letting go of a player with such skills seems
counterproductive. Bostic's rookie season made it apparent he
has outstanding speed and may be better suited to playing
outside rather than the middle. He often failed to break down
and missed tackles or overran his gap. Anderson is a versatile
veteran capable of helping in several schemes, and although he
initially wasn't expected to be on the field in the nickel, he
wound up playing it all year fairly well — except for failing
to pick up a live ball against Green Bay. Like many defensive
players this year, his tackling left something to be desired.
Williams made a quick adjustment to a new scheme, was effective
despite missing training camp with a knee injury, and then was
quickly gone with a torn triceps. Like with all 30-somethings,
his return as a free agent is not a guarantee. Costanzo has been
a solid special teams player, but has little or no value as a
backup and may not be someone a team lacking salary-cap room can
afford. Greene had a debut much like Bostic. As Briggs' backup,
he showed great speed, but played out of control and failed at
the basic requirement of knowing his run fits. He also showed
far less ability to deliver big hits than had been billed.
Franklin is only a special teams player who was cut and brought
back due to injuries.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Zack Bowman,
SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte. Backups — CB Isaiah Frey, CB
Kelvin Hayden, DB Derrick Martin, CB Sherrick McManis, S Anthony
Walters, S Craig Steltz, CB Charles Tillman.
Jennings signed, solving one problem. His ability to play man
against taller players because of great leaping ability and
speed have made him valued. Tillman's torn pectoral muscle and
rehab are not a problem, but his return is anything but a lock.
It's possible he'll get a bigger contract for one extra year in
free agency than the year or two the Bears may be willing to
give. Tillman will be 33 next season and although he hadn't
missed a game in the previous three years, he's been bothered by
nagging injuries. It's a tough call. Bowman showed great
improvement in man pass protection this season as Tillman's
replacement, and remains a physical player in run defense.
Still, he hasn't shown the knack for shutting down big receivers
like Calvin Johnson that Tillman has had. Neither Conte nor
Wright distinguished themselves. They showed this year they had
been beneficiaries from a good pass rush in the past since
without the rush there they were beaten repeatedly. Conte missed
out making big plays, and also gave up big plays. He may not
have the speed to play safety in a scheme relying at times on
single deep or man coverage. Frey played a whole year at nickel
and was average. His tackling came into question at times, and
some teams near the end of the year targeted him on third downs.
Hayden's return from knee surgery is likely by the start of
training camp, but whether he'll maintain the speed that made
him starting nickel remains to be seen. Martin and McManis are
special teams types and Steltz has been a dependable third or
fourth safety. A lack of speed keeps Steltz from being a
starter. Walters has not shown an ability to be a ballhawk and
hasn't been physical enough.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Robbie Gould, P Adam Podlesh, KOR/PR Devin
Hester, LS Patrick Mannelly.
Robbie Gould's missed field goal in Minnesota looms as one of
the plays that kept the Bears from the playoffs, but he remains
both accurate and one of the better kickers from 50 yards or
longer. And, of course, he has handled the fickle weather and
poor playing surface at Soldier Field well. Mannelly still
remains very effective. The team will have to weigh whether
someone 39 years old on opening day can also avoid being a
detriment in punt coverage. Podlesh suffered through a
roller-coaster season with his hang time and occasional shanks,
so his departure might be a possibility. Hester's return seems
unlikely. The Bears even signed a potential replacement during
the regular season in Chris Williams, who was a standout return
man in Canada.