Chicago White Sox

Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

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Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

More than ever, it starts up front

First, by way of background and perspective:

What has happened to the Chicago pass protection in the past three weeks is perhaps the biggest mystery of 2012, exceeding even what precisely Charles Tillman does to get so many footballs out of peoples hands. It is certainly the most concerning.

To dismiss it as proof that a line that blocked for 2,015 rushing yards and three different 100-yard rushers was really horrendous all along doesnt wash. In the five games, all wins, before Jay Cutlers thumb injury last season, the Bears allowed exactly five sacks total. That was with an offensive line that started four different front-fives in the first five games.

This year, with only one change (Chilo Rachal for Chris Spencer at left guard) and that done for upgrade rather than injury, the Bears gave up as many sacks the each of the Green Bay (seven), Detroit and Carolina games as they did in that entire five-game win stretch last season.

The Bears gave up five sacks to the Detroit Lions (out of their 18 total for the year), six to the Carolina Panthers (equaling one-fourth of their season total) and three to the Tennessee Titans, who had 11 in the previous eight games.

Now they have the Houston Texans, who already have 24 for the year. The headliner is end J.J. Watt and his 10.5 sacks. But Antonio Smith on the other end has four and nine different Texans have sacks this season.

NFLs best D? A style problem

It is superfluous to debate whether the Bears, Texans or 49ers defense is the best in the NFL. Those units dont play each other.

But look beyond simply yardage totals. The Texans rank behind only the Bears in the Aikman Ratings, a weighted composite favored by coach Lovie Smith. They rank in the top 10 in 11 different defensive categories (vs. the Bears eight of 11). There no glaring weaknesses in the Houston defense.

The immediate problem is that although the Texans play a version of a 3-4, it is one that attacks and disrupts with its line. Many 3-4s are read-and-react with their down linemen, typically bigger bodies who do not regularly threaten quarterbacks.

But Mike Tice likened the Houston scheme to the Steelers of recent 3-4 vintage, with linemen playing a one-gap, get-into-the-backfield similar in mindset to the Bears.

The nose tackle is about the only one whos reading, Tice said. Theyre not butting up and peeking into the backfield.

What this means is that all three down linemen in this 3-4 have more tackles (Watt 59, Smith 29, nose tackle Shaun Cody 21) than the highest-ranked Bears lineman (Henry Melton 19).

The game is ideally out of Cutler's hands

The mandate is for the Bears to run the football, although this will require a patient and game-long commitment. Houston is ninth in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt (4.0) so there will be more than a few tries that net little in the first half. And Houston is the only NFL team to allow zero rushing touchdowns this season, the last one coming in game 15 of last year.

Matt Forte is averaging a career-best 5.0 yards per carry. If the Bears can approach that against Houston, they create multiple opportunities.

Matt, he's a beast, said wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who will be the prime beneficiary if the Texans must commit a safety to the box for Forte duty. And that's our guy, our offense is tailored around him, and we're going to continue to try and get him the ball. When he's rolling, everything else opens up for myself and Earl Bennett.

The overriding directive is protecting Jay Cutler, whom the Texans are intent on rattling.

I hope so, said free safety Glover Quin, who is third on the Texans in tackles, has a sack and has broken up more passes (seven) than anyone other that Watt (10). Obviously, we want to try to get to the quarterback and put some pressure on him and force him into some throws that arent his best throws. If we can get him in that situation, thatd be good for us.

Cutler can be his own worst enemy and if he is this week, when his offensive line and protections have their hands full, is middle of the pack (13th) in time to throw, the time from snap to throw or no longer throwing, based on studies by Pro Football Focus. But he is an ominous No. 4 in time to sack at 4.01 seconds, behind only Seattle rookie Russell Wilson, Alex Smith in San Francisco and Michael Vick.

That points to Cutler holding the ball sufficiently to allow his tormentors to close.

Game plan?

No team has given the ball away fewer times than Houston (six five interceptions, one fumble). This points to very little chance that the Bears will have double-digit points coming on turnovers, and that Cutler remain in a controlled place more than most games.

It sounded this week like that has sunk in.

Im just trying to, the way our defense is playing, its just minimize turnovers, try to convert on third down and protect the ball and make smart decisions in the red zone, Cutler said. Were running the ball well. I think offensive lines getting better and better. As they move and get better, thats going to open up more doors for what were able to do in the passing game and kind of open up my game a little bit.

Why Yoan Moncada's hot streak is important for the White Sox confidence and his

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USA TODAY

Why Yoan Moncada's hot streak is important for the White Sox confidence and his

HOUSTON -- Don’t think the White Sox front office isn’t enjoying every second of Yoan Moncada’s tear.

Everyone can breathe a little easier knowing there are fewer questions for baseball’s top prospect to answer headed into 2018. Pleased as they’d been with Moncada’s patient plate approach, the club desired a breakthrough before Oct. 2 for the confidence boost it would provide him alone. Moncada continued a torrid run on Wednesday night that should have him bristling with poise when he arrives in Glendale, Ariz. next February. He homered as the White Sox fell 4-3 to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

“We’ve been looking for him to continue to try and make adjustments,” manager Rick Renteria said. “There was probably a point there where people were a little concerned. Truthfully, when you see some of the talent these kids have, you recognize that their skillset is going to play up, it’s just a matter of getting the repetition.”

The White Sox have been impressed with Moncada’s improved awareness as he gains more experience.

One area in which Moncada has made the most gains is pitch recognition. The book has been that second baseman has had trouble with offspeed since he arrived in 2016, hitting .154 against sliders and .238 against curveballs entering Wednesday, according to Brooksbaseball.net.

But Moncada is trending upward. The first-pitch slider from Astros starter Brad Peacock that Moncada ripped for a go-ahead, two-run homer in the fourth inning was his fifth hit of the trip on a slider or curveball in 11 at-bats. On the trip, Moncada -- who has 209 plate appearances this season -- is hitting .415/.477/.683 with three homers, eight RBIs and 12 runs in 41 plate appearances.

[MORE: Jose Abreu's gift to Yoan Moncada just keeps on giving

Given Moncada’s struggles in a brief 2016 tryout with the Boston Red Sox, having success is certainly helpful as he won’t head into another offseason wondering when it might happen for him. Moncada doesn’t compare the two situations because of playing time -- he was limited to 20 plate appearances over a month in 2016. But he agrees his recent play is good for the psyche.

“It’s important for my confidence, especially thinking about next year,” Moncada said through an interpreter. “With this run, I have been able to have more confidence and believe in myself and my talent, and I think that’s something I can carry into next season.”

“This offseason is going to be different because I’ve been able to play almost every day. I have more confidence in myself. I know the game better. Last season I had an opportunity to be at this level a little bit, but it wasn’t the same. This year is the opposite because I’ve been playing a lot and have been able to handle good and bad stretches at this level.”

While a reduction in strikeout-rate is still needed to be more effective, Moncada has begun to establish himself as a major league hitter. It’s exactly how teammate and mentor Jose Abreu hoped Moncada would spend his time this season.

“He has to get to know a lot of things at this level,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “The game, the pitchers, the culture here -- there’s a lot of little things he has to get to know here. The way you can work through it is give your best every day and try to learn as much as you can and try to use all your knowledge and to pool your knowledge on each play in the game. That’s the only way you can get results and you can build on those results and this experience for the future. I think he’s finally doing it and that’s important for him and for us thinking of the next season and beyond.”

Renteria not only likes the pitch recognition but the way that Moncada has tried to hit through the shift several times against Houston. Though the White Sox never wavered, they’re certainly happy to see Moncada produce the way they thought he eventually would.

“He’s starting to slow it down a little more,” Renteria said. “He’s starting to see more of the landscape and making adjustments in general. It’s been a good run for him. We thought he would show signs of growth at the end of the season and he’s doing that.”

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”