'Changes' hold ominous signs for Bears


'Changes' hold ominous signs for Bears

At the three-quarter pole of a season, absolute numbers by themselves are one thing. Trend lines are another, and several key ones are trending in decidedly wrong directions as the Bears work to hold course for the postseason.

With three losses in the last four games against teams with winning records, falloffs should be no surprise. But the losses are the effect, not the cause.

Offensively the fact that the Bears are still 32nd in the NFL in yardage on first-down plays (4.28) after committing to improving in that area is concerning because it indicates that the Bears are still setting themselves with too much to pick up too often on subsequent downs.

A month ago, going into the Houston-San Francisco-Minnesota-Seattle stretch, the Bears were at 4.27 yards per first-down play. They were able to survive that as long as the opponents were Tennessee or Jacksonville; not the Texans or 49ers.

Bigger picture, the stunning receiving numbers of Brandon Marshall had the Bears at 29th in passing yards a month ago. Now the Bears are 31st even with Marshall catching 32 passes for 385 yards in the past quarter-seasons games.

Coach Lovie Smith rarely calls out players in public but he left no doubt that the receiver group has not been producing enough outside of Marshall.

I think weve been saying that for awhile, someone needs to step up, Smith said. I think the guys will say that. Hopefully, we still have time.

How much time really remaining?

Time and games, however, are running out, particularly if the trends are going in the wrong directions.

The Bears have a total of six offensive touchdowns over the last four games. They had 15 in the four second-quarter games, but that included six against Tennessee and five against Jacksonville, and five of the 15 were scored by the defense and special teams.

Questions about how good the Bears would be when the takeaway faucet ran a little dry have been answered. Not very.

Defense waning

A month ago the defense ranked No. 6 in rush yards allowed per game (88). Now it is 10th with 103.5, and 22nd in yards per attempt, up from 4.3 per attempt to 4.5.

Not surprising. After allowing only Cedric Benson and the Green Bay Packers to top 100 yards in the first six games, the Bears have held no team to fewer than 114 in the last six, with Houston, San Francisco and Seattle all netting more than 120.

The 3.6 per carry of the Texans went to 4.2 by San Francisco to 5.7 for the Vikings and 5.5 for Seattle.

Usually an optimist like Smith can point to a positive performance somewhere. In the 12th game of the season, when a defense should be hitting its stride, good was nowhere to be found.

Cant even point anybody out, Smith said. Just about every good defensive game weve played around here, weve all had something to do with that player-wise. And vs. Seattle we all had something to do with that performance that were not proud of.

We havent had many of those but it does happen. Got to make sure it doesnt happen again.

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White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

The two fastballs that soared to the backstop on Wednesday night should give you a strong indication that Carlos Rodon was far from perfect.

But in making his first start of the 2017 season, the White Sox pitcher also offered his team plenty of signals that his health isn’t going to be an issue.

Rodon returned to the mound for the first time since last September and brought the goods that made him one of baseball’s top pitching prospects several years ago. Given he’d missed three months with bursitis in the left shoulder and the potential value he offers to a franchise only half a season into its first rebuild in 20 years, that was plenty for the White Sox to overlook the rust Rodon showed in a 12-3 White Sox loss to the New York Yankees at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“He started a little rough early obviously, got some high pitch counts,” manager Rick Renteria said. “And then he kind of settled down.

“Having him back in the rotation and getting him back out there on the big league field, coming out of there feeling good, healthy. I'm sure he will continue to get better as he continues to get out there and move forward.”

Renteria said he wasn’t surprised that Rodon struggled with his command as much as he did against the Yankees. The issues the pitcher displayed in uncorking a pair of wild pitches, walking six batters and throwing strikes on only 41 of 94 pitches were also present during Rodon’s four rehab starts in the minors.

But as long as the stuff was there, the White Sox would be OK with any issues that accompanied the performance. Rodon began to alleviate those concerns immediately when he earned a called strike on the game’s first pitch with a 93-mph fastball to Brett Gardner. Featuring a four-seamer with an absurd amount of movement and a nasty slider he struggled to control, Rodon checked all the boxes the White Sox hoped for from a pitcher they believe will be a frontline starter for years to come. Rodon also was pleased by how he felt before, during and after the contest.

“I was pretty excited,” Rodon said. “I was going a little fast in the first. But it was good to be out there. Next time out, it’ll hopefully be a little better. Arm feels good, body feels good, all you can ask for.”

Well, it’s not ALL you can ask for, but it’s pretty damn good out of the gate given how slow Rodon’s return took. His four-seam fastball averaged 94.9 mph according to BrooksBaseball.Net and touched 97 mph. His two-seamer averaged 94.4 mph and touched 95. And his slider, though he couldn’t control it, nor locate it for a strike, averaged 86 mph.

“You could see (Omar Narvaez) going over to try to catch some balls that were having tremendous run,” Renteria said. “That's (Rodon). He's got some tremendous life, he's just trying to harness it the best that he can and being able to execute where he wants to get as many strikes as possible.”

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The strikes were about the only thing Rodon didn’t bring with him. He walked Gardner to start the game and issued two more free passes after a Tim Anderson error allowed a run to score and extended the first inning. Rodon threw 37 pitches in the first, only 15 for strikes.

He also reached a full count to each of the batters he faced in the second inning. Rodon walked two more with two outs in the third inning after he’d retired six batters in a row.

And there were those pesky first-inning wild pitches that resembled something out of ‘Bull Durham.’

But all in all, Rodon and the White Sox ultimately saw enough in the first outing to be pleased.

“Great stuff, great life, but the goal is to put it in the zone and let them swing it to get guys out early,” Rodon said. “That’s not what happened. I’ll get back to that.”

“It’s a tough loss, but it’s better to be with the guys out on the field grinding than sitting on the couch and watching, for sure.”