The current state of affairs for the 2016 Bears is seriously concerning when, after adding multiple starting players and investing high draft choices, the best that can be said about the Bears defense is that it isn’t as bad as the Bears offense.
A unit predicted to contend for a spot among the NFL’s top 10 this year was pushed around for 378 yards and 23 points in a 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. To push all of it off onto the fact that it was a preseason game won’t work, if only because the No. 1 defense allowed 239 of those yards and 20 of those points in the first half.
One mitigating fact is that the Bears offense hit a new preseason low and was coming back off the field before most members of the defense had had time to look at photos and to hydrate. Five of the Bears’ first seven possessions lasted less than 1 minute 30 seconds. Defensive players usually had time to get water or get with their coaches; not both.
And the defense did stiffen in the red zone, forcing the Chiefs twice to settle for field goals with the ball inside the Chicago 10 and a third time at the 23. And players at least bristled at the suggestion that the Bears are soft. “I take that personally,” said safety Harold Jones-Quartey. "I have never heard that word… . The first time I’ve ever heard anybody call us ‘soft’ is [now].”
Coach John Fox found some good in “the way our defense improved. We got a couple turnovers down in the lower-red area.”
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But those were scant positives in a game that saw Kansas City put together drives of 50 yards or longer five of the first six times it had the football, and those were against the supposed front liners.
The Chiefs drove 53 and 62 yards on their first two possessions, which included conversions of third-and-5 and third-and-14, part of the Chiefs converting six of 10 third downs in the first half. (“Obviously our third-and-long defense wasn’t real sufficient,” Fox allowed.)
Kansas City piled up 106 yards in the first quarter and what defensive “stops” there were might just as easily be credited to Kansas City execution as Bears playmaking. The Chiefs arguably had their initial drive stopped as much by tailback Spencer Ware colliding with blocking back Darrin Reaves on a third-and-short (2) for no gain. A fourth long drive of the half ended only when the Chiefs had a Bears blitz blocked, only to have Smith miss wide open wideout Albert Wilson inside the Chicago 10.
Special teams did the defense few favors. Kansas City punt returns of 18 and 15 yards put the ball at the KC 36 and the 50. The Bears did well to leave those possessions giving up only 3 points.
The game, in which starters and first-alternates play the longest of the preseason, had its points of player evaluation. Rookie cornerback Deiondre’ Hall, whose preseason has been marked by impact plays (not all of them good, of course), did generate another in the third quarter with an interception that thwarted a Kansas City scoring drive deep in the Chicago end. This was, however, after he had lost the ball and the receiver on a 58-yard completion the previous Chiefs possession.
And rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard, after missing practice last week to attend to family matters, collected two quarterback hits, a sack and two tackles for loss among his three solo stops, according to initial game stats.
But rookie linebacker Leonard Floyd, who has missed practice time with three different health issues since the start of training camp, was limited in practice this week with a hamstring strain, and missed an important opportunity for much-needed work against unfamiliar competition.
“We got a chance to look at some young guys and make evaluations,” Fox said, “and that’s what preseason’s for.”
John Fox’s hopes for this preseason game No. 3 actually were fairly modest: show improvement. The Bears gave their coach pretty much the exact opposite in a dismal 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, which wasn’t really even as close as that score.
Tellingly perhaps, Fox was moderately damning with faint praise: “I don’t think it was all bad,” Fox said. “It might have looked like that but so do a lot of preseason games.”
And any presumed correlation between Saturday’s woeful performance and how the season may be a stretch. Five of the last six times the Bears have lost their third preseason game, they finished .500 or better, last year’s 34-6 drubbing at Cincinnati being the lone time the game-three result foreshadowed the course of the season.
But Fox was accurate in how the 2016 game-three loss looked. With quarterback Jay Cutler and the No. 1 one offense – or what was healthy of it – played into the third quarter, by which time the Chiefs were leading 20-0, had out-gained the Bears 331-94 and had allowed the Bears into plus-territory just once in seven possessions and with the Bears picking up zero first downs on five of the seven “drives.”
“It was good and bad, like anything else,” Cutler said.
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Concerning perhaps, while not easily quantifiable from a distance, the play by too many players looked lethargic and disinterested, whether it was the cause or the result of repeated breakdowns that killed Chicago drives and extended Kansas City ones. Whether success grows out of confidence or confidence follows from success is a relevant question but one that really doesn’t matter until the Bears have at least one or the other.
“I’ve never had a problem, whether it was all of last year or this year, as far as effort,” Fox said. “Our guys try hard and work hard. Now it’s just crossing that gap to having it happen under pressure. I think with young people sometimes that’s the growing pains. We’ve got the talent to do it. Now we’ve just got to execute better."
Cutler appeared frustrated on more than one occasion, which in the past has been a source of problems. Some of it clearly was with teammates and failed assignments. But this is a young Bears team still in a molten state and frustration, even when justified, can be an accelerant for tension.
This is still only preseason, but the critical trust relationship between Cutler and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is still a work in progress. The No. 1 offense has done less than nothing – 29 total points from 12 quarters of work – other than a brief burst early in New England. History suggests that Cutler is among those who need success to believe in his chief architect, and if Cutler’s attitude is fraying even a little bit, the danger is that it spread without something positive.
“We’ve got a great attitude,” Cutler insisted. “We’ve got a good team. Coach Fox put together a heck of a staff. Dowell and his staff are doing everything possible. Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] is a proven vet… . It’s just up to the guys.”
The game was one of the poorer examples of complementary football, with no phase of the Bears – offense, defense, special teams – doing anything remotely setting up another in field position, momentum or whatever. That is unsettling, since it is unusual for a game to be marked by none of a team’s units performing well.
The offense went without a first down on its final four possessions going into halftime. That was capped off by an abysmal final three trips to the line of scrimmage that produced a false-start penalty, incomplete pass to a wide-open receiver and a sack.
The defense, which wasn’t getting much recovery time from those brief series, failed to stop any of the Chiefs’ possessions through three quarters without at least one first down. The Chiefs had six drives of 40 yards or longer and had the ball approaching 30 minutes to the Bears’ 15 through three quarters.
Special teams did the defense few favors. Kansas City punt returns of 18 and 15 yards put the ball at the KC 36 and the 50. The Bears did well to leave those possessions giving up only 3 points, but the Chiefs had three different punt returners with at least one runback of 10 yards or longer.
As far as what might be positive in all of that: “It IS preseason,” Fox stated.
If there are solutions lurking in the rubble that has been the Chicago Bears 2016 offense, they are staying hidden. And the problems have to be more than just the loss of coordinator Adam Gase and stalwarts Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and Matt Slauson.
But in the longest stretch of playing time yet this preseason, a 23-7 loss Saturday to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bears repeatedly dropped passes, ran wrong routes, failed to execute blocks and generally looked like an offense that has taken significant steps backward since last season.
“We’ve still got some time,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “We’ve still got some time to get better. We’re still missing some guys and we’re going to have an influx of guys coming into the lineup that’ve been missing the past couple of weeks, which is going to help us, make us a little more dynamic out there.
“We’ve just got to keep working.”
The No. 1 offense ran 18 first-half plays and netted 20 yards – five fewer than the team gave the Chiefs in penalties. And matters got worse. The Bears ran 11 plays in the second quarter for a net minus-11 yards.
The Bears went to the line of scrimmage three times in the final 6 seconds of the first half. Those trips produced a false start by Alshon Jeffery (which pushed the Bears back across midfield and out of what would have been their only play in the Kansas City end of the field through 30 minutes); a bounced pass from Cutler in the direction of Marc Mariani when no Chief was within 20 yards of the Bears wide receiver; and a sack by 346-pound nose tackle Dontari Poe, who had one sack in 15 games last season.
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The Bears had practiced those situations as recently as this week, though “we need to prepare more, obviously,” Cutler said, smiling.
Franchise-tagged Jeffery did not limit his issues to the pre-snap penalty. He caught none of the three passes targeted for him in the first half and let one go off his hands with Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters on the ground, a victim of the loose Soldier Field sod.
“I was just trying to catch it and take off,” Jeffery said. “But you still got to catch it.”
When the offense finally managed to cross midfield, on its first possession of the third quarter, the drive included a bad drop of a bubble screen to wide receiver Kevin White, a badly run route by White near the end zone, and finally a missed field goal by Robbie Gould from 48 yards.
“It’s just growing pains,” Cutler said. “It’s just kind of how it is, his ‘rookie’ year, not really playing a lot of college football… . We’re working with him and he’s doing everything he possibly can to work through it and be where it’s supposed to be.
“And he understood it. I talked to him on the sideline and just told him this is going to happen. And now he knows and it just can’t happen again. We just can’t have repeat mistakes. He’s a good kid and he’s going to do well.”
The rest of the offense? Since most of the starters will play little if at all next Thursday at Cleveland, the improvement is going to have to come from within, from practice. It didn’t happen in games, where it is generally supposed to.