Offensive grades: Bears return to prominence

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Offensive grades: Bears return to prominence

A desperately needed rebound from the disaster in San Francisco is the only way to look at the overall offense.

The distribution of the ball bordered on the bizarre with Brandon Marshall targeted on 17 of 31 throws by Jay Cutler, but Mike Tice put together a plan and packages to force the Minnesota Vikings to respect the run, with the result that Cutler was sacked only once, and that when he tripped over his own centers feet.

The commitment to the run (39) and balance (32 pass plays) was a decisive factor with the offense putting together drives of 10, 14 and 12 plays, and at least one first down on eight of the first 10 possessions when the game was remotely in any question. The offense scored on four straight possessions in the first half, three times for touchdowns, and took the heat off the defense for a change.

QUARTERBACK B

Jay Cutler evinced no signs of his concussion of two weeks ago and was an efficient 23-of-31 for 188 yards, a touchdown and one interception off a tipped ball. He used mobility in the pocket well and spread the ball among eight different receivers, albeit with 17 throws to Brandon Marshall.

Cutler created a problem by tripping over the foot of C Roberto Garza on his first dropback for a sack. Cutlers gratuitous flip of the ball at the end of a successful scramble inside the Minnesota 20 cost the Bears 15 yards and was an inexcusable lack of composure in a critical situation, and resulted in the Bears losing a TD chance.

Overall, an important return from injury and managing the game well without excessive exposure to risk other than some forced throws toward Marshall.

RUNNING BACK B

The numbers were not big but the effects from backs were. Michael Bush reaffirmed the value of his signing last offseason with two rushing TDs and yeoman work throughout the game, particularly after Matt Forte suffered an ankle injury in the second half. Bush moved the chains and also moved the pile as well for 60 yards on 21 carries, none for more than eight yards.

Forte fought for 42 yards on 14 carries before his injury. Fortes fumble on the Bears first play from scrimmage gave the Vikings three points and was just poor ball control since he wasnt hit by a tackler. It was his first of the year in 145 carries but a big mistake at the time.

Evan Rodriguez swung out of the backfield for a key 11-yard catch for a third-down conversion in the second quarter.

RECEIVERS A-

A difficult group to critique if only because the passing game was so Marshall-centric. Marshall was exceptional with 12 receptions for 92 yards, many times working against double-plus coverage and taking hits. His average per catch was a modest 7.7 and he gave away yardage with questionable moves after a couple of catches, but he also blocked well and created a place for Cutler to go in crisis.

Earl Bennett caught all four of the balls thrown to him, with a Bears-long of 20 yards and picking up three first downs on his catches. Matt Spaeth made a picture-book catch of a 13-yard TD pass in the second quarter and his blocking throughout was key in the run game.

Kellen Davis grab in traffic in the first quarter set up Bushs first scoring run. But Davis had two catchable balls get away and missed chances to sustain drives.

OFFENSIVE LINE A-

Have to grade on a curve here. This group spent the last week in turmoil with changes at RT (Jonathan Scott for Gabe Carimi) and LG (Chris Spencer for Chilo Rachal). And it only got more chaotic on Sunday.

Spencer and Louis both exited with knee injuries, forcing Edwin Williams in at left guard in the second quarter after Spencer was shaken up, and Carimi at right, for the first time in his career high school, college or NFL.

Carimi as an extra tight end and JMarcus Webb caved in the Minnesota right side for Bushs one-yard TD run in the first quarter. Webb more than atoned for his nightmare in Game 16 last season against Jared Allen, holding Allen without a sack and to one quarterback hit, that long outside the pocket.

Scott was outstanding on the right side, containing Brian Robison with one hit and a couple of tackles.

COACHING A

Mike Tice called himself out on his play-calling but had a plan in place for the Vikings. The Bears had 39 snaps in the first half, with 21 runs and 18 pass plays on the way to a 25-3 lead. The running wasnt dominating (2.7 yards per carry) but the physical play slowed the pass rush.

Using a jumbo package of Gabe Carimi as the extra tight end, Matt Spaeth as a wing, and Michael Bush behind Evan Rodriguez gave the Bears some heft in the run game.

Tice used a mix of max-protect with chipping on Jared Allen to slow the blindside rush from the All-Pro end. But the mix of signals was key against a defensive front that had allowed only seven rushing TDs all year but gave up two to the Bears.

GM Jed Hoyer on how Cubs were built and where they go from here

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GM Jed Hoyer on how Cubs were built and where they go from here

The St. Louis Cardinals talked about how hard they played until the end against the Cubs, claiming a moral victory, yet another sign of how much this rivalry has changed.

“Do something!” is always the natural reaction when a team struggles, even one with the best record in baseball, even when a three-time Manager of the Year fills out the lineup card, and even coming off a 97-win season and an all-out winter.  

But scoring 21 runs within 23 hours against the Cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday again showed how the Cubs were built (and how much St. Louis might miss John Lackey). The next time the Cubs fail to hit with runners in scoring position, or get shut out by a Madison Bumgarner, or experience a three-game losing streak, those offensive answers will have to come from within.

“No question,” general manager Jed Hoyer.

Between the final out of the National League Championship Series and getting swept by the New York Mets last October – and their first Cactus League game this spring – the Cubs committed $253 million combined to Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler.

The Cubs have gone 4-for-4 with hitters in their top draft picks – Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ – every year since president Theo Epstein took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field. Plus taking Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft during the final weeks of the Jim Hendry regime.

The Cubs invested $30 million in the Cuban market to sign Jorge Soler and used pitching trade chips (Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija) to acquire half of their infield (Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell) potentially through the 2021 season.   

Rizzo is coming off a 3-for-35 road trip where the Cubs lost series to the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants before closing strong in St. Louis. But Rizzo is also so much more mature and competitive than the overmatched hitter Hoyer rushed to the big leagues in 2011 with the San Diego Padres.

“As he goes, sometimes offensively we go,” Hoyer said. “With Anthony, when he’s good, he can carry you for a week to 10 days. He’ll get it going again. He knows he’s good now. He knows he can do it. When he goes to bed at night, he knows he’s an All-Star first baseman.

“That’s important when a guy’s going through a slump, that they have that confidence in themselves. (Now) it’s just a matter of that one swing that’ll click.”

Imagine what manager Joe Maddon described as “the butterfly effect” on the lineup once Heyward (.596 OPS) starts hitting the ball with authority to augment all the other subtle aspects of his game.

“He’s just a winning player,” Hoyer said. “Our players know that. He has that presence. Offensively, he’s been a slow starter like three of the last four years. There’s no question he’ll get it going.

“Once he (does), I think everyone will see the kind of player he’s been for most of his career. Everyone appreciates the defense and the baserunning. But the offense is a big part of that, too, and it will come here very shortly.”

If Heyward can’t be measured by batting average and RBIs, then the Cubs also dug into Zobrist’s peripheral numbers and underlying performance and found the super-utility guy had actually gotten better with age.

Zobrist turned 35 on Thursday and is hitting .346 and leading the majors with a .453 on-base percentage in the first season of a four-year contract.

“We love youth, (but) having some veterans is important,” Hoyer said. “With Ben, we felt like his skill set matched us perfectly. But we did really dig into the numbers to make sure that was the case.

“One of the things we look at is his ability to hit fastballs – it’s kind of gotten better and better throughout his career. Guys that can still hit a really good fastball don’t show a lot of signs of aging.”

It will be impossible to match the infusion of youth and energy Schwarber brought to the Cubs last summer, when he hit 16 homers in 69 games plus five more during the playoffs. 

The Cubs are 31-14 with Schwarber getting only five plate appearances during the first week of the season and now recovering from major knee surgery. 

Schwarber comparisons are unrealistic/unfair, but the next wave at Triple-A Iowa includes Almora, a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s hitting .326 and top catching prospect Willson Contreras (.933 OPS).

“We knew we were going to miss Kyle,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question about that. You take a guy like Kyle (away) – that’s like taking Michael Conforto out of the Mets’ lineup.

“He’s that good a left-handed hitter. He kills right-handed pitching. We knew we were going to miss it. I think our guys have done a great job of filling that hole.

“As for Contreras and Almora, I look at those two guys and I think there’s a little development left. We know that they’re doing a great job at Triple-A. If the need arises, those are guys that might get forced into action.

“But right now, we want those guys developing. Obviously, if the major-league team needs that player at that moment, (Kyle) will be the precedent. But right now, I think they’re still developing, still learning.”

A 10-game homestand begins Friday afternoon against the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. As the Cardinals know by now, the Cubs are no longer a franchise that keeps score with minor-league updates or prospect rankings or moral victories.

White Sox opener with Royals postponed by rain

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White Sox opener with Royals postponed by rain

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The White Sox will remain in first place for at least another day.

With the Cleveland Indians off Thursday and their own contest washed away, the White Sox will maintain their half-game lead in the American League Central.

Set to open a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals, the White Sox instead received an unexpected day off as Thursday’s contest was rained out.

No makeup date has been announced, but a Royals spokesperson said the game wouldn’t be made up this weekend. The White Sox make two more trips to Kansas City later this season.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura said he wouldn’t make any changes to his rotation, which means Chris Sale will face the New York Mets on Monday instead of the Royals on Sunday.

Miguel Gonzalez, Carlos Rodon and Mat Latos will instead be pushed back one day, starting Friday with Gonzalez.

The Royals altered their rotation, removing Ian Kennedy from Saturday’s start. Thursday’s scheduled starter, Danny Duffy, will move back one day to Friday and Yordano Ventura will not pitch on Saturday. Edinson Volquez will start on Sunday as previously scheduled and Kennedy will start again on Monday. 

Relationships, opportunity land Brian Hoyer with Bears

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Relationships, opportunity land Brian Hoyer with Bears

From Collins to Caleb. From Campbell to Clausen. Where can the Bears find the next....Josh McCown?

It’s been well-documented by now that Jay Cutler hasn’t played an entire season with the Bears since he arrived in 2009. His backups have thrown five touchdowns and ten interceptions. And Josh McCown has four of those touchdowns.

As another draft passed without the Bears selecting Cutler’s presumed successor, the team reached terms with veteran Brian Hoyer shortly after the seventh round ended.

“It’s an opportunity for me to come in and help this team whatever way I can as the backup quarterback,” Hoyer said after Wednesday’s OTA at Halas Hall. “You’re always one play away, but I’ve also been a backup.”

But he’s also started 22 games the past two seasons, for Cleveland (where Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains had the same role in Year 1 of the Manziel Mess) and for Houston last year. He’s a guy who has taken the high road through Browns management’s desire to get the unqualified Johnny Football on the field, to last year’s “Hard Knocks” competition with Ryan Mallett that was there for all the world to see.

And he continues to, despite a solid 2015 (19 touchdowns, seven interceptions) that ended in a disastrous Pick-4 finale at home in the playoffs to Kansas City. When free agency opened a couple of months later, the Texans wasted no time plopping $72 million ($37 million guaranteed) in Brock Osweiler’s lap.

“Look, it was a terrible last game, and that’s what it came down to. But prior to that, I had the best season I ever had, as a starter. So unfortunately, it ended down there but it opened another door for me here and I’m gonna make the most of it.

“In my experience,” Hoyer continued, “the best quarterbacks make those other guys around them better. After being around Tom Brady for almost four years, you see that, and he’s earned it. The right time, the right players, right scheme…I think a lot goes into it, more than just you see on the field.”

That shouldn’t be interpreted as an excuse for what happened against the Chiefs. Brady was a sixth round draft pick, and Hoyer was undrafted out of Michigan State before he backed up one of the best ever for three years. He’ll wear what the stat sheet shows from that game. 

But there are other times in helping guide the Texans back from a 2-5 start where he covered up some blemishes.

“The thing about football, it’s a team sport, moreso on offense than defense. If one guy messes up on offense, it can create a disaster for the whole play. Everything kind of has to fall into place. Obviously, you have to play well, but the guys around you have to play well.”

That’s what he hopes to do should something happen to Cutler. He went 7-6 in 13 starts (12 TDs, 13 interceptions) two years ago with Loggains in Cleveland, where Hoyer grew up. Once this offseason's quarterback merry-go-round stopped spinning, Hoyer felt things would fit well in Chicago.

“Really what it came down to was my relationship with Dowell,” Hoyer explained. “I’ve known Jay through the years as an opposing quarterback, and then his previous relationship with Dowell, he kind of hooked us together. Then the quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, I’ve known him for a long time – he went to my high school. I knew there was a comfortability there from the Midwest. It was close to home and good to get my family back up here. It’s just exciting to be a Bear.”

“He gives you an established backup veteran guy,” Loggains said earlier this month during rookie minicamp, shortly after Hoyer was signed. “There’s competition. We haven’t set a depth chart but it gives us a guy who’s played in the league, has a winning record (15-11) as a starter, so it just creates competition.

The safe guess here is he’ll prevail over David Fales and Matt Blanchard to become Cutler’s main caddy.

“It’s an opportunity for me to come in and help this team whichever way I can as the backup quarterback. You’re always one play away, I know it’s a cliché, but I’ve also been a backup. I’ve started the last two years with two different teams but before that I was backing up Brady, so I have experience with that.  It’s kind of a different role because you have to prepare as a starter without getting the same reps.

“So for me, it’s coming in here, help however I can, whether that’s being ready to go at a moment’s notice, or pushing our defense, giving them a good look on the scout team.  To have familiarity with Dowell and the quarterbacks coach, it just felt like a really good fit.”