Hoge: For Young Bears, Opener Goes As Expected

The Houston Texans signal that they stopped the Chicago Bears on fourth and short in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

The Houston Texans signal that they stopped the Chicago Bears on fourth and short in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — Competitive. Just not good enough.

That’s the easiest and most accurate way to describe the Chicago Bears in their season opening 23-14 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Sunday.

And that’s really all that was expected for a young team that should trend upward as the season progresses.

Podcast — Intentional Grounding, Episode 47: Bears-Texans Postgame Show

Remember, the Bears started three rookies (Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Kevin White) Sunday and two other players (Logan Paulsen and Josh Sitton) who joined the team just a week ago.

The key mistakes were predictable, even if they weren’t acceptable.

In his first NFL game, Whitehair played a position he had never played before, other than two series in a preseason game exactly a month ago. He stared down Vince Wilfork for most of the game and held his own, despite a costly botched snap on 4th-and-inches when the Bears were driving into Texans territory with a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.

“It was on me,” Whitehair said. “I just need to push it up to Jay (Cutler) a little bit more and focus on the snap before I focus on getting that block.”

The Bears threw many young players into the fire Sunday and asked them to perform like seasoned veterans. On that particular play, Whitehair was playing an unfamiliar position on a key 4th-and-1 with a five-time Pro Bowler lined up on top of him. It was a tough spot for the rookie to be in and it’s hard to blame the guy for getting a little anxious with the snap.

“Over this next week, a little more experience with that stuff, it will iron out. That’s for sure,” Whitehair said.

The rookie center also mentioned seeing “those stunts a little better,” which is something the Texans had success with Sunday. Sitton’s inexperience with the Bears’ offense probably had an impact in that area as well.

“I wouldn’t say that I felt extremely comfortable, but I felt comfortable enough to get out there and play the game,” Sitton said.

Granted, the Bears’ tackles struggled with the Texans’ talented front-seven too, but the interior of the offensive line should improve each week.

The same can be said about Kevin White, who had a tough Bears debut. Much like Whitehair, it was hard to expect White to have a perfect game, but unfortunately, a big mistake led to Cutler’s only interception of the game. Unlike Whitehair, White didn’t immediately take the blame, as it appeared he ran the wrong route on the play.

“I’ll talk to Kevin about it,” Cutler said. “First game out there. But it left my hand. It’s my responsibility.”

Still, Cutler needs more help. His protection was below average and White and Alshon Jeffery both had key drops in the game.

“We need him,” Cutler said about White, who continues to show inexperience with his assignments. “He’s going to be fine. We’re not worried about him.”

It’s a situation worth monitoring, however. After the interception, Cutler didn’t throw White’s way until garbage time, when the rookie picked up the bulk of his 34 receiving yards on three catches. White needs to earn Cutler’s trust, and so far it’s pretty clear the quarterback prefers throwing to Jeffery and Eddie Royal.

But there’s another positive to take away from Sunday’s game. Jeffery was outstanding, with four catches and 105 yards, while Royal finally looked healthy and productive, adding his own four catches for 57 yards a touchdown. After the game, Cutler praised Jeffery’s unselfishness, saying the receiver pointed out the Texans’ coverage and predicted Royal would be open on the touchdown.

“They’re going to roll over the top of me. Eddie you should get this touchdown,” Jeffery said in the huddle, according to Cutler.

Of course, the game was not void of larger concerns. Left tackle Charles Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie were not the steady bookends the Bears were hoping they would be in a week where the interior of the line was scrambling to get ready. Running back Jeremy Langford only produced 57 rushing yards on 17 carries (3.4 average). And on the defensive side, the Bears’ front-seven did not get a consistent enough push against a Texans offensive line that struggled throughout the preseason.

And there was another significant issue: the head coach. Of all the problems Sunday, John Fox’s mistakes were the least excusable — and it started with the personnel. Why did rookie Leonard Floyd start and play much more than Lamarr Houston? It’s one thing when you don’t have better options, but Houston had a strong preseason and led the Bears in sacks last year. Just because Floyd was the team’s first round pick doesn’t mean he should play as much as he did.

It was also Fox who put Whitehair in the vulnerable spot on 4th-and-1. The head coach passed up a 48-yard field goal to go for the first down. I thought they liked new kicker Connor Barth?

Fox also failed to challenge a spot when Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler tried a sneak on 3rd-and-1 and appeared to be stopped short.

“You don’t do too well with challenges on spots,” Fox said. “If it’s not clear-cut, it doesn’t get changed.”

Three plays later, Osweiler hit rookie Will Fuller for an 18-yard touchdown to give the Texans the lead for good.

As for why Fox then later challenged what appeared to be an obvious catch by Fuller down the sideline, the head coach gave an understandable answer: “That was just a long timeout.” His defense needed a breather, and with the catch/no-catch rules these days, it doesn’t hurt to burn a challenge that late when you still have two of them.

Still, you can include Fox on a list of problems Sunday that should be corrected going forward. It’s often cliche to hear a team say their mistakes are correctable, but in many cases, the Bears’ mistakes in the opener are correctable — simply because there are so many young players with promise who should get better.

The Bears will continue to be competitive, and as long as they keep trending in the right direction each week — oh, and Cutler doesn’t get killed — then they should eventually be good enough to win the fourth quarter against playoff-caliber teams like the Texans.

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also co-hosts The Beat, weekends on 720 WGN. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.