LAKE FOREST, Ill. — It’s Thanksgiving week and I’m wondering how thankful Bears fans are for their rookie draft class, which is a bright spot in what is otherwise turning into another dismal season. On that note, let’s dive into this week’s 10 Bears Things and I hope everyone enjoys a happy and healthy Thanksgiving with their family.
1. It’s OK to be excited about Mitchell Trubisky. You should be. Honestly, I’ve been surprised by the negativity since Sunday’s loss to the Lions. Yes, Trubisky missed a few throws high, he missed Markus Wheaton open when he dumped it off to Tarik Cohen for an 8-yard-loss, and he made the wrong decision on a zone-read on 3rd-and-2, but those are the growing pains of a rookie quarterback. And there was a lot more good than bad, including a perfect throw to Adam Shaheen up the middle in the first quarter, the touchdown pass to Shaheen on the next drive, and the laser to Dontrelle Inman to set up what should have been the game-tying field goal. Not to mention all the plays he made with his legs, both on designed runs and the 4th-and-13 scramble.
If you zoom out and truly dissect the tape, there’s no question Trubisky is getting better each week.
“It just takes a long time to learn the offenses in this league. And it takes a long time to learn coverages,” left guard Josh Sitton, who had a front-row seat for Aaron Rodgers’ development, said. “Coverages change at the last second. It’s tough. It’s not easy to do as a young guy. It’s just that he has to continue to grow and learn the little nuances of this game. The windows are a little bit tighter so you have to be a little bit quicker with your reads. And you saw him this week, get 1, 2, and into his third read really quick in a lot of situations — and getting the ball out on his third read which we hadn’t seen a ton in the past.”
Sitton doesn’t talk to the media a whole lot — in fact he joked that he was “doing someone a favor” when he came into the PNC Media Center Monday — but when he does he’s very thoughtful with his answers. It’s pretty obvious that Sitton, and the rest of the locker room, believes in Trubisky.
“He’s a stud. I’ve had confidence in him from the beginning, but like I said, he’s been growing and growing and you see it each week,” Sitton said. “Last week he probably took his first big leap in the passing game with the receivers and then you saw that continue this week … He gives you all the confidence in the world as a guy in the locker room and on the field, in the huddle. He has that look in his eye where you’re thinking, ‘All right, he’s going to get the job done.’”
Sitton has praised Trubisky’s command in the huddle before, which is crucial for every quarterback.
“You can just see it on his face. I don’t think he really says anything — he doesn’t really need to say anything, You can kind of see it, by that look in his eyes. He’s got what it takes to be a great player in this league.”
2. Trubisky is the perfect example of why tape matters more than statistics. Frankly, his stats aren’t great. He has only completed 53.1 percent of his passes, his passer rating is 78.2 and he has more turnovers (two interceptions and three lost fumbles) than touchdowns (four).
But anyone who has watched this team knows Trubisky has lifted up the offense despite a very poor wide receiver group and a coaching staff that is holding him back. Despite all that, there has been improvement and, as Sitton pointed out, a pretty clear step forward in the last two weeks. One would expect that improvement to continue and there’s even more reason to think a different coaching staff could accelerate the development in 2018.
For perspective, think about where Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were at this time last year. Goff didn’t even start until Week 11 and his numbers after seven games (54.6%, 63.6 rating, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and two fumbles lost) were pretty similar to Trubisky’s, probably even a little worse. Yet, with Sean McVay taking over this year, Goff has taken off.
And while Wentz had a better rookie year than Goff, his play tailed of as the season went along. When it was over, he had completed 62.4 percent of his passes with a 79.3 rating and a 16-to-14 touchdown to interception ratio. Now, with more weapons and more experience, he’s an MVP candidate.
Remember: the tape matters more than the statistics and if you truly watched Goff and Wentz last year, you knew they both had talent and just needed time to develop. Both needed some help too. Trubisky is in a very similar situation and might even be ahead of where both of those quarterbacks were in their rookie years.
3. A fair question: Why didn’t the Bears sign kicker Cairo Santos last week? Santos came in for a workout and physical last week and it appeared the Bears had been waiting on him to get healthy. The Bears signed him Monday, which means Santos passed that physical last week.
Meanwhile, they lost to the Lions Sunday after Connor Barth missed his fifth field goal of the season.
The easy answer to this question is that Barth was on a streak of four-straight made field goals after making three against the Packers in Week 10. The Bears did their due diligence on Santos to have him ready if Barth turned south again.
But why wait? Fox and general manager Ryan Pace had a year-and-a-half worth of evidence to suggest Barth wasn’t a great kicker anymore. There’s a reason why they brought Roberto Aguayo in during training camp and continued to hold kicker tryouts during the season. They didn’t trust Barth. Should one good game against the Packers have delayed an inevitable move? If Santos was healthy last week, he should have been signed. Perhaps the Bears would have beat the Lions with him.
4. Speaking of kickers, Eagles kicker Jake Elliott might be one who got away. The Lyons Township product kicked collegiately at Memphis and was at the Senior Bowl in January. He wasn’t on the Bears’ squad, but they still got a pretty good look at him. The Bengals ended up drafting Elliott in the fifth round, but he started the season on the practice squad. After a Week 1 injury to Caleb Sturgis, the Eagles decided to sign Elliott off the Bengals’ practice squad, which is something the Bears could have done too. They also could have claimed him off waivers or signed him after Elliott cleared waivers. Apparently they weren’t interested.
To be fair, the jury is still out on Elliott. He has made 17-of-21 field goals this year and has missed three extra points, but also made an incredible 61-yarder to beat the Giants in Week 3.
Elliott actually suffered a concussion last week against the Cowboys so his status for Sunday’s game against the Bears is in question. Hey, maybe they’ll sign Connor Barth.
5. I’m still not sure why it took so long for Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to realize Cohen needs to be on the field more, but I’ll give Loggains some credit for the way he used Cohen Sunday, both as a ball handler and decoy.
“I haven’t seen coverage rolled to a running back the way it does with Tarik. And that goes to show you the talent he’s got,” Sitton said.
Cohen ended up playing 49 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps, a number that would have been higher had the Bears actually used him on the final 11-play drive. Based on my tally, the Bears gained 265 yards on the 31 plays Cohen was on the field and 195 yards on the 33 plays he was not.
“We’ve got to continue to get him the ball,” Sitton said. “Jordan’s our bruiser. And Tarik’s a guy who we need to get the ball 10 or 15 times a game just to get him in space and let him work.”
Another player who needs to get the ball more? Shaheen, who was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded tight end in the entire NFL in Week 11. And, like Cohen, he too was not on the field for the Bears’ final drive of the game.
For more on Fox’s apparent lack of trust in his rookies, check out this week’s Podcast In Print column that I do with Adam Jahns in the Chicago Sun-Times.
6. Want to see a dominant play by a nose tackle? Check out this play by Eddie Goldman:
7. With Leonard Floyd out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Bears are very thin at outside linebacker. One solution: move Christian Jones. Jones is an improving player, but I think he received a little too much responsibility the last two weeks with Danny Trevathan out. Overall, the communication was better against the Lions than it was against the Packers, but Jones admitted that they weren’t lined up properly on Ameer Abdullah’s 2-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
“We were lined up wrong and the guys that slid through, the receivers came and picked us and he’s able to slide through. So it was just a communication thing,” Jones said.
Fangio has trusted Jones to relay the defensive calls on the field the last two weeks, with mixed results. In my opinion, he is better when he is told what to do and just does it. Meanwhile, Nick Kwiatkoski has actually outplayed Jones the last two weeks. That said, Jones needs to stay on the field. If Danny Trevathan is able to return soon, I would go with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan at inside linebacker, but keep Jones on the field at outside linebacker. And even if Trevathan isn’t ready, Fangio can do some of that by getting John Timu on the field at inside linebacker as well. Timu actually played eight defensive snaps Sunday in a special package where he was the only inside linebacker on the field.
“I feel like I’m pretty comfortable (at outside linebacker),” Jones said. “That’s where I started, playing linebacker going to the outside. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’ll see. Whatever happens, I’ll be ready for.”
8. The offensive line played its best game of the season Sunday and was led by left tackle Charles Leno Jr. Based on my own grading/film review, it was Leno’s best performance of the year and Pro Football Focus actually had Leno as the top offensive tackle in the NFL in Week 11.
“I’ll tell you what, when I first got here Leno was the only reason I knew what the hell I was doing that first week,” Sitton said. “He’s probably in his playbook and on his iPad more than anybody in the building. He has a great understanding of the offense and he works his ass off.”
Remember, Sitton was signed just a few days before the 2016 season began but played Week 1 despite having little knowledge of the playbook. Leno’s input was key.
“He works with me to get better. That’s what I really appreciate about him,” Sitton said. “We’re always trying to grow and evolve together. As an offensive lineman you’re not just focused on yourself, you’re focused on other guys. It’s five guys playing together, and I’m really playing with Cody (Whitehair) and Charles. So you have to learn their footwork and things like that. And Charles is always trying to learn new things in individual periods. We’re always trying to tweak blocks and things like that. He knows the offense as well as anybody here and he works his ass off.”
Leno, a former seventh round draft pick in 2014, signed a big four-year, $37 million extension right before the season started.
9. No player flies under the radar more than defensive lineman Mitch Unrein. He rarely makes mistakes and is so sound in his technique, usually opening up plays for other defenders. I think that’s why his teammates were so eager to celebrate with him when he sacked Matthew Stafford Sunday, giving him 2.5 sacks on the year. Unrein has quietly put together a very solid season and his contract is up at the end of the year.
10. We’ll end on a positive note as it was great to see that Bears tight end Zach Miller was finally able to go home Monday, 23 days after rupturing an artery and multiple ligaments in his leg in New Orleans.