LAKE FOREST, Ill. — It’s never fun losing before a bye week. Instead of jumping into the next game, coaches, players and fans have two weeks to stew over the loss. And it’s worse when it comes against a team like the Raiders — a team the Bears should have beat. Every problem gets magnified.
In this case, though, that might not be a bad thing. Had Chase Daniel not thrown his second interception in London and the Bears found a way to win that game in overtime, they would have had a much more enjoyable bye week.
And yet their issues on offense would still be the same.
Losses in the NFL always increase the sense of urgency. Losing to the Raiders was a reality check, both for the coaches and players. Bears head coach Matt Nagy spent the bye week self-scouting his personnel and his own play-calling tendencies. When he was done, he decided to make a big change at right guard. What kind of schematic changes he makes will be revealed when the Bears host the 5-1 New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field on Sunday.
And despite all the angst, the Bears are still 3.5-point favorites against the Saints — a reminder that Chicago still has a pretty good football team. That football team needs a win on Sunday though. And with that, let’s jump into this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Changing Of The Right Guard
Rashaad Coward hadn’t practiced at guard all week. In fact, he hadn’t actually played a regular season snap in the NFL yet.
It didn’t seem to matter.
Down to their third option at right guard, the Bears had to send Coward into their Sept. 29 win over the Vikings in the second quarter. With Kyle Long inactive with a hip injury and backup Ted Larsen getting looked at on the sideline with a knee injury, Coward was sent into the fire for the first time — at a position he wasn’t really used to playing.
“I was like, ‘F it.’ It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t,” Coward said.
The 24-year-old former defensive lineman was asked to pull to his right and set the key block on the outside for running back Tarik Cohen. Sure enough, Coward popped right out of his stance, planted his left foot and swung around right tackle Bobby Massie and tight end Adam Shaheen before successfully sealing off talented Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter.
“I just pulled and am like, OK, if (Hunter) goes inside, wall him in. If he goes outside, just kick him out,” Coward said. “He honestly showed up really fast so it caught me off guard, so I just got my hands on him and whatever he did, I just went with his momentum.”
With Massie and Shaheen sealing the inside, Coward helped open up one of the biggest holes we’ve seen in a season that has had very few large lanes to run through. The play also called for left guard Cody Whitehair to pull into the hole as Cohen’s lead blocker. There was big play potential here, but Cohen got on the heels of Whitehair and essentially tackled himself.
The play is a great example of both the collective struggles of the Bears’ running game in 2019 and the potential improvement that is possible with Coward taking over at right guard.
Watching veteran right guard Kyle Long lately has been painful, largely because you see on tape that he was playing through significant pain. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy’s decision to place Long on season-ending injured reserve this week was not easy for a player who at one point was carrying a struggling franchise on his back. Yet, it was the right move for a player who couldn’t execute at the level necessary for the Bears to get back to the playoffs this year. Coward’s first snap in the NFL is an example of the type of play Long was struggling to execute this year.
The Bears are clearly hoping this is a longterm solution, not just a short-term fix. With veteran backup Ted Larsen (knee) returning to practice in a limited fashion this week, they could potentially plug the 32-year-old veteran in there. Instead, it appears Nagy is going with a 24-year-old that was originally signed as an undrafted defensive lineman out of Old Dominion. When Nagy got to Chicago, the Bears switched Coward to offense and were developing him as a tackle, showing how serious they were by keeping him on the 53-man roster for all of 2018 despite him not playing a down. Now, Coward may end up being the solution at right guard and a big piece of turning the Bears’ running game around.
“I just want to play with a dog mentality. It’s the NFL,” Coward said. “Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that.”
Nagy has mentioned “toughness” multiple times this week. It clear he wants to see his entire offensive line play with more tenacity the rest of the season. When Coward came in against the Vikings, Nagy liked what he saw.
“He had an edge to him that was pretty neat to see,” Nagy said. “He had a nice little physical edge that I liked in the run game and the pass game. And he’s learning. But he works hard and gives us everything that he has.”
Coward admitted that he surprised himself with how well he played in the 30 snaps he received against the Vikings.
“Yeah, because I hadn’t played guard all week. I was thrown in there, like, just do what you’ve got to do,” he said.
Coward’s emergence would be the best thing for the Bears, especially because Larsen can backup both guard positions and center. But if Coward doesn’t seize the right guard job, they could plug the veteran back in there, or opt for rookie undrafted free agent Alex Bars, who was promoted from the practice squad this week.
Frankly, the Bears are asking a lot from a former undrafted defensive lineman. But this move is a necessary gamble right now — one that will have a big impact on the rest of the 2019 season.
2. Getting His Shot
It’s not exactly a secret that the Bears are struggling at tight end right now. Trey Burton hasn’t been as effective as he was last year as he continues to recover from a groin injury. Adam Shaheen hasn’t taken the next step. Ben Braunecker is a solid special teamer. Bradley Sowell is a former offensive tackle who hasn’t been kept on the active roster the last three weeks.
Enter J.P. Holtz, a fourth-year pro who finally played in his first NFL game in Week 1 of this season — with Washington. As injuries piled up in the preseason, Washington called Holtz up from the practice squad for their season-opener against the Eagles and played him exclusively on special teams. After getting 14 snaps, Holtz was waived with the intention of going back on the practice squad, but, seemingly out of nowhere, the Bears claimed him and put him on a plane to Chicago.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride, man. I’m finally getting my shot,” Holtz, 26, told WGN Radio.
The relief is evident in his voice. Holtz admitted that more than once over the last four years, he thought his football career was over.
After going undrafted out of Pittsburgh in 2016, Holtz signed with the Cleveland Browns, but was cut before the regular season. He spent most of his rookie season as a free agent before the Browns signed him to their practice squad a few days before Christmas. He was kept around for the 2017 offseason and made the Browns practice squad out of training camp, but then was cut loose in October. That’s when things looked bleak. The phone didn’t ring much. Holtz worked out for Washington during the 2018 offseason, but when training camps started in the summer, he was still unsigned. For most players in that position, the door to the NFL is shut. These are the types of players who were drafted into the XFL this week.
But you never know when those seldom reported workouts can pay off. That’s why you never turn them down. After a preseason injury opened up a spot, Washington called and offered Holtz a job in August of 2018. He did enough to stick on the practice squad throughout the 2018 season and was even promoted to the 53-man roster for the season-finale, although he was inactive for the game. He had to wait until Week 1 of this season to receive his first playing time and as soon as it happened, he was whisked off to Chicago.
For the Bears, it wasn’t exactly encouraging that they were scouring the waiver wire for tight ends so early in the season after largely ignoring the position in the offseason. The explanation, however, may have more to do with a different position they ignored: fullback. After not bringing fullback Michael Burton back this year, Nagy was hoping they could fill that role with their current group of tight ends. Once Holtz became available, that changed.
Holtz exclusively played tight end in college at Pittsburgh, catching 81 passes for 931 yards and 11 touchdowns over four productive seasons. But when he ended up in Cleveland, the Browns asked him to switch to fullback. When he went to Washington, they had him spend the majority of his time at fullback as well. In Chicago, though, Holtz has the opportunity to play more of a hybrid role in Nagy’s system.
“It’s fun man. It’s fun to get out there and play, move around,” Holtz said.
Still, it’s clear that Nagy views Holtz as the best option to line up in the backfield as the lead blocker. So why did the head coach decide they needed help there after just one game?
“Just sometimes where you’re at as an offense,” Nagy said. “How does he help you? Are there things that he can do in the run game and in the pass game?”
Based on how Holtz has been used, it’s clear Nagy thinks he can help in both areas. Holtz was inactive in Week 2 against the Broncos, but has since played in three straight games, often times lining up at fullback, while also catching two passes for 23 yards, including a designed screen against the Raiders.
“He has a mentality to him that we like that, there’s a toughness,” Nagy said. “He’s somebody, he’s a willing participant, per se. And I like that. I like guys that go in there and have a little toughness to him. So he brings that element to us. So now what you do is it’s another piece that you’ve got to try to figure out how it fits.”
Toughness seems to be a key word with both Holtz and Coward. And it’s something the Bears need more of, starting Sunday against the Saints.
“I feel like I can (help the running game),” Holtz said. “Just need to do my job every time, every play I’m out there on the field. I just got to block my man, get my job done.”
3. One Harness On, One Harness Off
The harness Mitchell Trubisky is wearing on his injured left shoulder is visible under his pads and orange practice jersey. It’s something he’s probably going to have to wear for awhile, but he doesn’t think it will restrict his throwing motion since it’s not on his throwing shoulder. The only issue he envisions is his catch-radius on shotgun snaps.
“I’ve got to make sure I’ll be able to catch all the snap radiuses if something happens with that,” Trubisky said. “I’ve been practicing everything that you could pretty much simulate with the trainers as much as you can to make sure I could go out there and do what my team needs me to do.”
Trubisky said he talked to wide receiver Anthony Miller, who played through a torn labrum in shoulder last season and was still playing with a shoulder harness as recently as the Bears’ last game against the Raiders.
“He actually cut his off last game in the middle of the game because he said it was restricting him,” Trubisky said. “Mine’s a little different because I don’t need to necessarily catch.”
Miller confirmed that he had been wearing a harness for the first 4.5 games of the season, but ditched it after a third-down drop on the first series of the second half in London.
“I cut it off because I couldn’t reach all the way and I ended up playing better after that,” Miller said.
Two drives later, Miller made a big contested catch on a jump ball for a 32-yard gain that helped set up a Bears touchdown. Not surprisingly, Miller confirmed he won’t be wearing the harness anymore.
But Trubisky will. He said he won’t be cleared to play without it. During the portion of practice open to reporters Wednesday, Trubisky was frequently carrying the ball in his left arm, seemingly testing the freedom of movement he has with the harness. His throws didn’t really appear to be an issue, although the portion of practice open to the media is extremely limited.
So what advice did Miller give the quarterback?
“Just play as if you didn’t have it on. If you think about it too much, it’s going to affect how you get motion, like how he throws the ball, so I just said, you know, just play like it’s not even there,” Miller said.
4. Time To Step It Up
After extensive film review of the first five games, it’s much easier to point out who is carrying their weight this season and who needs to pick up the slack if the Bears (3-2) hope to return to the postseason.
First, the good: Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson are both having All-Pro caliber seasons. Eddie Goldman is in the conversation. Linebacker Danny Trevathan is playing well in a contract year. Defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams have elevated their play and will need to maintain that level with Akiem Hicks now on injured reserve. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine have plugged holes in the secondary and fit in nicely with this defense. Special teams standouts include kicker Eddy Pineiro, punter Pat O’Donnell and gunners Sherrick McManis and Cordarrelle Patterson.
You may have noticed I only mentioned one offensive player. That’s a problem. But there’s a long list of players on both sides of the ball that can play better or at least contribute more in the final 11 games, and that starts with the two players dealing with their shoulder issues:
QB Mitchell Trubisky: Shoulder injury or not, this season was always about the third-year quarterback making a significant jump. That hasn’t happened. Even against Washington when he threw for three touchdowns in one quarter, the rest of the game was inconsistent and full of accuracy issues. 2019 still largely hinges on Trubisky and he simply needs to play better.
WR Anthony Miller: Perhaps shedding the shoulder harness will help Miller breakout. My podcast partner, Adam Jahns, pointed out after Week 3 that Miller’s catching radius seemed limited and now we know why. If he can stay mentally sharp and avoid penalties, Miller is still capable of becoming a big weapon the rest of the way.
ILB Roquan Smith: Perhaps the All-Pro expectations I placed on Smith in the preseason were unfair, but it sure didn’t seem far-fetched when he made two big tackles for no gain on the first two plays of the season. Impact plays like that have been few and far between ever since and they need to increase going forward.
OLB Leonard Floyd: Another former first round pick makes this list. Floyd got off to a strong start in his first three games, but back-to-back quiet performances have nixed the early-season excitement that he had finally arrived. Floyd doesn’t need to be Khalil Mack, but he does need to be a more consistent No. 2 pass rusher, especially with Hicks out.
C James Daniels: The former second round pick has lost too many 1-on-1 battles and can be more of a force in the running game. There have been too many times when the protection scheme isn’t correctly set and it’s up to the center to identify the “Mike” linebacker, which sets the protection. It’s not easy playing center in the NFL at a young age and Daniels is still only 22. He can get better this season and should.
RG Rashaad Coward OR Alex Bars: The Bears are officially in the market for a new right guard and these two undrafted linemen will get the opportunity to show Ryan Pace he doesn’t need to go out and find a different option in the offseason. Coward gets the first crack to secure the job and the Bears badly need a mauler in the running game at that position. If Coward can’t secure the job, Bars will probably get a shot after getting promoted to the active roster this week.
LT Charles Leno Jr.: The key here is for Leno to greatly reduce his penalties the rest of the way. Not all of them have been good calls, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still drive-killers. His blocking can be more consistent too.
TE Trey Burton: Burton’s groin injury has been limiting both his play and his snaps, but the reality is that the Bears need their “adjustor” on the field. I’m sure the Bears are doing everything they can to get Burton back to the level he was at last year, and like it or not, he’s a big key to the rest of the season.
5. The Opponent: New Orleans Saints
The Saints have managed to win four games in a row without Drew Brees, which says a lot about Sean Payton’s coaching ability and the job Dennis Allen is doing with the defense. Teddy Bridgewater is playing OK in Brees’ absence and appears to have his mobility back, but he’s not nearly as accurate as Brees and it shows on tape. The offense is really running through running back Alvin Kamara and he didn’t practice Wednesday because of a knee/ankle injury. Not having Kamara could be the difference in the game. Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk form one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL, but the interior of the Saints’ line will be tested by the Bears, even without Akiem Hicks on the field.
Defensively, Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport are problems on the edges, but the middle of the defense is where the Saints can be attacked. The secondary is tough with cornerback Marcus Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams playing at a high level, and Eli Apple looks much better since he got to New Orleans. This is a well-coached unit, but let’s not overrate the Saints defense — it still ranks 14th in yards per play (5.68) and 11th in points per game (20.3).
6. The Pick
Bears 24, Saints 16
It’s pretty remarkable the Saints are 5-1 without Drew Brees when you consider they don’t rank in the top 10 in any of the major offensive or defensive categories. They’re just a well-coached team that is surviving together and finding a way to win games. I think that ends Sunday, however. With Trubisky back and a renewed emphasis on toughness in the running game, I expect the Bears offense to find a spark and make some progress. The loss of Hicks on defense concerns me, but there’s still plenty of defensive talent on the field to deliver a win against the Saints at home.
7. Quote Of The Week
“His legs are a huge weapon for us. So I’m an idiot if I take his legs away.” — Matt Nagy on the idea that he’ll Trubisky’s running to avoid taking hits while he plays with an injured shoulder.
8. Tweet of the Week
Bears safety Eddie Jackson tweeted this after the conclusion of the Packers’ controversial win over the Lions at Lambeau Field on Monday night.
9. Emptying The Notebook
The Bears did not “waste” a week by waiting until Tuesday to move Hicks to injured reserve, as was discussed in a few places. Hicks has to miss a minimum of eight games before he can return, so putting him on injured reserve last week would not have made a difference. If anything, the bye week allowed for Hicks to seek second opinions and gave the Bears more time to make an educated decision … Kicker Eddy Pineiro started practicing kickoffs again in practice this week and if all goes well, he should resume those duties in Sunday’s game. Punter Pat O’Donnell has handled kickoff duties the last three games after Pineiro suffered a pinched nerve in his kicking knee … Defensive tackle Bilal Nichols is back practicing in full, but he will wear some kind of cast or club on his broken right hand, which is still not completely healed. Not having full use of your fingers is very significant for linemen … An under-the-radar signing this week was the addition of tight end Dax Raymond to the practice squad. The undrafted free agent out of Utah State spent the preseason with the Bears, but landed on IR with a concussion and received an injury settlement before being waived. After not signing elsewhere, the Bears were able to bring him back. Amazingly, the Bears now have seven tight ends, with five on the active roster and two on the practice squad.
10. Final Thoughts
— Losing Akiem Hicks is big, but getting a healthier Akiem Hicks back for the final three weeks of the regular season — starting with that potentially enormous Week 15 game in Green Bay — could be even bigger. Personally, I’m of the belief that the balky knee also played a factor. Hicks was still playing at a high level, but he was also clearly hobbled even before the dislocated elbow and it was fair to wonder how he would hold up over the course of a long season. If he does return in Week 15 (and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t), Hicks will have had nine weeks of rest for both the elbow and knee. That kind of December addition could end up deciding a playoff berth.
— The last time (and really the only time) we saw the Bears’ offense operating at a high level this season was when Mitch Trubisky was throwing the passes in Washington and Taylor Gabriel was catching them. They both missed the last two games, but are now back. Just something to consider.
— For those who like to play the Patrick Mahomes “what if” game… what if the Bears had drafted Mahomes? He would have had to play as a rookie and may have looked better than Trubisky did right away. Would the Raiders still have traded Khalil Mack to Chicago then? It’s well documented that they chose the Bears because they thought the value of their first round picks would be the highest. If Mahomes was the Bears quarterback would they still have felt the same way? Could Mack have landed in Green Bay instead? Does this give you a headache? Because I need an Advil.
— I’ve had this running bit over the years in which I claim that it feels like the Packers have more home games than everyone else. It just seems like they are always playing at Lambeau. Well, recently, that’s been true. Sunday’s game against the Raiders will be the Packers’ fifth home game in the last six weeks. In reality, the Packers have the same amount of home games as everyone else, so they’ll end up playing six of their last nine games on the road. That includes road trips to Kansas City, San Francisco, Minnesota and Detroit. Of course, one of their final three home games is against the Bears. Did I mention that game will be enormous?
— Speaking of schedule quirks, the Bears still have not played a Noon game this season and won’t until next week (Week 8) against the Los Angeles Chargers. While their Week 5 game against the Raiders started at Noon CT here in Chicago, it was actually a night game for the players, kicking off at 6 p.m. in London.
— With all the focus on NFL officiating right now, I went back in my notebook and found my notes from a March conference call with NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent and competition committee chairman Rich McKay. Right there in my notebook, highlighted in bright yellow, it reads: “8th official ‘in the sky’ being discussed, or on the field, (NO SUPPORT).” At that point, the competition committee had met a few times, including at the NFL Combine and discussed potential rule changes that would go to a vote at the NFL Annual Meeting in March.
To translate my notes: the idea of a “sky judge” had been discussed and there was essentially zero support from owners. My understanding is that most coaches are for it, and it concerns me that the discussions didn’t get very far with ownership. To be clear, an eighth official upstairs would be exactly that — an extra official with television monitors capable of making (or correcting) calls. We’re not talking about stopping play and having the referee run to a monitor for replay review. These officials already have headsets and are encouraged to conference together and discuss calls when needed. The official upstairs would simply be a part of this process, but with more accurate information in front of him or her. The AAF — which did almost nothing right in its brief existence last winter — had the sky judge concept perfected in a brand new league and even allowed television viewers to listen into the conversations that were happening between officials.
I really hate to go ALL CAPS on you, but THIS WAS HAPPENING IN THE AAF WHILE THE NFL WAS DISCUSSING USING A SKY JUDGE AND IT GOT SOMEHOW RECEIVED ZERO SUPPORT FROM OWNERS. To me, this idea should have received a lot more attention last winter/spring than simply reviewing pass interference, which always seemed like an overreaction that was hastily voted on and passed with too much emotion at the owners meetings. The fact that the NFL tried to amend the pass interference reviewing process in the summer proved that it hadn’t really been thought out properly. The best solution for pass interference is not replay. The best solution for pass interference is the same as all other calls made during the game: an eighth official taking advantage of the technology that is available with the ability to make sure the right calls are being made. This isn’t that hard.
— Finally, on the subject of officiating, I asked Nagy on Wednesday how the current state of officiating impacts the way he coaches his team. Here is his full response:
“What we’ll do is we’ll go through and we review — we did it this morning — who the crew is and then where they rank in the calls that they make. So there’s outliers. Some crews, they do a lot more this call than another call than other groups of referees. This outlier here, know that. For instance, if it’s an offensive line and they’re No. 1 in the league in calling offensive holds, understand that they’re looking for it. If it’s hands to the face, where are they, all that. That’s all we can do. Because the rest of it is completely subjective.”
The officiating story won’t be going anywhere any time soon. In the meantime, the Bears have an important game Sunday and could be 4-2 when it’s over. Enjoy the game, everyone.