Monday, October 21, 2013

Cutler and Briggs Done for the Season. Are the Bears?

Henry Melton, Nate Collins, D.J. Williams, and Kelvin Hayden, lost for the year. Charles Tillman, Stephen Paea, Martellus Bennett, and Alshon Jeffery battling nagging injuries nearly all season long. And now, in a bad loss to a bad Redskins team yesterday, the Bears lose Jay Cutler for a minimum of four weeks and Lance Briggs for at least six. The bye week couldn't come at a more perfect time for this Bears team, not merely to rest the players they actually do have still in uniform but to desperately try to figure out to patch up the holes in the sinking ship that is the Bears defense. At this point, though, it is hard to see which direction the Bears go to fix the plaguing issues on that side of the ball, and might have to resign themselves to the fact that the Bears defense as we know it is done.

First though, the injuries. I personally think that the Bears defense was horrid before it lost Melton, Collins, or Williams, and that the struggles of the defense would exist even if Tillman and Paea had been healthy all along. I would make the argument, then, that if there were two players the Bears couldn't afford to lose on either side of the ball, it is Lance Briggs and Jay Cutler. 

Briggs does so much more than people realize; he's responsible for making playcalls on defense in addition to his normal responsibilities, and he's had to take on the leadership void this year left by Brian Urlacher. It's something that admittedly he was still growing into, but there is simply no one on the roster who can effectively take over his job. Losing him for the majority of the remainder of the regular season is a major, major loss. Sure, I think Khaseem Greene can turn into a nice player, and that James Anderson or Jon Bostic could have the intelligence or wherewithal to assume Briggs' responsibilities eventually, but to do it on the fly in the midst of the worst Bears' defensive season in recent memory seems nearly impossible.

Now the pressure is on McCown
The loss of Cutler is a bit more complex. For me, it's hard to look at Josh McCown's performance yesterday (as remarkable and outstanding as it was) and feel that it will be the norm going forward. There's a reason that McCown has been a backup in his career and there is simply no way for him to match the way that Jay had been playing up until this point. Now teams have tape on him and will certainly look to take away the short game against the Bears and really force McCown to make his reads and progressions. I was impressed with how Marc Trestman adjusted the playcalling yesterday to get the ball to Matt Forte more often, so I'm sure that will help shoulder some of McCown's burden.

Moving forward, though, McCown will have to spread the ball around to make the offense function effectively. Not only will Trestman be challenged to maximize the strengths of McCown in each game, but he'll also need to develop a game plan that keeps the defense from stacking the box. Keeping Matt Forte consistently involved will help, but mixing up the short intermediate routes, and ensuring that multiple receivers get looks in multiple sets will help fill the void until Cutler returns. I liked the rapport that McCown seemed to develop with Jeffery, Earl Bennett, and even Martellus Bennett down the stretch, and that'll be important because McCown doesn't have the skill set to get away with relying on Brandon Marshall (not like that should be preferable for Jay, either). 

So, while I'm skeptical that McCown can play as effectively as he did in the second half against a putrid Redskins defense moving forward until Cutler's return, I am confident from what I've seen that Trestman will put McCown in the best position to be sufficient to give the Bears' offense the chance to win games. For me, it is more of a confidence in Marc Trestman than Josh McCown, but obviously if McCown performs like he did in the second half yesterday than that could change to include the veteran QB as well. McCown may not be a great quarterback, but he should be able to be good enough with the weapons the Bears have to win games. Remember, this Bears offense is averaging 30 PPG, good for second in the entire NFL. 

It might not matter, though, with the dumpster fire that is the Bears' defense. Its hard to pick a spot to start when everyone is struggling, but it has to start up front. There isn't anyone on that line playing well. Julius Peppers is a shell of himself and is almost certainly playing his way out of town. It would be hard to justify Israel Idonije's salary demands with Peppers' performance, let alone an $18 million cap hit that settles in next year. He's as good as gone. And what else is there, really? An injured Stephen Paea trying to carry the run defense on his own, and struggling at that? Corey Wootton playing way out of position at the three technique defensive tackle, with the expected results (or lack thereof)? Shea McClellin at the other defensive end spot, getting exposed every play? The results speak for themselves.

Losing Briggs hurts
It's not much better at linebacker, a position group I figured would be the strength of the defense. Rookie Jon Bostic, filling in for the injured D.J. Williams, has shown flashes of brilliance but is still struggling to understand the basic zone responsibilities of the middle linebacker in the Bears' base Cover 2. It's leading to gaping holes in the middle of the field, allowing players like Washington's Jordan Reed to carve up the defense and have career days. The loss of Briggs guts this unit, and it'll be interesting to see if the Bears go with a mix of special teamer Blake Costanzo or give Greene the chance to see what he's made of. Either way, the step down from Briggs to either is, to put it mildly, significant. Worse than the deficiencies in pass coverage, though (and boy do the Bears miss Brian Urlacher and his ability to cover the middle of the field) is the tackling. These linebackers - and this goes for the rest of the defense as well - have missed more tackles than I can even remember at this point.

A glaring lack of fundamentals, gap responsibility, and really, basic assignment football, is what is most alarming to me. I hate to stick it on Mel Tucker, but really, those are major coaching points. At this point in this season, how is it that the Bears are so sorely lacking in basic defensive foundation? In the modern NFL, a defense can be effective even in surrendering yards if it tackles well, gets some takeaways, and limits some big plays. With the way offenses have exploded in the NFL (including the Bears), those things alone could help a decent defense contribute to a Super Bowl team. The Bears have the takeaways done; they're +7 turnover ratio is tied for second best in the NFL. The problem is, though, they can't stop the big plays and their tackling looks like an early scene from Little Giants.

Chris Conte getting trucked
I put a lot on the back end of the defense too. Chris Conte has regressed incredibly this season and is no longer a viable starter in this league. He's a kid with talent and athleticism, but for the time he's spent in this defense he's blown off constantly in coverage, slow over the top to help his CB, and cannot absorb contact from a WR to save his life. I was done with Conte the second he fell over in the end zone to allow the 50 yard prayer of a throw from Robert Griffin to be caught for a touchdown. Absolutely ridiculous. That doesn't mean that Major Wright has been much better. Sure, he's got a ton of tackles for a strong safety, but part of that is because the defensive line can't shed a block at all and the linebackers miss tackle after tackle. I look at Wright's tackle numbers as tackles by necessity. What's worrisome to me is his deficiencies in pass coverage, just like Conte. Especially troubling is that both players have been in this system long enough to have fixed those issues by this point. It simply just has not happened.

With the numbers the Bears have on offense, this team should have 1-2 losses and be considered a viable Super Bowl candidate. Now, with these injuries and defense, they're going to struggle to make the playoffs. That feat alone will show remarkable resiliency by a team that has been bit by more than its fair share of the injury bug, and some great coaching from the new staff. Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer will have to hold the fort down until Cutler gets back. The Bears have had a high powered, top 5 ranked offense this season. With the weapons at the skill positions and the way the offensive line is playing right now, the veteran McCown should be able to be serviceable enough to win games for the Bears.

It might not be possible, though, with the way the defense is playing. The team needs to spend time in the bye getting back down to basics. They need to reinforce fundamentals, watch some film and get back on track with their responsibilities and assignments. This is especially true for the back end of the defense. I don't expect the defensive line to improve very much, but if they can give anything, the linebackers can step up in more ways than one (filling the enormous void left by Briggs, learning to tackle again, understanding pass coverage responsibilities in this scheme, etc.) and the secondary can somehow get it together, this team may be able to stay relevant until the big guns return for the home stretch. 

That's a lot of ifs, I know, but this is a league full of them. As we see week in and week out, anything can happen in the crazy modern NFL, even the righting of a ship without its best offensive and defensive players. For now, we get a breather, and then this bandaged Bears team gets a huge test two weeks from tonight at Lambeau. Let's hope they're ready.