NFC North Starters and Other Points of View

Bears

  • Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers my question about whether Bears draft pick Adrian Amos is more of a threat to Ryan Mundy or Antrel Rolle. My assumption when I asked this question was that Rolle would play free safety, as he did last year with the Giants, and that Mundy would play strong safety where the Bears would take advantage of his good tackling efficiency. Amos would fit better at free. But to my surprise, Biggs indicates that there is some question about whether Rolle will be at strong safety. Rolle might fit better as a strong safety as to my eye his range is decreasing. But this wouldn’t play to Mundy’s strengths. Who plays what will be an interesting question to keep an eye on when training camp starts.
  • Biggs also answers a question about whether the Bears will keep four nose tackles with the signing of undrafted free agent Terry Williams. The question assumes that Jeremiah Ratliff will play nose tackle, something I’m not too sure he’ll be doing. He could also play end. Another thing to keep an eye on in camp.
  • Conor Orr at nfl.com predicts the Bears starters for 2015. I thought it was interesting that he has Hroniss Grasu moving immediately in as the starter at center. Many think Grasu will need a year of seasoning at guard and/or on the bench before being asked to handle the duties at center. Orr also says that the Bears have “sneaky depth” along the defensive line. I fail to see that.

Elsewhere

  • Orr predicts the 2015 starters for the Lions. I’ve been predicting a fall for the Lions this year for a while. The long standing problem of a poor defensive backfield and the new problem along the defensive line with the departure of Ndamukong Suh could be a very problematic combination for them.
  • Orr thinks that there’s a lot to like about the Vikings starters. Unlike the Lions, they seem to have finally solved their chronic problem at cornerback with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Combined with a strong front seven they’re going to be tough on defense. They finally have a quarterback to go with Adrian Peterson on offense. ’nuff said.
  • Orr points out that the Packers didn’t entirely solve their two greatest problems this offseason – weaknesses at cornerback and inside linebacker. He doesn’t think first round draft pick, cornerback Damarious Randall, will be ready to start as a rookie. The Packers coaching staff will once again have to earn their money this year.
  • Orr also pens an article in which analysts Brian Baldinger and former cornerback Solomon Wilcots discuss what the New York Jets are going to do with what is suddenly an excess of good defensive linemen. Leonard Williams unexpectedly fell to them in the draft and he was too good to pass up. The conclusion? Go to the 4-6 defense. This is a fascinating read as both analysts speculate that the combination of the right personnel, the right coach and the right defense to stop the suddenly resurgent power running game in the NFL all combine to make this an interesting possibility. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with this Jets defense. It has the potential to be the best in the NFL.
  • Hub Arkush at chicagofootball.com says that the owners meetings are mostly hot air insisting that there aren’t many real stories to be had there. One thing I’ll take issue with is his statement on the race that the Rams, Chargers and Raiders are in to get to LA. He insists that “the reality is none of those teams is any closer to L.A. today than is has been at any time in the past”. On the contrary. The reality is that Stan Kroenke is well on his way to building a real stadium which is going to have to be filled by a real team. Someone’s going to do that. We’re a lot closer to seeing at least one team leave than in times past.

One Final Thought

One other thing in Hub’s article that I’m going to choose to take issue with is his continued, emotional defense of the Patriots in the “deflate-gate” scandal. Particularly his statement that Tom Brady and the NFLPA will “take their case to court as they did with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and a truly unbiased judge will throw out the suspension completely after exposing it and the Wells report for the farces they are”.

I’ve stayed away from this as far as the blog is concerned because, after an initial gut reaction on the topic, I’ve decided that I’m not too worried about it. It’s not about football. It’s about the business that surrounds football and I’m not too interested in promoting that.

Nevertheless, I must say that I’d be very surprised if this went to court because in that case Brady would be forced to turn over his electronic communications under subpoena. That’s something I doubt very much he’d be willing to do given that he wouldn’t do it when he and his agent had control over what got turned over during the Wells investigation and wouldn’t do it. The Rice and Peterson cases were different – no one was withholding evidence. And let’s be honest, that’s what this case is all about now. When you are the NFL and you are charged with the investigation of a rules violations (or anything else) and you don’t have subpoena power, you are entirely dependent on the cooperation of everyone involved. That means you have to throw the book at teams that lawyer up in an effort to affect the outcome of the investigation and/or withhold evidence. It’s the only card the league can play in order to allow them to keep order in the league. As was the case with the Saints’ “bounty-gate” scandal, that’s what’s behind the severity of the punishment here.

In any case, I think we may be looking at a situation where Brady would prefer that the doubt about his guilt persists, even if the fact that he didn’t completely cooperate with the investigation does, as well.

Posted in Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams | Leave a comment

Some Truth in Those Damned Lies

As many long time readers of this blog know, I’m a firm believer in the well known Benjamin Disraeli proverb that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

But having said that, it can be interesting to take a look at what statistics complied from a neutral party can tell us. Such is the case, I think, with Pro Football Focus‘s look at 37 NFL starting quarterbacks from the 2014 season when they were or were not under pressure, especially when it comes to quarterback Jay Cutler. These stats were spit into two posts – one about how quarterbacks handled pressure of any type and one about how they handled the blitz.

The first surprise that I got was that Cutler rarely faced pressure ranking 26th in this category. That jibs with the fact that teams rarely blitzed him – he was 32nd. It seems that teams saw no reason to blitz Cutler and that they were right.  Those are two miserable statistics for a quarterback that led the league in interceptions last year.  Notably he was equally bad whether he was blitzed (32nd) or not blitzed (34th).

But here’s where it gets interesting. Cutler wasn’t actually that bad when under pressure of all types, ranking 16th. In fact, he was much worse when NOT facing pressure – 36th out of 37 QBs rated.

What does this tell me? It looks to me like Cutler is better when he faces pressure because the play breaks down unexpectedly. In fact he’s great at it. Those plays actually make up the difference in the rankings between when he’s facing pressure simply due to the blitz and facing pressure of all types. It’s probably no coincidence that these are the plays that Cutler doesn’t have to think about. The protection just falls apart and he’s forced to react, usually by running. But the minute that you ask him to think – read a blitzing defense or, probably even worse, having a defense drop into coverage and make him find the open receiver, he’s helpless.

The Bears aren’t going to go far with a quarterback who can’t read a defense and my first conclusion is that Cutler has to eventually go – no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog. But there’s more to it than that. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has spent his recent years working with quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is strictly a pocket quarterback and is well known for reading a defense and making adjustments at the line. He’s practically a coach on the field.

But the stats seem to me to confirm what many fans have said for some time now. While there are serious disadvantages to relying on it long term, in the short term, Cutler is probably going to be better if you make him think as little as possible with no audibles and if you roll him out and let him create. This is going to make him the anti-Manning. The first problem that Gase faces is simply recognizing this. By all accounts, Cutler comes across as being very intelligent in the meeting room and its only when you get him out on the field in a game situation where he has to make decisions on the spur of the moment under pressure that his weaknesses come out. Even if Gase sees the problem its going to be interesting to see how he makes the adjustment to a quarterback whose strengths are diametrically opposed to what he’s become used to.

Bottom line, the Bears offensive is going to have to be radically different from what the Broncos ran last year if they are going to see any success. Whether Gase comes to that realization and how he executes the change if he does is something that Bears fans will want to keep an eye in the coming year.

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No Holes but the Soil Is Pretty Loose

Hub Arkush at chicagofootball.com answers your questions:

“From @chwtom: What do you see as the biggest remaining holes on the team? Any options to fill those?

“There is no proven depth behind Matt Forte or Martellus Bennett and I don’t think Jordan Mills is a starting tackle in the NFL. On defense there are bodies everywhere, but I don’t see proven, qualified candidates for one of the starting safety jobs or the nickel spot, and we still have no idea of there’s a legitimate edge rushing spot on the roster.

“My concern in order is safety, right tackle, nickel corner, pass-rushing outside linebacker and of course quarterback.”

I wouldn’t stop at depth behind Forte and Bennett. I don’t see quality depth anywhere on this roster with the possible exception of pass rusher and offensive line. And pass rusher is a funny one because, as Arkush points out, there are so many bodies there that I almost have to assume more than a couple will work out as decent backups but have to wonder whether any will be decent starters.

At defensive end the Bears have Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald and possibly Jeremiah Ratliff and… nobody. At corner they have Kyle Fuller, Alan Ball, Tim Jennings and… nobody. At safety they have Atrel Rolle and Ryan Mundy and a roll of the dice with draft pick Adrian Amos. And at wide receiver they have Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal, Kevin White and… nobody.

Hub’s opinion of the starters at safety and nickel is debatable.  I don’t like all of the players but I don’t think that the Bears have any “holes” left per se.  They have starters for every position. But assuming that they have the usual number of injuries, they’re going to run out of quality players pretty quickly. The Bears coaching staff is really going to have to earn their money if they are going to make something out of backups that have never shown that they can do anything. Unless the team is extremely lucky, we’re going to find out how capable they are of doing that fairly quickly.

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What to Do with the Middle of the Bears Offensive Line?

Jeff Dickerson at ESPN is reviewing the Bears position-by-position. He starts with the offensive line where he highlights the guard position:

“Two-time Pro Bowl right guard Kyle Long and left tackle Jermon Bushrod should return to their customary spots in the starting lineup, although Long has the ability to eventually move outside to tackle if necessary. Veteran left guard Matt Slauson is completely recovered from a torn pectoral muscle that caused him to miss the final nine games of 2014 — Slauson also missed three games last season due to a high-ankle sprain. When healthy, Slauson is an above-average NFL guard and is a strong contender to retain his starting job.”

The fly in the ointment here is draft pick Hroniss Grasu. Grasu is considered to be the future at center and there’s the remote possibility that he could beat out Will Montgomery for that job. But center is a tough position to learn and most people believe that Grasu will be a guard for at least a year before moving to his natural position. If he moves into the starting lineup there, the assumption that it would be at right guard with Long moving to left tackle and Bushrod replacing Jordan Mills at right tackle. But as Dickerson reviews Slauson’s injury history above, you have to wonder what the Bears are thinking on the left. Is it possible that Grasu could move there in place of Slauson?

Slauson is entering the second year of a 4 year contract with $4.9 million guaranteed. The dead space on the cap would be $1.252 million if he was released which would make it unlikely that he would fail to make the roster. But that doesn’t guarantee a starting job. It’s also possible that Slauson would make a decent right tackle.

A move to left guard for Grasu might be more likely because it is considered to be an easier position to play for a rookie to play.  It generally results in fewer one-on-one blocks than the right guard position. And there’s no guarantee that Long would be as good at left tackle. You could argue that having a Pro Bowl right guard is more beneficial than an average left tackle – which Bushrod already is.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if he’s not starting at center, Grasu’s 2015 will be spent as a reserve.  The Bears are undoubtedly going to do more zone blocking but they are still going to mix it up and I doubt that Grasu has the size to play guard on either side of the line as well as the current starters. But if he moves into a starting roll this year you have to wonder if it will be more likely to be in place of Slauson rather than Long.

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The Unusual Nature of the Usual Situation at the Bears Running Back Position

Forte_Camp_2009

With the NFL calming down before the start of mandatory mini-camps and then training camp, news has been in short supply. Many outlets are settling down to get an overview issues facing their teams. In that respect, John Mullin at csnchicago.com has been taking a special look at what the Bears are going to do at running back.

The problem is that Bears head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase both have a history of using a running back by committee approach to their offense. Despite spending an inordinate amount of money on back ups to Matt Forte, the players behind Forte have traditionally gotten few carries. That’s partly because they’ve under-performed but that’s not the entire explanation. For instance, we can’t really say whether current backup Ka’Deem Carey was good or bad because he barely got a chance to perform at all last year.  That’s probably largely because Forte hates to be removed from games and the Bears have chosen to accommodate him by leaving him in rather than upsetting him. What Fox and Gase decide to do about this situation will be interesting to watch.

He doesn’t state it out right but as I read it, Mullin seems to be leaning towards the backups seeing more time with Forte just having to live with it. But I’m not so sure. Neither Fox nor Gase has indicated that they’re going to do anything other than play to the strengths of their personnel. Gase, at least, seems to recognize the difference this year:

“‘This is an unusual situation just because Matt has been in such great shape and has been so dynamic as far as staying on the field,’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. ‘We’ve just got to see how it plays out.'”

That may mean that if Forte shows no signs of wearing down, they will choose to do what the previous staffs have done – leave the best performer in. The guess here is that the Bears drafted Jemermy Langford with the idea that if he was going to languish behind Forte, he would at least contribute to special teams. That’s a very bad sign for Carey. I personally, like what little I’ve seen of him but he doesn’t contribute to special teams and he was, as it turned out, a waste of space on game day last year. That won’t happen under the current regime, which shows signs of being better able to manage the roster. Carey will likely either learn to contribute on special teams or Langford will win the job. And that may be the only difference in the way that the position is handled this year.

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More Addition By Subtraction May Be on the Way

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Will Martellus Bennett still be on the trading block after camp begins? — @huskies714″

“The problem with trading Bennett right now is it would really thin out the depth chart at the position. The Bears have six other tight ends on the roster — Dante Rosario, Blake Annen, Jacob Maxwell, Zach Miller, Bear Pascoe and Brian Vogler, an undrafted rookie free agent from Alabama. Bennett had a career-high 90 receptions last season and the other six have combined for 202 catches in their careers: Rosario (116), Miller (46) and Pascoe (40). Unless the Bears simply don’t want Bennett, I find it hard to believe they can improve their team in 2015 by trading him. I don’t know that they would get a huge return in trade for him either. Remember the Bears got a third-round pick from the Carolina Panthers for Greg Olsen on the eve of training camp in 2011. My guess is Bennett is on the roster and a key cog in the passing attack.”

Though I agree with Biggs that the depth chart is thin at the position, I would question his assertion that the Bears can’t “improve their team in 2015 by trading him”. Biggs, himself was the one that wrote last summer about Bennett’s apparent problem with authority during training camp. His absence from voluntary minicamp because he wants more money two years short of his contract expiring says an awful lot about whether his “me first as an individual” attitude has changed. Bennet’s maturity level is obviously still questionable.

There was a lot of talk after the Brandon Marshall trade about “addition by subtraction”. The Bears may be in a similar position with Bennett now. As was the case with Marshall, its unlikely that they’ll get Bennett’s apparent value in a trade. But improving the Bears locker room has to be a priority as a new regime takes over and tries to reshape the Bears attitude as a team. Getting Bennett out of it may be a key to doing that.

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Bears Rebuilding Defense for the Long Haul

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Too many years ago the Bears professed to coach to the strengths of the players. They also pretended they could improve upon weaknesses and, where they could not improve the players’ skills, they could employ strategy to limit the expression of players’ weaknesses. To the point: We’ve been hearing and reading about the Bears’ intent to convert from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4 defensive front. As I look at the roster of the defensive front, I see a treasure trove of talent. I see Jeremiah Ratliff, Will Sutton, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, David Bass, Jared Allen, Ego Ferguson and Cornelius Washington (forgive me if I’ve forgotten some). And, now the Bears have Eddie Goldman. Given those players as a base, I wonder why the apparent jump from considering a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense? — Eugene L., Libertyville,

“You make a fair point but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has had tremendous success running a 3-4 scheme and being part of 3-4 defenses in the past. There is never going to be a clean slate for a team to make such a change but I think you can make a pretty good case that the Bears were at as good of a point for a switch as a team could be coming off last season. Fangio isn’t going to ask these players to do something they can’t handle. With Pernell McPhee and Houston, I think they’ve got capable starters at outside linebacker. Allen, in my opinion, will probably best fit as a pass-rushing end in the sub packages. The others on the line, Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins incluced, will sort themselves out. A 3-4 front provides more variety when it comes to pressure packages. Some readers have been clamoring for a move to a 3-4 for several years. It’s going to be interesting to see how the defense unfolds.”

Biggs says a lot when he states that the Bears were “at as good of a point for a switch as a team could be.” The decision to make this conversion likely in part has to do with the reader’s assertion that the Bears had a “treasure trove of talent” on defense.

The Bears poor defensive performance last year was for one or both of two reasons: 1) The talent was lacking and/or 2) the coaching was lacking. It’s probable that the Bears front office and coaching staff figures that they can do a better job than last year’s staff and there will be some improvement just because of that. Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times quotes Fangio who apparently agrees:

“‘We’re going to have to make our own building blocks,’ he said Saturday, his first public comments since his January hiring. ‘But I think any time you come to a new place, the first job is to make the players you already have better. That’s our job, No. 1, before you talk about free agency and the draft and whatnot.

“‘So we need to make the guys that we have here, better.'”

But obviously the Bears also concluded that wasn’t going to be enough to over-come the defensive deficit that the teams faces within the division. Combine that with Fangio’s likely preference for a 3-4 and the decision was made.

I think the Bears were making a staement with this switch. Don’t get your hopes up for the defense to instantly enter the top ten in the league. They obviously opted for a long-term rebuilding because they didn’t think they had the talent to pull such an improvement off. I would concur.

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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune relays the text of offensive coordinator Adam Gase‘s responses to questions at the coaches’ press conference yesterday:

“On if he has a sense of how he can help Cutler, particularly when it comes to protecting the ball:

‘Well, I think he’d be the first one to tell you we’ve got to get better in that area. I know this: you don’t want to overemphasize it because then everybody starts thinking about it and the next thing you know, you start turning it over. I learned that lesson in 2013. We kept talking about it and talking about it, and we kept turning the ball over.

“‘So, one of the things we have to do is, you practice it in individual, and you let those drills work for you. And I think more times than not it works out the right way.'”

I’ll believe it when I see it. From what I can see, Cutler’s troubles with turnovers come from poor decision making and, to a lesser extent, from trying to throw with anticipation to the wrong spot, something he rarely tries to do anyway. I question whether you can coach a quarterback into making the right spur of the moment decisions in game action just because there’s a limit to how many of those situations you can (or should have to be able to) anticipate as a coach. Better preparation might help but I can’t imagine that it’s going to solve the issue.

One thing Gase can do is limit Cutler to safer routes. But that, of course, limits the entire offense and the poor progress moving down the field that the offense made seemingly in each possession last year is a testament to what happens when you have to do that too much.

Whether Cutler’s tendency to turn the ball over comes from an innate mental deficit or whether its something that can be coached out of him in his tenth season will be interesting to see. Here’s hoping it’s the latter. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Positions Along the Defensive Line are In Flux After the Draft

John Mullin at csnchicago.com describes the changes along the defensive line that will accompany the arrival of new nose tackle Eddie Goldman:

“[Jeremiah] Ratliff, who did not attend last week’s voluntary minicamp sessions, is not expected to wind up at nose tackle after all. He can play the position. But because of his age (34 in August), size (305) and standing as the best pass rusher among the current defensive linemen, Ratliff projects to be at end where his rush skills can be put to maximum use, rather than hunkering down inside with a primary assignment of run stuffing.”

Mullin probably has the right of it. Even though he made the Pro Bowl at the position, I don’t think the Bears ever ideally wanted Ratliff as a nose tackle.

There’s a lot of talk about the defense being a hybrid and how it will do fine with linemen playing one gap – which is true. But as we watch the defense come together, the truth comes out. The Bears are going to prefer big two gapping linemen and will likely resort to those who play one gap in the base defense only when personnel makes it a necessary compromise.

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Adrian Amos – Strong Safety or Free?

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune documents which Bears veterans are threatened by the arrival of the new rookies:

“Round 5: Penn State safety Adrian Amos.”

“Put on notice: Brock Vereen and Ryan Mundy.

“The details: Sensing a theme here with Emery draft picks potentially being squeezed out by prospects in his successor’s first draft class? Vereen’s versatility, unselfishness and value on special teams gives him a chance to hang around on the 53-man roster when fall arrives. Furthermore, the Bears’ depth at safety remains thin. So Vereen still could win a role as a key reserve.

“Mundy’s case? He was a reliable defensive contributor throughout 2014 and projects to be the opening-day starter again in September opposite Antrel Rolle. But Mundy joined the Bears last year on a two-year contract that will expire in March. So if he’s anything less than superb this season and/or Amos shows a quick ascension, the sands in the hourglass may start to accelerate.”

I have to take mild issue with Wiederer here on Mundy, a strong safety who rates highly in terms of being a sure tackler. Not that the position couldn’t be upgraded but Amos is by all accounts a player who excels in coverage with good range.  As Wiederer suggest, you could argue that good man coverage skills could fit Amos in the lineup as a strong safety.  And he did play close to the line of scrimmage in college.   But I think his range along with the criticism that he’s not as physical as the Bears would like make him to be make him a better free safety.   I’ll be surprised in the Bears don’t start him in that position. This would make him a much bigger threat to Rolle, a player who’s considerably older at 32 and .

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