Defensive Linemen on the Rise in 2016 NFL Draft. Offensive Linemen, Not So Much.

Reports from the Senior Bowl at nfl.com support previous indications that the defensive linemen are going to be a strength in this year’s NFL draft. Here’s a cross section of the comments from the first day of practice:

Mike Mayock

“We knew going in the deepest positional group was defensive tackle, and boy did that hold true. I thought Matt Ioannidis from Temple had a great day. I thought the kid from Louisiana Tech, Vernon Butler, had a phenomenal day. But the topper was Adolphus Washington from Ohio State. He was all over the field in one-on-one drills; he was too quick, too stout. He was great in team drills. I thought he put on a show.”

Lance Zierlein

“[Clemson DT D.J.] Reader‘s 340-pound frame was often too much for many of the linemen he faced on Tuesday. Keep an eye on this late addition because Reader could make himself some money this week.

“Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins showed off his ‘karate’ hands by defeating blockers with astounding quickness at times. While Rankins is undersized, his compact frame, outstanding balance, and next-level hand usage should make him one of the most consistent performers on the South squad this week.”

All this is great news for teams like the Bears who need defensive line help. It looks like they’re going to have a great selection to choose from.

But much of the rest of the league might not be too pleased. This dominant performance by the defensive tackles in these practices can’t speak well for the offensive linemen that are getting beat on a consistent basis. Judging by what I saw during the regular season, I’d be very surprised if less than three-quarters of the league is in need of offensive line help. That includes most of the playoff teams, as was graphically demonstrated by the beating that New England quarterback Tom Brady took on Sunday. In the NFC North, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago all need help in one form or another along the offensive front.

The Bears might be able to find multiple defensive linemen in this draft. But the indications are growing that offensive linemen are going be at a premium.

Lessons in Green Bay Should Not Be Lost on Bears Fans

Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette interviews Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy. He asks him about reversing his decision to give play calling duties to offensive coordinator Tom Clements during the 2015 season.

“Those are conversations that will start Wednesday. I’ll tell you I will be calling the plays from here on in. How we structure our staff that’s really what lies ahead.”

“What I was trying to accomplish [with the initial change] with being a balanced team, I felt that was accomplished with defense and special teams. Obviously, we didn’t get it done on offense. The structure was obviously a part of the failure on offense. That will be closely evaluated.”

“Without going into total details … [the offensive problem] wasn’t about Tom or Tom calling plays. Tom is a valued assistant coach and has been my whole time here. I fully anticipate him being back. We have a staff structure that’s under total evaluation.”

It’s been pointed out many times that the Packers were missing wide receiver Jordy Nelson and that was a big loss. But it’s now obvious that their difficulties on offense went way beyond that. Clements was another part of the problem. Otherwise McCarthy wouldn’t be continuing to call plays.

Offensive play calling is an art that I’m convinced some people possess and some don’t. Some of it has to do with planning but I think a lot of it is simply thinking fast on your feet and remembering to call the plays that you planned to go with. The guess here – and past experience with some of the more poor offensive coordinators the Bears have had bears it out – is that you get used to relying on the same plays over and over again over the course of a season.  They’re the ones you tend to call when you’ve only got a few seconds to make a decision. That makes you predictable.

But in this case the problem may go beyond play calling. Part of the purpose for giving up play calling duties, as McCarthy pointed out, was to get McCarthy out of the offensive room so that he could spend more time with the defense and special teams. That degraded the offensive performance, something that was obvious to everyone as the Packers made mistake after mistake on the field. The crisp execution that the Packers are known for disappeared and suddenly, for instance, receivers couldn’t get on the same page with quarterback Aaron Rogers.

This lesson shouldn’t be lost on Bears fans as they watch the team transition from Adam Gase to Dowell Loggains at the offensive coordinator spot. Even the best offenses in the NFL can fall apart if you don’t have the right guy running the unit.  Calling plays and getting everyone to perform as a unit where players are always where they are supposed to be are two of the biggest jobs that any offensive coach has. It’s a job that Clements couldn’t do. Let’s hope that Loggains does better or we’re going to see a Bears offense that performed in a commendably clean manner for most of the 2015 season regress.

The Bears Will Once Again Be Competing with the Packers to Draft the Same Players in 2016

Its not a surprise but Green Bay would like to move linebacker Clay Matthews back outside full time next year.

“In order to do that, the Packers might have to make it an offseason priority to acquire another starting-caliber inside linebacker. When general manager Ted Thompson did not address that position until the fourth round of last year’s draft, when he took Jake Ryan, it ensured Matthews would play mostly inside again.”

What all of this means is that the Bears, who arguably need two starters at the inside linebacker position, will be competing with the Packers for the same players. The Bears pick far higher in the draft order (11th) but they likely have their eye on one or two prospects, for instance, in the second round that the Packers will be considering with the 27th overall pick.

The situation reminds me of the 2010 draft when the Packers traded up in the third round to get ahead of the Bears to select safety Morgan Burnett. The Bears were left to select Major Wright four picks later. Burnett established himself as a starter with the Packers, and has just competed his sixth season with them. Wright is long gone along with the parade of other safeties the Bears selected in the Lovie Smith era.

Cleaner Play, Better Defense the Real Key to Packers Success

Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains what happened on the Packers offensive line in Sunday’s blow out loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

“[David] Bakhtiari is out, [Brian] Bulaga goes down, [T.J.] Lang and [Corey] Linsley both miss portions of what ends as a humiliating 30-point loss for the visitors. The key reserves are once again tested, and the offensive tackles fail in volcanic fashion: 8 1/2 pressures (unofficially) and multiple sacks allowed by Don Barclay; five pressures and a strip sack yielded by Josh Walker.”

That’s quite a test of the Packers’ offensive line depth, even against a Cardinal team that isn’t that good rushing the passer without blitzing. It’s something they’ve been able to adjust to in the past by winning one-on-one match ups with their wide receivers but not this year when they are not only giving the team their usual high number of drops but aren’t producing in other ways as well. Nevertheless, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett has a plan:

“The change could be as simple as asking running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks to chip block on incoming pass rushers, something the Packers have done sporadically this season. Or they may choose to utilize the blocking skills of tight end Andrew Quarless, who returned to the field Sunday after spending roughly three months on injured reserve/designated to return. Or they could move the pocket laterally to take advantage of the mobility of [Aaron] Rodgers, who threw for just 151 yards against the Cardinals and posted a passer rating of 66.2.

“‘Without getting into our scheme,’ Bennett said, ‘we’ll do certain things to put our players in the best position to win.'”

None of this is brain surgery. But with the exception of the last thing on the list, all of them require that the team be in a close enough game to where they don’t have to pass with the Packers usual multiple wide receiver sets. That wasn’t the case on Sunday where the Packers fell behind early in spectacular fashion.

Many will claim that the key to the Packers success this week against the Vikings and in the playoffs after that will be the performance of that much maligned offensive line. But the really essential element is much simpler. The Packers still have Rogers and even though that’s not enough to carry the team as it has been in the past, if they simply avoid turnovers and play good defense, they’ll give the team a chance. If they do that, the necessary adjustments will flow from it and the Packers should be able to move the ball even against a good Minnesota defense, albeit not all that well.

The Packers Turn a Corner Behind Eddie Lacy

Rob Demovsky at ESPN describes a change in the Packers play calling that may be a turning point in more than one way.

“Even those who wanted – begged, really – the Green Bay Packers coach to take back the offensive play-calling duties couldn’t have fathomed this: 44 runs and 230 yards on the ground.

“This is Mike McCarthy 2.0.

“The same coach who too often proved reluctant to stick with the running game during his first nine seasons as the head coach/offensive playcaller did an about-face – first in his decision to strip Tom Clements of the job he handed him this offseason, and then in his approach to his first game back in control of the offense. In Sunday’s 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy showed a previously unseen commitment to the run.”

It’s not a coincidence that the Packers were at their worst Sunday when they stopped running the ball. After a hot start behind Eddie Lacy where they went up 14-0 in the first half, their offense stalled as they seemed to forget about him. It picked up again when Lacy did in the second half. Most Bears fans will remember that the Packers did an uncommonly good job of running the ball on Thanksgiving with Lacy. Had they stuck to it, they probably would have won that game, too.

Something tells me that the Packers turned a corner yesterday. Lacy is a load and he’s tough to stop behind an under-rated run blocking offensive line in Green Bay. It’s a little early to tell but it’s entirely possible that with good, spirited defensive play, the Packers could finally be on their way to another Super Bowl run.

Tracy Porter to the Pro Bowl?

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times takes us through 10 Bears question marks:

“9. Who on the Bears can make the Pro Bowl?

Tracy Porter, maybe? No Bears player leads their position group in fan voting, which runs through Tuesday on NFL.com. Only two NFC North players do: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.”

Porter is the 36th ranked cornerback in the league of 118 rated according to Pro Football Focus.  Kyle Long is also in the middle of the pack at tackle.  Not that that’s the definitive reference. But its all we’ve got.

Porter isn’t one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the Bears have no Pro Bowlers at all. I consider this to be yet another demonstration of how effective the coaching staff has been at extracting the most out of what talent they have been given.

Another Challenge for Jay Cutler

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune takes us through some of the numbers relevant to Sunday’s match up with the Redskins:

“46.6: Jay Cutler’s rating in two career starts against the Redskins, both losses. In 2013, Cutler left a 45-41 loss late in the first half after suffering a torn groin muscle. Cutler also threw a pick six in that game. Three years earlier, he threw four interceptions – all to Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall – in a 17-14 loss at Soldier Field. Cutler’s numbers against the Redskins: 29-for-48, 309 yards, one TD pass, five picks.”

This will be another watershed game for Cutler.

Two games ago on Thanksgiving Cutler took advantage of the opportunity to show critics like myself that he’s a different quarterback this year. Similar to that game, Cutler will be able to show that he can perform in situations this year that he has previously collapsed in. It doesn’t help that he’s coming off of his worst game of the year (18 completions of 31 attempts for 202 yards with a passer rating of 64.2). It was one in which he was more than usually erratic, especially on deeper throws.

Like all Bears fans, I wish him good luck in defeating the demons that have haunted him in days gone by.

Doing It All the Time

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Why hasn’t Lamarr Houston been promoted to starter yet? I think he’s proven over the last few weeks that he’s the answer opposite Pernell McPhee. It can’t be because he’s a liability on first and second down, can it? All I heard and read when he came over from Oakland was what a great run defender he is. Not to mention he’s certainly being paid like a starter, as opposed to Sam Acho or Willie Young. — Nicholas D., Birmingham, Ala.”

Biggs points out that Houston’s snaps increased dramatically against the Packers.

“More important than the designation of who is starting is playing time, so that’s worth keeping in mind, too. I don’t think decisions on playing time should be based on money either. When you start putting players on the field because they have a bigger paycheck, that’s when you get in trouble. Young’s contract isn’t shabby either. He’s earning a base salary of $2.45 million this season. I like the way they’re moving guys in and out at outside linebacker and handling McPhee’s knee situation, which is clearly keeping him on the sideline more than anyone would like.”

jimmy-garoppolo-lamarr-houston-nfl-chicago-bears-new-england-patriots-850x560I couldn’t agree more. Both Young and Houston have earned more playing time. I also feel the need to point out that Houston has a bad habit of disappearing until points in the game where the opponent absolutely has to pass and he can go all out after the quarterback without worrying about other responsibilities. I’d like to see him do it at other points in the game before I’ll become a real believer that he’s as good as his recent statistics indicate.

This Week Will Be All About the Running Game

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune goes over the six most telling plays from the Bears victory over Green Bay:

“Lacy’s stampede: On the night’s second snap, Packers running back Eddie Lacy busted off his longest run of the season. Zero in on the 29-yard charge and you’ll see the Bears overpowered up front. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman was swallowed by a double team at the snap and Jarvis Jenkins was driven 5 yards backward and dumped on his tail by [Josh] Sitton. Inside linebacker Jonathan Anderson overran Lacy in the backfield. Pernell McPhee couldn’t get off a block. Shea McClellin was overpowered by JC Tretter. And safety Adrian Amos missed a tackle 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Off Lacy went, headed toward midfield before Kyle Fuller finally pushed him out of bounds. It wasn’t just a fluky moment either. The Packers had their way in the running game all night, piling up 177 yards on the ground with Lacy averaging 6.2 yards on his 17 carries. Over the past two games, the Bears have allowed 347 rushing yards, dropping to 29th in the league against the run. It’s a troublesome weak spot that the Bears will need to patch up in December to keep their playoff hopes alive.”

This point is well taken.

The Bears haven’t done badly stopping the run this year. They kept both Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson down without stacking extra players in the box or doing anything special to stop them. But they need to continue to stop the run if they’re going to continue to win games. The lesson apparently hasn’t been lost on the defense. Via Rich Campbell, also at the Chicago Tribune:

“‘It’s about staying gap-sound and playing with great fundamentals,’ linebacker Pernell McPhee said. ‘When it gets late in the season, people tend to lose those tendencies. But we’re doing a great job this week of stressing that, stopping the run. Hopefully when Sunday comes, we’ll be ready.'”

I believe that they will be, too. The game will depend upon it because its going to be all about the running game. Both of these teams have to find it on offense. The 49ers haven’t had a rushing TD since week 5 and haven’t had a 100 yard rusher since Carlos Hyde in week 1. The Bears running game has been stymied the last two weeks in which, not co-incidentally, they have scored only 34 points.

For once, this game is going to be simple. The team that runs the ball better against the opposing defense will win.

 

The Reality of the Bears Situation

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune reviews the problems that the Bears have to overcome in order to continue to win football games.

Jay Cutler’s turnover-free night? Well, Quentin Rollins dropped a shoulda-been interception in the first quarter. And Cutler had to make a desperate hustle recovery to avoid disaster on a fumbled fourth-quarter snap.

“That spirited defensive effort? The Bears still are getting pushed around up front and proving way too vulnerable against the run.

“This list could go on for awhile. And it’s why the Bears can’t take their newfound position as favorites against the 49ers and Redskins as a sign that they can exhale. They still have a razor-thin margin for error and haven’t enjoyed a three-game winning streak since September 2013.”

He’s got a good point. In talking to Bears fans around town and around the Internet, there’s considerable optimism about how this team is going to finish the year. What I’m hearing a lot is, “With that schedule? They’re going to the playoffs.” Much though I like what I see, I think fans are setting themselves for disappointment.

Looking ahead, I see San Fransisco, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit. Are those winnable games? You bet. But I feel compelled to point out that those teams are saying the same thing about their game against the 5-6 Bears. And with the exception of the Vikings, all of them are on the upswing, just as the Bears are. And the Vikings were pretty good to begin with.

San Fransisco just limited the Cardinals, possibly the best team in the NFC, to 19 points. Tampa Bay has won three of their last five and is in contention for a playoff spot. Washington has also won three of five and are the favorites to win their division. The Lions just beat the Packers three weeks ago in Lambeau, matching what the Bears just did, and they absolutely destroyed the Eagles on Thanksgiving. And both the Vikings and the Lions beat the Bears earlier in the year.

Could the Bears finish strong and be in contention for the playoffs? No doubt. But much more likely fans will be sitting at the end of the year and be happy that the Bears gradually improved over the course of the season with a bright future ahead of them. But only if they stay grounded in reality.