A dreadful Bears season has come down to this: the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft could be on the line against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Bears (2-9) currently are third in the 2017 draft order, behind the Browns (0-12) and 49ers (1-10) and just ahead of the Jaguars (2-9) and Jets (3-8). They can tie the 49ers for the No. 2 spot with a loss Sunday. The Bears’ strength-of-schedule (89-84-1, .514) currently would give them the tie-breaker over the 49ers (.517) and Jaguars (.531), but not the Jets (.503).
The Bears will be going all-out to finish strong after a season of disappointment, and you can’t fault them for that. They need the arrow to be pointing up going into the offseason. But you also can’t ignore the reality — that losing two or three spots that high in the draft can be critical. Two years ago it was the difference between drafting Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper (138 receptions, 1,992 yards, 14.0 avg., nine touchdowns in two seasons with the Raiders) or West Virginia’s Kevin White (19-187, 9.8, 0).
And the Bears just lost to the No. 2 overall pick in that draft, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who looks like the franchise quarterback the Bears could use. The next quarterback taken in that draft was Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson (75th overall to the Saints).
Here’s how the “contenders” finish the season:
Browns: Bengals (H), Bills (A), Chargers (H), Steelers (A)
49ers: at Bears (2-9), vs. Jets (3-8), at Falcons (7-4), at Rams (4-7), vs. Seahawks (7-3-1).
Bears: vs. 49ers (1-10), at Lions (7-4), vs. Packers (4-6), vs. Redskins (6-4-1), at Vikings (6-5).
Jets: vs. Colts (5-6), at 49ers (1-10), vs. Dolphins (7-4), at Patriots (9-2), vs. Bills (6-5).
2. One way to play for a high draft pick without looking like you’re tanking is to play rookies and inexperienced players in the name of player development. But as coach John Fox pointed out Monday, the Bears already are there. Five rookies started against the Titans — center Cody Whitehair, running back Jordan Howard, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, safety Deon Bush and cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. Tight end Ben Braunecker played 15 snaps. defensive end Jonathan Bullard played 14.
First-round pick Leonard Floyd was starting when he suffered a concussion against the Giants. And cornerback Deiondre Hall, who has missed the last seven games with an ankle injury, figures to be in the mix when he returns. Hall returned to practice last week but was inactive against the Titans.
“I’d like to say we’re going to play young guys, but we already are,” Fox said. “You’re always trying to get better. The results aren’t exactly what we want — [what] I’m sure our fans don’t want. I know I don’t. But it’s still a process and hopefully just keep developing and all of a sudden the results will start coming. Believe it or not we’re getting closer. We’re just not there yet.”
2a. The last time Kwiatkoski started — against the Cowboys in Week 3 — he played only 18 snaps. This time he played 54-of-58 (93 percent) of the snaps and had four tackles.
“I’ve seen him grow for sure,” Fox said. “Much like Dallas, Tennessee is pretty good at running the football — third in the league in rushing. All in all, I think early on he might have had a couple of missed reads, which is understandable. And as the game went on, I thought he improved.”
3. The Bears’ 10 dropped passes were the biggest culprit of the 27-21 loss to the Titans, but the Bears’ inability to pressure Mariota was a close second. The Bears had no sacks or hits on Mariota. The Colts had five sacks and seven hits against Mariota last week.
But that appears to be an anomaly of familiarity. In the past six weeks, Mariota has been sacked eight times and hit 13 times in two games against the Colts. The Bears, Packers, Chargers and Jaguars have combined for one sack and four hits against Mariota in the other four games.
Fox gave credit to Mariota and the Titans’ protection. “That kid’s athleticism, the ability of their o-line — they’ve hung a lot of points on a lot of teams this year,” Fox said when asked why the Bears were unable to pressure Mariota. “They do a good job with keeping balance both in the run game and the pass game. [And] he’s pretty fleet afoot.”
4. Though Adrian Amos has started all 27 games of his two-year career with the Bears, he’s looking more and more like a square peg in a round hole as a pass defending safety. Amos seems to be much more effective closer to the line of scrimmage. Fox didn’t seem to disagree with that assessment when asked about it Monday.
“That’s an area that we’re evaluating,” Fox said. “[Like] the drops, those are things that we can put guys in better positions, and practice it more, because we need better results.”
5. Fox vouched for his receivers after the tough day with dropped passes against the Titans. He noted that the main culprits — Josh Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Cam Meredith and Marquess Wilson — aren’t used to being as involved as they were on Sunday.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen receivers catch more balls than I do in practice [with this group],” Fox said. “Marquess Wilson, it was his second game of the season. He hasn’t been playing football for months and months. Like everything, the more you do it, the better you get. I think those game conditions are a little bit different from practice. A lot of those guys probably played more in this game than they had all season.”
That’s fairly accurate. Wilson, who had played 29 offensive snaps all season, played 47 snaps against the Titans. Thompson, who had played 45 snaps all season, played 42 against the Titans. Bellamy, who had played 79 snaps all season, played 46 against the Titans.
5a. Rookie running back Jordan Howard contributed to the day of dropped passes by turning his head too quickly on a second-and-goal screen pass from the 7-yard line and dropping Matt Barkley’s pass for an incompletion. Barkley bailed him out by throwing a seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dan Brown on the next play.
“Definitely thought I had the touchdown on that one,” Howard said. “I definitely looked away too fast,”
The drops eventually became an epidemic.
“[It] just lets you know that you have to focus on even the smallest things,” Howard said. “You might catch a thousand passes at practice, but in a game if you take your eye off the ball, you might drop it. So you’ve got to lock in more.”
5b. Bears defensive end Willie Young empathized with Josh Bellamy, whose wide-open drop in the end zone in the final minute cost the Bears a chance to take the lead. Young recalled that empty feeling after getting burned by Aaron Rodgers for a 27-yard touchdown run in 2012 that ended up being the difference in a 24-20 loss at Lambeau Field.
“I let the one and only guy that you don’t want to let get out of the pocket to your left get out and he scrambled for a [27-yard] touchdown and we ended up losing the game I can say because of that play,” Young said.
“But what I learned from that was you know you’ve got to figure out how to overcome obstacles. I had teammates to lean on because I was heated about that. So at the end of the day … ‘Hey, bro, put it past you. It’s going to eat you alive.’ I know it. But you’ve got to put it past you because we need you to step up next week. That’s really all I had to say to him about that deal.”
6. With rushes of 22, 10 and 10 yards, Howard has 26 gains of 10 or more yards this season — tied with the Titans’ DeMarco Murray for third in the NFL. Only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott (35) and the Dolphins Jay Ajayi (30) have more.
Matt Forte led the Bears with 21 carries of 10 or more yards in 2015.
7. Here’s how bad the Bears’ luck has been this season. Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton missed two games in eight seasons (134 games) with the Packers — with consecutive-game streaks of 59 and 75. He has missed two games in 11 weeks with the Bears because of ankle injuries, with consecutive-game streaks of six and two.
7a. Jay Cutler’s durability is hardly the biggest issue with the veteran quarterback. But this is the ninth time in his eight seasons with the Bears that he has missed at least one game because of injury. In fact, Cutler has never been healthy for more than 19 consecutive games as a Bear.
Cutler has played in 102-of-123 regular-season games with the Bears. Twelve quarterbacks who were NFL starters when Cutler joined the Bears have played in more: Eli Manning (123-of-123), Philip Rivers (123), Matt Ryan (121), Drew Brees (121), Tom Brady (119), Joe Flacco (117), Aaron Rodgers (114), Ben Roethlisberger (109), Carson Palmer (105), Ryan Fitzpatrick (104), Alex Smith (104) and Matt Stafford (104).
8. Mitch Trubisky Watch: See if this sounds familiar — the North Carolina junior rallied his team from a 28-7 deficit in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns passes, but, with a chance to tie or take the lead, threw three consecutive incompletions to lose possession on downs in a 28-21 home loss to North Carolina State in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Trubisky completed 23-of-38 passes for 280 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Tar Heels (8-4) await a bowl opponent.
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Ageless quarterback Henry Burris threw for 461 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two touchdowns to lead the third-year Ottawa Redblacks to the CFL Grey Cup championship with a 39-33 overtime victory over the Calgary Stampeders on Sunday night in Toronto.
Burris, 41, played in six games (one start) for the Bears in 2002 — throwing three touchdowns and five interceptions for a 28.4 passer rating. In the only game he started — the season finale against the Buccaneers — he threw four interceptions and had a 10.3 passer rating in a 15-0 loss at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Three of the picks came in a five-play span in the fourth quarter before Burris was replaced by Cory Sauter.
Burris has played 17 seasons in the CFL (1997-2000 and 2004-16). He has thrown for 63,227 yards and 374 touchdowns. This was his second Grey Cup championship as a starter. He won in 2008 for Calgary, beating Marc Trestman’s Montreal Alouettes in the championship game.
10: Bear-ometer: 3-13 — vs. 49ers (L); at Lions (L); vs. Packers (W); vs. Redskins (L); at Vikings (L).