Growing pains could be lethal for short-handed Bears

SHARE Growing pains could be lethal for short-handed Bears

When outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was healthy last season, he was the Bears’ best defensive player — with five sacks in a five-game stretch in Weeks 3-7. But McPhee will miss at least the first six games of this season after being put on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the regular season. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

The Bears’ season isn’t over at 0-3. But it could be soon if they don’t get healthy.

Even coach John Fox — who ardently adheres to the “next-man-up” philosophy and avoids blaming injuries for his team’s predicament — seemed to acknowledge the reality that health is as much of a key to a Bears resurgence as player development and execution.

“A lot of it is getting guys back,” Fox said Monday at Halas Hall when asked if the recovery from the 0-3 start will be long one. “This is a continuity game. Having the same 11 starters is advantageous. So we’re kind of in that mode now … getting some continuity build in every phase.”

The reality that the short-handed Bears just aren’t good enough was evident in a 31-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium. A Bears defense without five starters — including linebacker Danny Trevathan, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and nose tackle Eddie Goldman — barely laid a hand on Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. The Bears had no sacks, one quarterback pressure and one tackle-for-loss in 65 defensive snaps. The Cowboys, meanwhile — already with rookie starters at quarterback and running back — plugged in rookie left tackle Chaz Green for injured Pro Bowler Tyron Smith and gained 447 yards and scored four touchdowns.

“In the first three games we’ve been thrown some tough cards as far as lineups,” Fox said. “That’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality. We have a young football team, have some new guys that are new to our systems, even more so now with the injuries.”

Under Fox, the Bears have had no problem “going young” as they try to rebuild. Seven rookies and six second-year players played 25 percent or more of the offense/defensive snaps against the Cowboys. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski started for Trevathan in his first NFL game, though played only 18 snaps. Cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc started for nickel back Bryce Callahan. Running back Jordan Howard played 49 of 65 snaps, most of it because Jeremy Langford suffered a sprained ankle.

But in a twist that typifies the frustration of this rebuild, the Bears might be going too far the other way — with injuries forcing too much youth and inexperience on the field at one time. That has put Fox and his staff in a tough spot.

“Well, it’s all tough — that’s why there’s only 32 of these [NFL head coaching jobs],” Fox said. “Our guys understand it. Obviously we liked [the young players] well enough to bring them here as part of the 53.

“If it was easy, anybody could do it. Nobody rescues you. We just have to get better and get better quickly. I think the mind-set and the leadership in that locker room will help that and I have confidence that we’ll improve.”

2. Fuller’s recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery is typical of the Bears’ injury issues. When Fuller had the “clean-up” procedure on Aug. 18, the Bears held out hope he could return in time for the regular season. Three weeks into the season — and nearly six weeks since the procedure, Fuller’s status still is in doubt.

“He has a sore knee. When we get that healed up, he’ll go,” Fox said.

That’s an all-too-familiar refrain at Halas Hall. Kevin White, Alshon Jeffery and McPhee all have had longer-than-expected absences with seemingly minor ailments. Getting players back at 100 percent — and in a timely manner — has proven to be problematic.

With that in mind, every injury bears watching. Langford suffered a sprained ankle — not an Achilles injury — Fox said Monday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported he would be out 4-6 weeks. Safety Harold Jones-Quartey is undergoing concussion protocol.

2a. Fuller’s absence wasn’t really noticeable in the first two weeks, as Jacoby Glenn and Deiondre Hall combined for six pass break-ups (Fuller had nine all of last season). But Fuller was missed against the Cowboys, as Glenn had a rough night chasing wide receiver Terrance Williams.

Glenn was burned for Cole Beasley’s 29-yard catch to the 1-yard line — the longest reception of Beasley’s career. Williams had gains of 17, 12 and 47 yards against Glenn, though Glenn recovered from the 47-yarder to force a fumble that safety Adrian Amos recovered.

2b. Langford’s injury is an example of just how much inexperience the Bears have on their 53-man roster. They went young at running back to start this season — Langford was a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 — and now are going to get younger, with rookie Jordan Howard the obviously replacement Sunday against the Lions.

Howard is favored by many Bears observers because he’s runs harder and resists contact and can break tackles better than Langford — traits the Bears need at running back with a currently disjointed offensive line in the run game.

As it turned out, though, Howard’s 36-yard run on his first carry went through arguably the biggest hole the line has created — by Bobby Massie, Kyle Long and Zach Miller among others. He gained nine net yards on his eight other carries, losing three yards two times.

3. Kwiatkoski had a “Welcome to the NFL” moment right off the bat. He was locked-up by Cowboys center Travis Frederick on Ezekiel Elliott’s 21-yard run on the Cowboys’ first play from scrimmage. Kwiatkoski later knocked Cowboys 6-4, 315-pound left guard off his feet on a blitz. He had one tackle.

3a. Those growing pains eventually could pay off for Kwiatkoski and others. Since the bar has been lowered a bit for wide receiver Kevin White after his slow start, his six-catch, 62-yard performance agianst the Cowboys seemed like a breakthrough. He had two catches for 45 yards in the fourth quarter after the Bears fell behind 31-10. For what it’s worth, White and the Raiders’ Amari Cooper — drafted fourth overall, three spots ahead of White in 2015 — also had 62 receiving yards Sunday (on four catches), against the Titans.

“You could tell he took a step forward,” tight end Zach Miller said. “I think he felt more comfortable … a little passionate. You could just tell he got better. And that encouraging to see.”

4. Fox did not lament the highly questionable offsides call on Jonathan Anderson that nullified Sherrick McManis’ onside kick recovery after Connor Barth’s field goal made it 17-3 in the second quarter.

“It’s a judgment call. It’s not reviewable,” Fox said. “You make your own luck. We just have to execute better and play better for 60 minutes.”

5. By the numbers, Brian Hoyer’s 93.7 passer rating (30-of-49, 317 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) was the best by a Bears back-up other than Josh McCown in the Jay Cutler era.

In fact, he’s the only back-up starter other than McCown to post a rating of 80 or better. Caleb Hanie had the best previous non-McCown rating — 79.9 (no touchdowns, no interceptions) vs. Fox’s Broncos in a 13-10 overtime loss in 2011.

6. The Bears’ offensive issues have put some heat on first-year coordinator Dowell Loggains. The Bears’ offense has scored 38 points in three games (12.7 per game) — fewest in the NFL.

“Like everybody, it’s not good — that’s no indictment of Dowell or anybody else,” Fox said when asked to evalutae Loggains’ first three weeks. “All our signatures are on it. It’s 0-3.”

6a. Loggains is in a tough spot with the offensive line playing together for only the third consecutive game and now with Cutler out. But regardless of the talent level, focus seems to be an issue every week.

Brian Hoyer — who started 22 games the previous two seasons — had a mishap on the very first snap from center that resulted in a one-yard loss and put the offense in an immediate hole. The second possession became a three-and-out when a third-down pass to Langford in the flat was well-covered by safety Barry Church — either an ill-conceived or poorly executed third-down play. And after finally getting back-to-back first downs on their third drive, Hoyer bobbled a snap for a one-yard loss, setting up a second-and-11 at the Cowboys 17. After a six-yard pass to Eddie Royal on third-and-11, the Bears settled for a field goal.

6b. Even when the Bears get in third-and-short, they are too hit-and-miss. They are 4-for-10 on third and three yards or fewer to go — 30th in the NFL through three weeks. They are 3-for-4 on third-and-one; 0-for-4 on third-and-two; and 1-for-2 on third-and-three.

7. The “Year 2” storyline for Fox already has taken a big hit this year. In 2003 at Carolina, the Panthers already were 3-0 on their way to the Super Bowl. In 2012 at Denver, the Broncos were 1-2, but with newcomer Peyton Manning about to go on a 32-touchdown/8-interception tear (110.8 rating) in the final 13 games, in which the Broncos went 12-1. The Bears don’t quite have the prospects of that kind of quarterback play this season.

8. For What It’s Worth Dept.: The Bears’ next three opponents are a combined 2-7 — the Lions (1-2) at Soldier Field, the Colts (1-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Jaguars (0-3) at Soldier Field.

8a. Since 2004, Fox’s teams are 14-19 (.424) in their first three games and 87-56 (.608) in their final 13 games. He has been 0-3 twice before this season: In 2009, the Panthers went 8-5 to finish 8-8; in 2010, the Panthers went 2-11 to finish 2-14 and Fox was fired.

Asked about recovering from an 0-3 start, Fox recalled the 2004 season in Carolina. “We were coming off a Super Bowl — almost won the Super Bowl in ’03 — and in ’04 we started the season 1-7 and we had a real rash of injuries,” he said. “You deal with it. You have a lot of new faces. We finished the season 6-2 on the final eight [games].”

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Slim pickin’s after a Forte/Bennett/Marshall/Olsen treasure-trove last week. Safety Chris Conte had eight tackles and a fumble recovery for the Buccaneers in a 37-32 loss to the Rams.

Runner-up: Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, who played in 13 games and started one for the Bears last season, recovered a muffed punt at the Saints 11-yard line, leading to a quick touchdown that started the Falcons on their way toward a 45-32 victory on Monday Night Football.

10. Bear-ometer: 4-12 —vs. Lions (W); at Colts (L); vs. Jaguars (W); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (L); at Bucs (L); at Giants (L); vs. Titans (W); vs. 49ers (L); at Lions (L); vs. Packers (L); vs. Redskins (W); at Vikings (L).

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