Bears Sunday Playbook: Five reasons to be optimistic about second half

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Bears QB Jay Cutler. (AP)

‘Trust the process.”

It’s one of coach John Fox’s mantras, and players often recite it in some degree during interviews.

“Everyone starts talking the same language,” quarterback Jay Cutler said.

At 3-5, a postseason berth is unlikely. But the process will be worth watching in the second half.

Coaching adjustments

The Bears have overcome injuries on both sides of the ball. They have used four offensive-line combinations and managed to win without receiver Alshon Jeffery (Raiders, Chiefs) and running back Matt Forte (Chargers).

The defense has featured three signal-callers (Shea McClellin, Christian Jones, Jonathan Anderson), two rookies starting at safety for two weeks and only three players in the front seven who have started every week.

Last year, all of the above would have been catastrophic. But this season, the Bears are more adaptable under Fox, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. They’ve managed to remain competitive.

The Bears’ ability to adjust in games has been evident in their three wins.

“All those kinds of things can be problematic if you let them be,” Fox said. “And our guys have handled it really well.”

Line of thinking

There are motivational messages displayed throughout Halas Hall. It’s part of Fox’s way, and it started back in training camp.

But beyond that, players clearly have confidence in the instruction and game plans they’re receiving from their coaches.

Here’s how Cutler explains the Bears’ mindset: “Last year, things were different. Whenever you lose a bunch of games in a row, it gets hard. That’s any business. Things aren’t going well, it’s going to get pretty tough.

“With these guys, things didn’t go well. We were lucky enough to win two more and kind of get out of that hole, and we’ve been kind of back and forth from there. Coach Fox hasn’t backed down from his message one time, and the players haven’t lost any confidence in that either.”

The youth movement

The decision to stick with second-year left tackle Charles Leno Jr. over veteran Jermon Bushrod, who was active against the Chargers, exemplifies what’s afoot at Halas Hall.

The Bears are willing to give their young players opportunities and starting jobs if their play merits it. It’s particularly true on defense, where five rookies and four second-year players have made starts.

They expect a lot from them, too. The Bears repeatedly said they weren’t surprised by rookie running back Jeremy Langford’s performance against the Chargers.

The Bears take into account what players do in practice. Undrafted rookie Bryce Callahan earned his starting nickel-back spot that way.

“You can still show something, particularly a defensive back, breaking up passes,” Fangio said. “You make changes for everything you see.”

Cutler’s development

For the first time in his career, Cutler has had five consecutive games with ratings over 88.0. It’s six if you count his injury-shortened start against the Cardinals in which he left with a 116.2 rating.

It’s obvious that Cutler, who had a league-worst 24 turnovers in 2014, is more efficient with Gase. His fundamentals have improved considerably, and he has been sacked only 10 times.

Cutler even overcame a two-turnover outing in San Diego — a fumble and a pick-six — that would have led to complete disaster in years past.

Tougher challenges await Cutler. The Rams and Broncos boast two of the league’s best defenses. But with balanced game plans, Cutler is better-positioned to succeed.

A softer schedule

The Bears have four very beatable opponents in their last five games: the 49ers (3-6), Redskins (3-5), Buccaneers (3-5) and Lions (1-7).

“The good news is that if you look over the last five games, we’re 3-2,” Fox said. “So I think we’re trending hopefully to do better in the second half of the race.”

WATCH LIST

BEARS

QB Jay Cutler

Cutler knows what he’s up against: “The amount of pressure and disruption that [the Rams] cause allows those cornerbacks to take some gambles and make some plays.”

TE Martellus Bennett

The Bears’ offense will need an all-around good game from Bennett to move the ball in St. Louis.

OLB Sam Acho

Acho should play more considering the Rams are determined to run the ball with rookie sensation Todd Gurley.

RAMS

QB Nick Foles

The Rams would be a scary team with a better quarterback. Foles (79.7 rating) isn’t nearly as productive as he was for Eagles coach Chip Kelly.

DT Aaron Donald

The 2014 first-round pick, who has 4½ sacks and 23 pressures, will be a problem for the Bears’ line.

S Mark Barron

He leads the Rams in tackles and does a bit of everything. He has a sack, five pass breakups, four quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

COACH’S COMMENT

“He’s a phenomenal player. Kind of knew that coming out. He had done it at a high level in college. To me, he’s transformed that to the pro game. He’s explosive. He’s big. He’s got good vision. He’s got a lot of good film on tape right now, even halfway through the season.”

Bears coach John Fox, on Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley

UNSUNG SPOTLIGHT

JONATHAN ANDERSON, Inside linebacker, No. 58

Anderson’s playing time will be affected if Shea McClellin returns, but Anderson’s development has impressed the Bears. It has been a meteoric rise for him since he went undrafted out of TCU.

Anderson was signed to the practice squad after the final cuts in September, promoted to the active roster Oct. 14 and made the defensive signal-caller by coordinator Vic Fangio last week against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the NFL’s leading passer.

“I’m just out there doing my job,” said Anderson, who led the Bears with 12 tackles in San Diego. “That’s what really helped build up the trust between me and the coaches.”

The Bears likely will turn back to McClellin, but Anderson did play more than Christian Jones against the Chargers. Jones, a starter since the offseason program, had handled the calls in place of McClellin before Anderson took over.

“[Anderson] did fine,” Fangio said. “I’m sure there was some gray areas out there for the players at times, but you know with the no-huddle, that amplifies the difficulty, and I thought for the most part we handled it well.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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