If the Detroit Lions are in first place and in line for a first round bye in the NFC, maybe the Chicago Bears aren’t that far off. A better team would have stomped the life out of Chicago in Sunday’s loss, there’s no doubt. But these close margins are also a testament to a Bears team fighting tooth and nail, even if they can’t quite finish.
Many are reaching for their livelihood in the league and they’re coming together to at least illustrate the idea of competitiveness. And other players formerly seen as non-factors, such as Matt Barkley, are beginning to become solid enough contributors. This is what you do in a 3-10 season. Even if the Bears should go winless in these last three weeks, if they continue to unearth quality talent - while not suffering any series injuries - the objective of this coaching staff will be fulfilled, sans those victories of course.
That being said, with the Packers on tap and the Bears’ long-time extensive series lead set to evaporate for the first time in 80 years, there are still games to be played. Discussing the future and progress of this team will be an ongoing conversation throughout the entire offseason. Seasons such as this merit bringing it up.
For now, revel in young players - either drafted or of off the scrap heap - growing up before your eyes trying to prevent franchise blight records such as Green Bay tying the all-time series with the Bears. It’s one of the goals left anyone will rightfully admit to.
As always, since we’re discussing the Bears, I’m reversing typical definitions from the stock market. Bearish here, will characterize rising stocks for guys. Those I’ll be bullish on, are people that I believe should have their stock fall.
Helping the youth flourish in the Week 14 stock report following the Bears’ 20-17 loss to the Lions:
Cre’Von LeBlanc: LeBlanc has been a regular here this season as he continues to impress. It goes to show you that while there’s probably not much in teams like the Patriots picking up the Bears released pieces (Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic) and having them succeed, there’s always something to gain from New England.
While pressed into a starting role in a secondary not high on talent or depth, LeBlanc has improved week by week. It’s been quite the rise for the former undrafted free agent. All of the progress culminated for the rookie with a pick-six off of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, a play that gave the Bears the late lead at Ford Field. It was the Bears’ first pick-six since 2014. LeBlanc not only displayed instinct, but he was physical and smart in coverage consistently - a recurring descriptor of his play. And it shows statistically too, not just in flashes.
Over the last 3 weeks, Cre'von LeBlanc has played all but 4 snaps, has allowed just 6 catches on 14 targets for 40 yards, 1 INT, 2 PDs.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 11, 2016
That kind of stretch, even over a short sample size, is shutdown cornerback level. Now it’s about maintaining that level. It’s way too early to say LeBlanc will be that kind of dominant player. He’s still certainly etched a future in Chicago at minimum as a quality rotational guy, either way.
Leonard Floyd: Floyd’s two-month stretch has been a marvel, and arguably places him as the piece with the highest ceiling. With high impact plays in sacks and pressures in December, he’ll etch a top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy no one will be able to match, too. He continued to do that against Detroit.
On Sunday, Floyd had a ridiculous nine quarterback pressures. Yes, you read that correctly. Nine. And he drew a variety of holding penalties that were and weren’t called as well. Officials can’t always get it right, can they?
It’s not a stretch to say: he was the best player on the field when sharing it with his defensive teammates and the Lions offense.
On a better day and with more controlled finishes, that translates into several sacks - not zero - but it’s still incredible. Floyd was essentially Stafford’s shadow, chasing him around relentlessly and recovering from any spot. Consider that as the Bears’ defense’s swiss army knife, Floyd is typically the guy being sent on stunts and twists. If he wasn’t routinely appearing in the backfield, there’d be a problem.
But that isn’t solely the demonstrator of his terror. Floyd ripped through Lions tackles, Riley Reiff and Taylor Decker, on solo blocks with no design - simply beating them because he was better. And the Bears moved Floyd around the entire defense utilizing matchup problems as they saw fit. He never disappointed in winning against his man, even while double teamed in the second half.
Hardware may well be coming Floyd’s way.
Two weeks ago, the Bears played a worthwhile NFL quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and Callahan struggled. It was difficult to judge his day against Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick in the snow (not that difficult), so a test against one of the NFL’s best slot receivers in Golden Tate and a quality passer again in Stafford, would have to suffice.
And Callahan passed with flying colors.
Tate had an average six receptions for 58 yards and was blanketed by Callahan. You saw it on third down in the Lions’ own end where Callahan closed on Tate in the open field to assure minimal gain. You later saw it as Callahan left his feet to deflect a pass intended for Tate in the end zone that Demontre Hurst would intercept. Everywhere Tate went, Callahan followed, eager and waiting. In an up and down season on the Bears’ back end, Callahan has struggled with injuries and mirrored Chicago’s woes in the secondary at times. However, it’s easy to see why many see him as one of the few incremental pieces they have as a nickel defensive back, especially as another undrafted free agent.
In today’s NFL, considering all of the slot receiver talent, a team’s nickel cornerback has become crucial and is one of the more strenuous positions in football. Dime defensive passing formations have become the norm in the league to assist, and for every team that doesn’t have a passable slot cornerback, they likely have a less than passable passing defense too.
The Bears are fortunate they have Callahan - and by extension, LeBlanc - beginning to show out, even if they’re conducting a manhunt for their other three positions in the defensive backfield.
Bears safeties: Harping on Chicago safety play at this time of year, has become a year-round tradition. It’s been noted to death, but the last time this organization had no questions at this position was Mike Brown, and even his career was derailed by injuries.
It’s been a decade since Brown’s heyday. An organization should not have this much futility at one position, but somehow player after player flames out as they’re yet again burned by a receiver.
A quartet of Adrian Amos, Harold Jones-Quartey, Deon Bush, and Chris Prosinski isn’t enough. None of these guys look like difference makers. They don’t have the feet, the range, or the instinctive-ness to play off as sudden players and break on the ball.
Yes, it’s understood that pass coverage isn’t inherently part of the job description. Amos comes to mind here for example. But the modern league necessitates they’re not complete turnstiles that can be abused with regularity by any quarterback either. The days of the solely hard-hitting safety in the box are dead and long gone. Defensive coordinators salivate at guys that can’t defend the pass, and rightfully so. They’re relics.
Kam Chancellor in Seattle is the hybrid standard. That’s the player you want Amos to be. Physical in tackling and capable of more than adequate coverage. But Amos isn’t that, and it’S fair to wonder if he ever will be. Neither are any of the Chicago safeties, such as Jones-Quartey.
Sure, Anquan Boldin will be running perfect routes forever. But that’s a complete lack of speed and otherwise awareness by Jones-Quartey too.
Not a stretch to consider that the passer rating for Stafford when targeting other safeties probably wasn’t that much worse either. Objective liabilities.
Does Kyle Fuller changing positions fix this? Well, he first has to get healthy and activated. And it’s going to take time to get acclimated to a position he hasn’t played, even if his strength is playing off. A lot to ask in one offseason.
No, the Bears will probably look to free agency or the draft to remedy this problem. If they don’t, they’ll never finish this rebuild with a complete lack of playmakers at safety. Something will always hold this defense back otherwise. Names like Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs, or Jamal Adams and Jabril Peppers from college would be nice starts.
However its accomplished, this position group needs an overhaul and fast.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.