An 0-3 start has the sky falling for the Chicago Bears. It’s hard to find many positives for a team decimated by injuries with no continuity at the moment. But it seems options in the passing attack are starting to open up which would help a team trying to dig out of a hole tremendously.
As always, since we’re discussing the Bears, I am reversing typical definitions from the stock market. Bearish here, instead of characterizing falling stocks, will be a positive of players with a rising investment. Guys that I’ll be bullish on, are the gentlemen that I believe should have their stock fall.
Here’s your Week 3 stock watch following the Bears’ 31-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night:
Zach Miller: Miller stepped in more than admirably halfway through the 2015 season as the starting tight end in place of the now traded Martellus Bennett. With 34 receptions for 436 yards and five touchdowns, he proved to be an excellent red zone threat and check down option for Jay Cutler. The question has never been talent for the 31-year-old Miller, but rather availability.
After appearing in all 16 games last season, Miller signed a two-year $5.5 million dollar deal in the offseason with incentives allowing to potentially make an additional $2.2 million. The Bears placed their faith in the once oft-injured veteran as their primary tight end and finally their direction started to show off in Dallas on Sunday night.
You can say there’s a disclaimer on Miller’s eight receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns given that admittedly, most of his primary production against the Cowboys came in garbage time. That’s a fair assessment where the Dallas defense backed off and played softer coverage. But that doesn’t mean the Bears didn’t stop playing and that doesn’t mean the caliber of the competition suddenly stepped down from NFL level.
Chicago had a 24-3 lead to dig out of with one half and they relied on Miller to lead the charge. To me, that speaks volumes going forward.
Miller is a tight end that can stretch the middle of the field vertically with his size and athletic ability. Most of his receptions Dallas came on short stick routes but the Bears utilized him in the seam as well. With only seven receptions for 47 yards combined against Houston and Philadelphia, Miller struggled as a pass target to start the season. He was more active against the Cowboys because Chicago’s offensive line gave Hoyer more time, so he was able to emerge as an option instead of consistently chipping and offering assistance to a shoddy front.
He’s inherently not on Rob Gronkowski’s level as a tight end in terms of talent, far from it. But he has solid hands with decent speed that puts him at a level where he can be consistently and reliably called upon. With the Bears patchwork offensive line coming together, Chicago may finally have another reliable option in the passing game for Cutler to feel comfortable and attack defenses that were keying in on Alshon Jeffery.
The only step for Miller now like for the next guy on the list is for all of this play to come when outcomes of the game are still in doubt. That’s a work in progress for the whole team though.
Kevin White: Ah yes, the Bears first round prodigy and project has had an uneven start to his NFL career. He’s clearly struggled with confidence and has not been playing instinctively to take advantage of his natural athletic ability. The White you saw against the Texans and Eagles was a player at half-speed tentatively learning the game on the fly while having heaps of criticism and pressure piled on.
That player still hasn’t left the building by any respective measure. But you started to see the light flash for White on Sunday night.
Again, feel free to use a disclaimer on White since most of his production of six receptions for 62 yards came with the Bears fighting a significant deficit, but this was a necessary confidence boost for the rookie. He showcased veteran savvy at times such as a play where he made himself available out of coverage for a scrambling Brian Hoyer. While the play was called back due to a penalty at the line of scrimmage, White motioning to extend the play for something that would’ve been a mere six yard gain on third down into 12 yards speaks of growth.
Route running has been White’s biggest bugaboo and something he’s still struggling with in refinement to fine tuning. Part of that beyond more complicated routes is getting open altogether and knowing where to find the soft spots in a zone. White finally showed that he’s understanding that facet of the game. This is a huge step from the raw player on the field you saw against Houston.
Then of course, there was the catch everyone was talking about, where White made a spectacular circus catch while draped over the back of Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne. Corralling an under-thrown ball in with your left hand while a corner has tight coverage is the kind of play White was hyped for coming out of college. You expect those kinds of receptions out of the DeAndre Hopkins and Alshon Jeffery’s of the world. But not of the struggling White in his third professional game.
You could even tell the Bears were trying to get him the ball with 14 targets finally testing him on a deep ball that fell incomplete. There’s trust and a concerted effort developing here to have the rookie be the significant contributor everyone knows he can be.
In a mostly gloomy night for the Bears, White stood out with an incremental step, a boost this team needs now and in the future. Now let’s hope he does some of his circus act when the games are close.
Bears offensive line: With the state of the Bears offense in relative shambles, I don’t think it’s fair to cheapen their growing efforts regardless of competition if they progress.
The offensive line did not allow Brian Hoyer to get sacked once and he was not pressured save for the rare occasion in the fourth quarter. Disclaimers could be that Dallas doesn’t have an elite defense with pass rushers to fear by any means. There’s no JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, or Fletcher Cox lining up for the Cowboys so the job to protect your passer is much easier.
But you could see the semblance of chemistry start to come together. With a healthy Cutler, this might have been a different game. The line opened holes for Jeremy Langford and Jordan Howard who broke off runs of 23 and 36 yards respectively. Brian Hoyer was never under duress even while passing the ball 49 times in catch-up mode. And there weren’t the same mistakes made with exotic blitzes or stunts that we saw in the first two games.
Sometimes, a line just needs time to come together and play well with continuity. It takes some feel for the respective line mates to understand each other and communicate well. Let’s not forget the All-Pro caliber Josh Sitton hasn’t even been here for a month. Now, he’s finally starting to work well with Cody Whitehair and Kyle Long in a dominant interior trio. If the Bears are going to dig themselves out of their current winless hole, it’s going to be built on the strength of a healthier defense and an offensive line that builds off of each successive performance.
With Detroit, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville on tap over the next several weeks, teams that have either been decimated by defensive injuries or have mediocre units altogether, there’s a chance for this line to reach new heights.
Leonard Floyd: After a stellar debut against the Texans, the rookie outside linebacker has shown his green inexperience in the past couple of weeks.
He’s been pushed around in the run game due to his lack of size. The secret is also now fully out as to the fact that the Bears have been using him in coverage more than pass rushing. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in particular took advantage of this when one-on-one with Floyd, he turned him around to take a pass 18 yards to the one yard line. Floyd did not fare well against one of the past decade’s best receiving options and the Cowboys knew they could exploit the mismatch.
With the Bears struggling to rattle quarterbacks with pressure, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio might be better served to use Floyd to rush the passer a little more given his athleticism. He’s a versatile athlete for a reason that should have the opportunity to showcase his abilities more often.
Any struggles he’s going to have moving forward will be related to growing pains and size and Fangio needs to recognize that fact. Teams aren’t going to shy away from attacking Floyd in coverage as film travels around. Diversify your use of your Swiss army knife letting him flourish and continue to take steps. Otherwise, you’re only handicapping your prized young defensive piece.
In a hard rebuild, the Bears need Floyd to gain confidence each week while learning from his mistakes. This will be an opportunity to follow that ideal.
Jeremy Langford: Langford makes a second consecutive appearance on the watch because of injury in combination with his continued lackluster performance.
Langford is expected to miss four to six weeks with an ankle injury and by the time he returns, he may not have a starting job. Jordan Howard, in a very small sample size, has 12 carries for 67 yards this year. That’s 5.58 yards a carry, which is excellent but would obviously have to be translated over a longer period.
Still, a 36-yard-burst against Dallas had Howard display an innate ability to run downhill. And he had four receptions for 47 yards, versatility out of the backfield that this Bears offense needs. The arrow is pointing up. Now, Howard is going to get more churn as the number one back with both Langford and Ka’Deem Carey injured. Many have long suspected Howard was the best tailback the Bears had on the roster for some time and now he’ll get a chance to prove it and usurp Langford.
If Howard does play well over the next approximate month and he definitively takes the number one role, this isn’t a death sentence for Langford’s career in Chicago. He can be a great change pace of back with 10 to 15 touches a game given his abilities in the receiving game and speed in comparison to Howard. He’s just not a featured back. He’s an excellent one-cut back with the ability to take plays the distance in small samples.
It’s never good when a player loses playing time as objectively, he may lose value to his organization. But in the long run, this could be a blessing in disguise for Langford to become an excellent complimentary back.
John Fox: Everyone knew the job Fox and his cohort general manager Ryan Pace were undertaking when hired in 2015. This was one of the least talented teams in the NFL without many homegrown players. There is no one left on the roster or in the NFL from the Jerry Angelo era (save for gentlemen like Matt Forte) and Jeffery, Kyle Fuller, Kyle Long, and Charles Leno Jr. are the only drafted representatives of the Phil Emery age currently healthy and playing.
That speaks to a significant talent back-up that takes years to overcome. And quite obviously, through three games, the Bears improved defensive unit and overall team has been devastated by injuries. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for Fox to have this team currently winless. Every NFL team goes through injuries, as some have actually been worse off than the Bears in some respects. “Next man up” is a cliche but this is still a results driven business. If you’re this fantastic coach, guys should be able to step in without a hitch. When you don’t have much depth and the guys coming in seem unprepared, it’s not a quality reflection of your job.
Last year the Bears also started the season 0-3, but that was against NFC juggernauts in the Packers, Cardinals, and Seahawks, all of which had established veteran quarterbacks. This year the Bears are on the hook due to losses to quarterbacks with a combined 16 starts now in the Texans, Eagles, and Cowboys. Those are all fine above average to possible playoff teams right now but they are still a collective step down from what this team has had to face previously.
If the Bears were to progress, they should have been able to rattle at least one of those fine young men to pick up a win. What once looked like a soft schedule, can turn into a trial of judgment for a team looking for any sign of hope. It might be what Fox signed up for, but it might not be.
One can understand why he was brought in by Ryan Pace. He supposedly brings in stability to a rebuilding organization and fixes the culture. But is he really fixing the culture if the team is failing to win games and is coming apart at the seams? Is he worth all of his relative lack of imagination, conservativeness, and game management issues?
I never thought so, and if the Bears continue their downward spiral in this fashion all the way to a top pick in the 2017 draft, you can be sure Ryan Pace will be getting a second opportunity at a head coach. You need to keep climbing the ladder.
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.