McClellin and Bostic improving
On the first drive of last night’s preseason contest, the Jacksonville Jaguars ran a stretch run on 3rd down and 1. Chicago Bears linebacker Jon Bostic scraped off the right edge, leveled a blocker and took down the ball carrier for a 4-yard loss. As a rookie last season, Bostic never once made a play in such fashion, one in which he showed decisiveness, physicality and explosion. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Bostic graded the highest (+3.0) of any Bears defender, with positive grades against both the run and pass.
Shea McClellin also improved against the Jaguars, particularly against the run. Like Bostic, McClellin was aggressive filling gaps and finish plays. PFF gave McClellin a +2.8 grade against the run, which was the second highest run-stopping grade on the team. McClellin is still lost in coverage but the steps forward both he and Bostic took in the second preseason contest are a great sign for the potential of these two young linebackers.
Devin Hester, where are you?
The Bears thought Devin Hester was expendable this offseason. What do you bet GM Phil Emery is kicking himself for that decision after another poor outing from his returners on Thursday? Eric Weems showed very little burst in four kickoff returns, one in which he tripped over his own feet and fell flat on his face. Micheal Spurlock and Michael Ford both returned a kick but neither could reach the 20-yard line, while Spurlock also returned three punts for a combined seven yards.
"We're not feeling good about our punt return or kickoff return," coach Marc Trestman said today.
Overall, Chicago’s special teams are a work in progress, so it’s not time to panic. That said, the fact none of the myriad returner candidates on this roster stood out during camp or the preseason is concerning. If no one can step up in that role, the Bears’ could end up one of the worst return units in the league in 2014.
Open spots at nine and 10
It’s pretty clear the Bears' top eight defensive linemen – Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea, Willie Young, Trevor Scott, Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton – yet the club will likely keep 10 D-linemen this year, meaning two spots are still available for the taking. The two players most assumed would emerge, DE David Bass and DT Nate Collins, have struggled mightily. Collins has been particularly disappointing, as it doesn’t appear he can put any pressure on his surgically repaired knee.
Austen Lane has jumped in the No. 5 DE role but he’s yet to show much on the field. Cornelius Washington had a solid outing against the Jaguars – he graded the highest of any defender against the run – and is now in the mix as well. At defensive tackle, the door is open for a player like Tracy Robertson or Brandon Dunn, but if none of these players emerge, the Bears may be forced to hit the open market or keep just nine defensive linemen.
Trevor Scott a free-agent steal
Most gave little thought to Chicago’s acquisition of DE Trevor Scott this offseason. The six-year veteran has done very little since a 7.0-sack season in 2009, starting just two games the last three years combined.
Yet Scott has proven himself extremely capable against both the run and pass. He had three tackles against the Jaguars, giving him six total through two preseason games, the most of any Bears defensive lineman. Scott also leads all Chicago defenders with four QB hurries, per PFF, and defensive “stops” (5). As the club’s fourth defensive end Scott should have a lot of value, and at a price tag of just $730,000, he may end up Emery’s best dollar-for-dollar free-agent pickup.
Pass protection phenomenal
Through two preseason games, Bears quarterbacks have combined for 82 drop backs. Only two have resulted in sacks. That’s phenomenal work by all three offensive line. Chicago’s starting unit has yet to allow a sack and against Jacksonville, Cutler had time to bake a cake every time he settled in the pocket.
The Bears allowed the fourth fewest sacks in the league last year. With an improving offensive line and Trestman’s short-passing attack, Chicago in 2014 will once again be one of the fewest-sacked teams in the NFL, which should allow the passing attack to excel.
Run game non-existent
As good as the pass blocking has been, that’s how poor the offensive line has performed in the run game, particularly the first team. Matt Forte rushed four times for -2 yards against Jacksonville, giving him -8 yards on seven carries through the first two contests combined.
The offensive line is not getting push off the snap and they are struggling to connect at the second level. Backside reach blocks aren’t hitting their mark and trap plays haven’t been timed well. The Bears finished just 16th in the league last year in rushing, despite a career year from Forte. That number could drop significantly if run blocking doesn’t improve dramatically over the next few weeks.
Safeties playing well
The Bears safety position is still a question mark but the first two games have been very promising. According to PFF, Chicago’s safeties have missed just one tackle in 21 attempts and the group has yet to allow a touchdown. That’s marked improvement over last season.
Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray and Brock Vereen have all been sound, aggressive and consistent tacklers, which is what you want to see from this group at this point in the preseason. Adrian Wilson is running on fumes but there’s still hope for Chris Conte, who will likely make his preseason debut next week in Seattle. If Conte can regain form, the Bears may just go into the season with a dependable safety foursome, which would have been ridiculous to predict just a month ago.
On their first possession of the fourth quarter, Chicago’s offense executed a 10-play, 57-yard touchdown drive, during which they faced two 3rd-and-1 situations. The first came at the Jacksonville 48-yard line. Rookie RB Ka’Deem Carey took the handoff off-tackle left, bounced the play outside and fell forward for two yards and the first down. The second 3rd and 1 came at the goal line, during which Carey ran the ball up the gut, lowered his head into a defender and fell into the end zone for the score.
For years the Bears have struggled offensively in short-yardage situations. Carey runs with low pad level and keeps his legs churning. He may be third on the depth chart behind Forte and Shaun Draughn but Carey could have immediate value as the team’s goal-line back.
The flip has switched for CB Sherrick McManis. A special-teams-only player his first four years in the league, McManis has been arguably the team’s most impressive corner during camp and the preseason, behind only first rounder Kyle Fuller. McManis had an interception in the opener and a very impressive PBU last night in which he knocked away a touchdown pass.
The Bears have arguably one of the best top-four corner units in the NFC: Fuller, Charles Tillman, Kelvin Hayden and Tim Jennings. If McManis can carry over to the regular season what he’s done this offseason and provide even more depth at the position, Chicago will emerge with the best cornerback group in the league.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.