The Chicago Bears this season have used two starting inside linebackers, Shea McClellin and Christian Jones, with no previous experience playing the postion. The production, as expected, has been up and down.
Last week was rough for both players, as they were consistently torched by Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who finished with 9 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown.
"Reed's always been a very good receiver, as tight ends go," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said today. "We didn't play a couple of zones right and they did well and we didn't."
In particular, McClellin did not do well. He was targeted six times by Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed all six passes.
"He didn't play as well as he had been playing up to this point," Fangio said. "The game just kind of didn't work good for him. He kind of was off kilter a little a bit. You know he's a still got a little, he's still nicked up a little bit, but I don't think he would use that as an excuse."
Fangio's point about McClellin's knee is valid, as he just hasn't had the same burst and change-of-direction ability since returning from the injury.
Yet there is no injury excuse for Christian Jones, who has struggled mightily at times this year.
"He's been inconsistent," said Fangio. "But again, it's a new position for him playing off the ball at inside linebacker. It's a whole new world for these guys that have been up on the ball and you know, he's been inconsistent. He's had his share of good plays and ones that he'd like to do over."
Fangio has used undrafted rookie Jonathan Anderson on passing downs, rotating with Jones throughout the second half of the season. Anderson has made a couple of splash plays, including two pass breakups and an interception. Yet, like Jones, Anderson has been inconsistent.
For all of those reasons, the Bears elevated undrafted rookie John Timu this week and it appears they plan on giving him some reps on defense during the final three games of the season. Timu, signed out of Washington following the 2015 NFL Draft, made the team out of training camp and played on special teams the first four games of the regular season. He was then placed on the practice squad, where he's been ever since.
"He made the team earlier this season. He wasn’t playing a lot on defense. He was playing primarily in the kicking game on fourth down," head coach John Fox said. "Different things happen to your roster along the way. There were some changes made, and just now [we want to] see what he’d look like playing defense at the linebacker position. So, [we’re] giving him that opportunity."
Timu was a standout during the preseason this year, picking up 8 total tackles, a sack, a pass breakup and an interception. He showed athleticism, awareness and pop, three areas in which Chicago's inside linebackers have struggled this year.
"He has good instincts," Fox said. "He is a powerful guy, and he’s a young player. That’s why we kept him on the football team. I think he’s earned the opportunity in what he’s done on the practice squad and in practice."
At 5-8, the Bears are in evaluation mode, so it makes sense to give Timu snaps on defense over the final three weeks of the regular season.
“Coach always talks about every day is an evaluation. Some of that I can’t control. What I can control is how I go out there prepared and how I execute," Timu said today. "[The preseason] was easy. Just go out there. A lot of times they always talk about experience, you’ve got to have experience to go out there and see what it actually feels like and get used to the game speed. Preseason is just a little tiny bit of it. Now I’ve just got to progress and make sure I’m getting better every practice."
Timu has an intriguing skill set, so he's worth watching the remainder of the season.
"We just to see how he would play," Fangio said. "We haven't had him on defense since the preseason. He had some good games in the preseason. If we get him in there, we'll see how he does."
This is his tryout, his shot at the big time. If Timu plays well, he'll earn himself a spot on the roster heading into next season.