For the second time in two seasons, the Chicago Bears were flat coming out of their bye week, this time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 36-10 blowout loss was not only embarrassing but appears to be the fatal blow to the 2016 season.
Despite another year void of a playoff appearance, with seven games left in the regular season, there’s still plenty to watch. Many jobs, in particular within the coaching staff, are on the line. Couple that with the development of youth and there are more than enough reasons to watch the final seven games, even if they aren’t pretty.
On the bright side, the Bears are currently slotted to pick 4th in the upcoming draft.
Here are five things to watch for in the Week 11 matchup against the New York Giants.
Jekyll and Hyde showed up on the field once again on a warm day in Tampa Bay. After missing five straight weeks with a thumb injury, Cutler was sharp and very impressive against the Vikings in his return before the bye.
Week 10 told a completely different story, in which he had three first-half turnovers, including a pick-six to former teammate Chris Conte.
As many have cautioned before, Cutler consistency on a week-to-week basis will never materialize. Judging a player from one game, good or bad, is shortsighted but the problem is, most have been taking that same approach with Cutler since his arrival nearly eight full seasons ago.
At this point, it seems highly likely the Bears will move in a different direction at quarterback this coming off-season but Cutler is still worth watching, mainly because any trade value he might still have will either be demolished or maintained in these final seven games.
The secondary continues to be a sizable issue for Chicago's defense. Youth and inexperience have played a large factor but high-upside youngsters like Deiondre' Hall and Bryce Callahan can’t stay on the field, while Adrian Amos and Cre’Von LeBlanc have not taken significant steps forward of late.
Hall is expected to miss at least a few more weeks but Callahan should be inching closer to a return, possibly this Sunday. Going into the off-season, the defensive staff will have plenty of decisions to make in the secondary but if their cast of young defensive backs are unable stake their claim to a starting spot, GM Ryan Pace is going to be spending a lot of resources in that department.
This week will be another big test, as they will face a top-flight passing attack featuring All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Sterling Shepard.
Game experience is always a good measuring stick but someone desperately needs to step up on the back end.
Since the departure of former special teams coach Dave Toub, the Bears’ special team unit has been in total free fall. The team currently ranks 27th or worse in the NFL in kick return average (27th), gross punt average (28th), net punt average (28th), opponent punt return average (32nd), opponent gross punt average (29th) and opponent net punt average (28th).
Whether it has been poor coverage units or return plays resulting in negative yardage, it’s something that needs considerable attention.
Connor Barth has finally leveled out, which is a positive sign moving forward, but punter Pat O’Donnell and the bulk of the team’s core special teamers are still struggling and need to find a way to create something positive.
Offensive Play Calling
After his best-called game of his career against the Vikings, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains regressed at an alarming rate last Sunday against the Buccaneers.
Week 9 featured balanced play calling, as 29 of the 60 offensive plays were runs. Week 11 was much more skewed toward the passing attack, which included benching Jordan Howard, once again, for the majority of the second half after a fumble late in the second quarter.
Keep in mind, Howard was averaging 6.5 per carry and had over 80 yards before the half, yet received just three total carries in the second half.
With John Fox’s future on the line, his assistants are on the fence with him. While Fox is likely to get a third year, Loggains’ ability as an offensive coordinator is worth monitoring in the final stretch of the season, especially if they plan on developing a rookie quarterback in 2017.
There was a lot of positivity at Halas Hall coming out of the bye week, as the Bears were finally approaching full health.
Sunday afternoon’s bloodbath in Tampa Bay reaped even more injuries. Those injuries include RG Kyle Long and DL Will Sutton, who were both placed on Injured Reserve this week. RT Bobby Massie is still in the concussion protocol, NT Eddie Goldman re-injured his ankle and DL Mitch Unrein hasn't practiced due to a back injury.
In addition, Alshon Jeffery was suspended four games this week for PED use, creating an even steeper uphill climb for the Bears going forward.
A Few Thoughts
- Who starts at nose tackle? With Sutton on IR, Goldman suffering a “setback” and Unrein not practicing, the Bears are currently down to four healthy defensive lineman. Akiem Hicks is going to see even more reps on Sunday, while DC Vic Fangio will be relying heavily on Cornelius Washington and rookie Jonathan Bullard.
- Who will emerge as Chicago's No. 1 receiver? Marquess Wilson was activated off PUP this week but will likely be rusty, meaning Cameron Meredith or Eddie Royal will be relied upon heavily over the next four weeks.
- To win or to tank? The Bears currently sit 4th overall in the draft order, which is a premium slot. It’s unlikely they'll win out, meaning playoffs are out of the question. Losses hurt but piling up "Ls" might be the best team for the Bears in the long-term.