By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The NFL is known as a copycat league. Teams cannibalize successful schemes to the point where the shelf life of novel concepts is sometimes one week.
More locally, the Bears have become a copycat team.
Take the script from their 26-20 overtime loss to the 49ers on Dec. 6, change a few names and numbers and you have a perfect summation of their 24-21 loss against the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
The Bears came out flat and played down to the level of their competition but hung around long enough for their kicker to possibly resuscitate them. He didn’t, as Chicago let another previously winless team on the road beat it on its home field, where the Bears are now 1-6 on the season.
Calling out the Bears’ glaring lack of talent is passé at this point. It’s public knowledge that this team isn’t playing with enough talent, even in a watered-down league.
This was an evaluation year for first-year general manager Ryan Pace and a development year for first-year coach John Fox and his staff. As the 2015 season is nearing its conclusion, the Bears (5-8) find themselves with far more questions than answers as they prepare for a crucial offseason.
Six weeks ago, I suggested that the core of current players who are on the roster who will matter once the Bears are competitive again is around a dozen. Looking at that original list, the number remains the same, except a few players have dropped out (linebacker Christian Jones and tight end Martellus Bennett) and been replaced by cornerback Tracy Porter and tight end Zach Miller.
One positive is the Bears have an answer at the toughest position in the league. Throwing passes to the likes of Deonte Thompson and Marc Mariani, Jay Cutler finished with his second-highest passer efficiency rating (117) and adjusted yards per attempt (11.45) on Sunday.
While Cutler’s become more of a game manager under Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, that’s both out of necessity due to the limited targets and overall offensive identity. The Bears’ 385 rushing attempts rank fourth in the league and already eclipse last year’s season total by 30.
Rookie running back Jeremy Langford has also proved to be an NFL talent but will be best suited as part of a committee. With running back Matt Forte headed for free agency, who will join Langford in the backfield next season?
More importantly, who will be creating pockets for Cutler and opening holes for Langford next season? Injuries have played a part in the offensive line’s struggles, but this group needs more talent both inside and out.
Right tackle Kyle Long had a few ciritical breakdowns in his pass protection sets against the Redskins. One led to a strip-sack of Cutler on first down in Redskins’ territory that doused an encouraging Bears’ drive. Obviously, Long will benefit from a full offseason of work at tackle, but is he best suited at left tackle?
Left ackle Charles Leno Jr. routinely surrendered the edge against the Redskins. While he’s been a pleasant surprise, his ability to hold a job shouldn’t preclude the team from seeking an upgrade.
Other than left guard Matt Slauson, the Bears don’t have another quality option at the position, making guard another offseason priority. The team spent a third-round pick on center Hroniss Grasu, a sign that they view him as the long-term solution. In games Grasu’s started, his lack of strength and inability to get movement on shade techniques has been glaring.
Against Washington defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, it looked like Grasu was wearing roller skates, as he was redirected against his will all game. Grasu won with leverage and quickness in college but must get significantly stronger if he’s going to play the pivot role for a run-heavy scheme.
With Bennett’s tenure in Chicago seemingly at the end, Miller stepped up as he has all season when given the opportunity. He caught his team-high fifth touchdown Sunday and looks to be an ideal No. 2/move tight end.
However, the loss exposed once again the paper-thin depth this team has at receiver. Eddie Royal was lured to Chicago with a nice sum of guaranteed money, but he hasn’t emerged as the slot threat he was signed to be.
Armed with ample free cap space, the Bears will allocate a big percentage of that for Jeffery. But will it be via a long term-deal, which is risky given his injury history? Or via a one-year, high-priced prove-you’re-worthy-of-long term-money franchise tag?
Will the Bears roll out their 2016 receiver plan of Jeffery, Kevin White and Royal and cross their fingers for health? Or hedge their bets with new players?
Defensively, if it wasn’t already the Bears’ top need for 2016 heading into the Redskins game, inside linebacker has risen to the top.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has used a three-man rotation to both get a look at some younger prospects and also out of necessity. The Bears simply don’t have two players with the full complement of run, pass, blitz, instincts and football intelligence necessary to make his scheme work.
From Shea McClellin to Jonathan Anderson to Jones, the Redskins mercilessly attacked the middle of the field. Tight end Jordan Reed had his way with the Bears’ linebackers, running option routes to separate, then gained extra yardage by breaking arm tackles.
Rookie Adrian Amos has emerged as a building block, but his move from free to strong safety hasn’t gone smoothly. He’s struggled when isolated in man coverage. As it is every offseason, safety’s a big need.
On a positive note, Bears outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston collapsed the pocket once again. On a team starved for consistent pass rush, one or both of them should remain next season. The Bears must now find a strong-side linebacker who’s more reliable in coverage.
Robbie Gould is slated to be the league’s highest-paid kicker in 2016. His recent performance is nowhere near his pay grade and will force the team to consider new options this offseason.
The silver lining of the Bears losing two straight games is they’ve improved their draft position from 17th to 10th. Given all the questions they have, they certainly shouldn’t be blinded by need when they’re on the clock.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.