By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) As I reviewed my notes from the Bears’ 38-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, which was undoubtedly the nadir of an overall dismal season, it read like so many previous game summaries — pre-snap misalignment, post-snap missed assignment, sloppy technique, poor fundamentals and physical breakdowns. Heck, I even went back to my first preseason impressions to see the same issues that appeared then remain four-plus months later.READ MORE: Woman Critical, 1 of 6 People Wounded In Lawndale Mass Shooting
After Sunday’s game, Bears coach John Fox said the team hasn’t improved since their Thanksgiving win against Green Bay.
As I reflected on Sunday’s game and took into account the consistent inconsistencies of this team, I expanded my scope and wondered: In which areas has this team improved over 14 games?
The answers to that question take far too long to process and aren’t very compelling.
To be fair, the Bears never played a single down this season with the starting lineup they envisioned using on offense. But that’s not an excuse, as every team deals with injuries.
The Bears started the season with a talent deficit and have dealt with the inescapable attrition every team goes through over the course of the season. The end result has become a unit that ranks in the bottom-third in scoring and is in the middle-third in every other major offensive category.
Their receivers can’t gain separation. The offensive line can’t be counted on to consistently create lanes or clean pockets. These factors have forced offensive coordinator Adam Gase to use a limited number of pages from his playbook due to the seemingly weekly churn of players, particularly those who catch passes.
Martellus Bennett, Marquess Wilson and Kevin White are all on injured reserve. Starters Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal have missed a combined 11 starts. It’s fair to question if Jeffery has ever been fully healthy this season, which makes his expiring contract situation an interesting offseason storyline to follow.
Breaking the season down into two seven-game halves, the Bears offense is averaging five more rushing yards per game over their last seven games. Their passing offense is averaging 21 more passing yards over their last seven games, but the Jimmy Clausen effect (184 passing yards in a six-quarter stretch from Week 2 to Week 3) must be taken into consideration.
Against the Vikings on Sunday, the Bears were dominated up front on both sides of the ball.READ MORE: Young Woman, 18, Dies After Being Shot In West Elsdon
After giving up 11 sacks from Week 5 through Week 13, Chicago’s offensive line has given up eight over their past two, with five coming against Minnesota. Jay Cutler was under duress early and often. Even on plays in which he was able to buy extra time by breaking the pocket, he was unable to find open receivers, leading to coverage sacks, which goes back to the receivers not being able to gain separation.
Chicago’s physical issues up front have led to a league-high 33 holding penalties, 15 of which have come over the past four games. These plays have been momentum and drive killers and have taken the team out of scoring position. Hroniss Grasu’s holding penalty on the first play from scrimmage Sunday wiped out a 35-yard gain, which would’ve given the Bears a first down at the Vikings’ 15-yard line.
Only 10 of the Bears’ 26 completions against the Vikings went to their receivers. Of those 10, the longest completion went for 14 yards. This group lacks explosiveness, and defenses are doing as they did last season, keeping their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to smother underneath passes and suffocate passing zones. The Bears’ route combinations aren’t prying receivers open, and the Vikings’ secondary quickly diagnosed tendencies they’d seen from Chicago in certain formations, personnel groupings and down-and-distance situations to jump on routes.
Defensively, the Bears’ back seven was a question mark heading into the season and has regressed each week.
It’s telling when the play of linebacker John Timu, an undrafted rookie free agent making his first NFL start, catches the imagination of fans. To Timu’s credit, he played fast, read his keys and attacked downhill. He was subbed out in nickel, and that’s where the Vikings did their most damage.
The Bears don’t have enough quality cornerbacks or coverage linebackers, and it shows up weekly. The Vikings used vertical clearouts to take the top off of the secondary, then attacked underneath with crossing and over routes. Bears defenders were frequently trailing receivers, allowing Teddy Bridgewater to make high-percentage throws over the middle of the field that led to explosive gains. The ball hit the ground only three times on Vikings’ pass plays, and Bridgewater’s 154.4 passer rating was the highest ever allowed by the Bears in team history.
One bright spot has been the play of outside linebacker Willie Young, who was the team’s best pass rusher last season and is the only player consistently collapsing the pocket, registering a sack in each of his past five games. He’s a year removed from an Achilles’ injury and has his quickness back off the edge. While he views himself as a defensive end, he’s proved to transcend scheme. Given he’s under contract at a bargain rate next season ($3.16 million), Young has been a positive development on a defense seeking answers.
The biggest bright spot over the Bears’ recent dark patch may be the efforts of return man Deonte Thompson, whose 32-yard kickoff return average is the highest in the league for players with at least 10 returns. He’s earned the right for consideration beyond this season.
After 14 games, you are what your record says you are. At 5-9, the only thing the Bears can potentially improve upon over the final two weeks is their draft position. Which at this point, all things considered, matters most, given their litany of needs.
For years, this team has always had more needs than available resources. With a top-11 pick (their current position) and nearly $60 million in projected cap space (assuming a $153 million cap, as has been reported), the Bears have an opportunity to radically overhaul a roster that’s in desperate need of change.MORE NEWS: Chicago Fire Paramedic's Cap Grazed At Stroger Hospital; Man Killed In Shooting Nearby
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.