By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) While NFL players spend all year tuning their bodies and honing their craft, in the end, all they get is 16 days to do their job. Even in a lost season in which the Bears’ players will become spectators after next Sunday’s finale against the Detroit Lions, winning sure feels better than losing.READ MORE: R. Kelly Found Guilty Of All Counts In Sex Trafficking, Racketeering Trial
Moving down in the draft order isn’t a concern for the 46 players who suited up for this past Sunday’s 26-21 road win over the Tampa Bay Bucs. Nearly half of them, 21 to be exact, will be free agents at the end of the year. They’re auditioning for not only their current bosses but 31 other teams as well.
Yes, the Bears have needs that will still outweigh their ample cap space — only Oakland has less committed to its 2016 payroll than Chicago — and nine draft picks, so acquiring assets behooves them. But the resolve the depleted roster showed Sunday was indicative of the leadership and togetherness the team possesses.
The Bears paid homage to former coach Lovie Smith by beating him at his own game. The won the turnover battle (plus-three) and used a conservative offensive game plan in which they ran the football (174 rushing yards), possessed the football (plus-14 minutes) and, save for a last-second hail mary, held the Bucs to 14 points, with spare parts.
Two of the three receivers the Bears started the game with — Josh Bellamy and Marc Mariani — didn’t catch a pass last season. Neither did their top receiver for the game, tight end Zach Miller. Running back Ka’Deem Carey had one career touchdown prior to Sunday, yet scored twice against the Bucs. Defensively, two undrafted rookies — safety Harold Jones-Quartey and linebacker John Timu — figured in all three of the the turnovers the defense forced.
It could’ve worked out much differently for the Bears, as they dug themselves an early hole.
On the Bears’ second punt of the game, LaRoy Reynolds — who was lined up as the left tackle on the punt protection team — assumed a hold up and not a rush. He used a quick rip move to evade Jeremiah George instead of blocking him, leaving a clear path to block Pat O’Donnell’s punt. The ball was recovered by Tampa, which punched it in one play later with Doug Martin.
On their fourth offensive drive of the game, the Bears avoided disaster. The Bucs sniffed out a screen to Jeremy Langford, on which Gerald McCoy tipped the pass that was intercepted by William Gholston and returned to the Bears’ 16-yard line. However, a facemask penalty by Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner wiped the play out.
The Bears didn’t show any panic Sunday. Rather, they stayed the course. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase used his base concepts — bubble and tunnel screens, mirrored route combinations — with some packaged plays for quarterback Jay Cutler as well as a few new wrinkles with personnel groupings and alignments to work the ball down the field.
Gase took advantage of the hard-charging, one-gap penetrating style of the Bucs’ defensive front and used a variety of traps and quick hitters with defined aiming points to get running backs to the second level untouched. Once again, all three running backs were used in a variety of schemes, alignments and assignments.
Both Langford and Carey were used as lead backs in I-formations on dives, something the team hadn’t shown on film this season. The end result was a 4.5-yards-per-carry average and 12 of the team’s 19 first downs coming on the ground. With Matt Forte set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Bears have two young backs on the roster, with whom Gase has shown he can move the football with.READ MORE: Chicago Collegiate High School Student Facing Possible Charges After Bringing Loaded Gun To School
Amid all the injuries at receiver this season, Cutler has developed a strong chemistry with Miller. Gase lined Miller up at the wing, in the slot and on the outside to get him free releases on flat routes, option routes, slants and curls in the voids of the Bucs’ zone defenses. Given Martellus Bennett’s uncertain future with the team, Miller has proved to be a reliable No. 2 option as a move tight end.
After a few shaky performances, the offensive line rebounded in a big way against an aggressive and fast Tampa Bay front. Right tackle Kyle Long, in particular, was dominant on the edge. He controlled his engagements and provided sturdy pockets for Cutler to operate from.
Defensively, the Bears’ youth moment came up big.
The defensive line held the point of attack against the run. They held Martin to his second-lowest yards-per-carry average this season (2.9 yards). The defensive line held its engagements, while Chicago’s young linebackers and safeties filled violently downhill and finished their tackles.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio threw a variety of coverages at rookie Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, congesting his front-side throwing lanes and forcing him to read the entire field to find third and fourth options in his progression, which is a difficult task for a young quarterback to do consistently.
A defense’s strength is typically up the middle. For several snaps, the Bears played with five rookies up the middle, three of which were undrafted (Timu, Jones-Quartey and Jonathan Anderson), yet all of them made crucial plays.
In his second career game, Timu once again made his presence felt. He makes up for his athletic shortcomings with instincts and quickly locates the football. At the collision point, he’s a sure, aggressive tackler. He recovered two fumbles forced by Anderson and Jones-Quartey, which the offense converted into 10 points.
Of the group, Jones-Quartey had the most impact on the outcome of the game. On a promising Bucs drive, the Bears sent a blitz, which sped up Winston’s timing. As a result, he threw an off-balance jump ball to Mike Evans, which Jones-Quartey intercepted to keep points off the scoreboard.
While the efforts of these three undrafted rookies is encouraging, it won’t prevent the team from upgrading at each of their positions. Chicago desperately needs more help at linebacker and safety. What the improved play of the youngsters does is provide the Bears with cheaper depth and competition at the position. This could free up roster spots and cash currently allocated to veterans, which the Bears need as they upgrade the roster this offseason.
With one game left, the Bears (6-9) are playing for each other. While the future is the focus, it’s uncertain for many on this roster. They have one final chance to make their case to stick on this roster and be a part of the turnaround.
Despite a tough season, this team hasn’t quit on each other or their coaches, which proves the messaging from this coaching staff resonates with the roster.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Fast Temperature Drop Monday Afternoon
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.