Week 3 Recap: Good, or Good Luck?

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I finished last week’s piece by saying I still didn’t know who this Bears team was. And after Week 3, another nationally televised road victory, I still don’t know. And what I mean by that, is that I don’t know what I can count on seeing each week from the Bears. I have seen individual performances that have stuck out and specific concerns I see going forward, but as a unit I don’t know yet what type of team this is. And so early in the season that might not be a big deal as long as they are able to pull out wins the way they have been doing while they discover and establish their identity.

Jay Cutler has done a nice job bouncing back from a Week 1 that saw him making all of the Cutler-esque mistakes we’ve grown weary of seeing from him, and have questioned if they would ever be fixaible. The last two weeks Cutler has been accurate, avoided turnovers and managed both games effectively. He has thrown 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. Now I am aware that there have been several “almosts” in terms of turnovers, and Cutler is and always will be a guy who makes impossible looking throws with very little margin for error, but he has been completing them – including an incredible throw to Martellus Bennett on the first touchdown of the game Monday night. But the big difference is now seeing him throw the ball away and take sacks in those situations where his tendency is to force the throw. But what he has not done is turn the ball over, which I believe has been a major factor in these wins. And he has done it with his two top receivers at less than 100% and an ineffective run game.

But the thing that has struck me in these first few weeks has been the improvement of the defense. Still nowhere near the dominating defenses of the Lovie Smith era, but forcing turnovers, making red zone stops and putting the offense in a position to win games. They are taking the ball away at such a higher rate than they did last year, and many of the new players they brought in have been making significant impacts. Most notably for me, Willie Young and Kyle Fuller. The former currently leads the league in sacks, the latter in interceptions. That I did not see coming. And while this defense still isn’t dominating, some of these individual performances are doing enough to win these games until they can come together as a unit.

The biggest issue has been and continues to be injuries. Like I said, Marshall and Jeffrey are still not playing at 100%, and probably won’t be all year. The offensive line is still missing significant pieces, as is the defensive line. And in this game, the secondary was depleted to the point where we almost didn’t have anyone to put out there in the fourth quarter. And while these aren’t exactly Pro-Bowlers getting injured, they are significant role players on a team where depth is not exactly a strength. Its hard to develop an identity when you have a revolving door at this many positions.

So after three games the Bears are 2-1, and things don’t get any easier anytime soon. The next three weeks the Bears have the Packers at home, and then go on the roiad to face Carolina and Atlanta, all teams with playoff potential and explosive offenses. These last two games may have been won with a lot of luck, and they may need more in the coming weeks to stay over .500 heading into the bye week. Nobody is running away with the division right now. As we have learned, early season success doesn’t always mean playoff appearances. I can see this team putting together an 11 win season, and I can also still see them finishing the year 8-8 or 9-7 and missing the playoffs. They need to continue to improve on offense (particularly in the run game), find consistency on defense, win the turnover battle and most importantly, they need to get and stay healthy.

This week I’d like to see a step forward from the defense. They need to put pressure on Aaron Rogers and continue to stop the run, which starts with the defensive line. I want to see the rookies continue to progress as they will need to be a big part of that success. Cutler needs to continue to play smart – but most importantly, flawed as they may be, they just need to keep finding ways to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

Week 2 Recap: Bears Fight Back and Hang On

 

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If before the season started someone told me the Bears would be 1-1, I’d say that sounded about right. But I’d assume that meant a win at home against Buffalo and a loss in the new stadium against San Francisco. And even after losing in Week 1 the way they did, I did not count the Bears out on Sunday night. Going into Sunday, it didn’t look good for us – Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall were still questionable, the defense was coming off a pathetic performance against an underwhelming offense, and the 49ers were prepared to run all over us on opening night of their new digs. The script sounded like it had already been written. And as the game started, it sounded pretty accurate. After a “just don’t F it up” first three-and-out drive, the Bears’ punt was blocked and the 49ers very quickly made it 7-0. Yup. I rushed home, avoided all social media and normal human interaction for this? The hazards of being a Bears fan.

The Bears were playing not to lose. Partially paranoid about making some of the bad mistakes they made last week, and partially because of their injured receivers who, even though they played, looked slow and allowed the 49ers defense to focus on stopping the Bears’ short game. But despite the tough start, the defense was actually keeping them in the game. The turning point came with under two minutes left in the first half, when Jay Cutler took a helmet cannon to the sternum that left ME short of breath and clenching my chest. But there was something about Cutler’s face when he got up that struck me. I said out loud at that moment, “this is the turning point”. The next play was one of the most incredible catches I’ve ever seen, a one-handed grab by Brandon Marshall that looked like it could only have been made with “Stick um” like Rashid “Hot Hands” Hanon from “Little Giants”.

From that hit to the sternum on, Jay Cutler went 15-of-16 for 138 yards, four touchdowns & 0 interceptions. But it wasn’t just that. The Bears defense grew some kahones and ultimately kept the Bears in this game. Willie Young was Kyle Fuller, Derek Carrieroutstanding – Chris Conte made an interception flying through the air – rookie Kyle Fuller had two picks – Jared Allen was pressuring the quarterback. This was the defense we hoped to see. Not great, but forcing turnovers and doing enough to keep them in the game.

Now, we cannot talk about this game without at least acknowledging the fact that the 49ers accumulated about 800 yards in penalties. That didn’t hurt. They got some big breaks. But a win is a win, the Bears are now tied at 1-1 with everyone else in the division, and its all about what you learn. And I do think they learned some things this week. But I still have concerns. The special teams is atrocious on both ends. Injuries are starting to get out of hand on both sides of the ball – just before writing this it was reported that Charles Tillman will be out for the rest of the season. And the Bears still have a really difficult schedule ahead of them where the margin for error will be non-existent.

The Bears have an extra day off this week to recover, and then are back on the road and in prime time again on Monday night. I still don’t know what to expect from this team week to week. They have yet to establish an identity. But for at least the time being, they have given us all permission to take our collective heads out of our ovens.

New Year, New Look, Same old Bears

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books, and I needed to move beyond “Over-reaction Monday”. I needed to get past “Cash-in-the-season Tuesday”. I thought I’d be fine, but then came “When-does-hockey-start Wednesday”. Yes, it has been difficult recovering from the Bears’ Week 1 loss to the Bills. With such a front loaded schedule, this one was supposed to be the “gimme”. A new-look defense, an offense ready to take the next step after a break-out season and a quarterback finally ready to take the next step to elite. What we got was, new faces aside, the same old Bears.

So what went wrong this week? In a word, everything. It wasn’t a step back, it was something worse. It was a team showing no progress from last season. The run defense was non-existent, as were the linebackers. I mean, seriously. Did the Bears suit up any linebackers? The new defensive line couldn’t get anywhere near EJ Manuel. Jared Allen took over right where Julius Peppers left off – a shadow of his former self. This against a team that isn’t even expected to make the playoffs, and who didn’t even play that great of a game. This was absolutely unacceptable. For the first time maybe ever, this is a Bears defense without an identity. And that should concern us.

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The offense started the game off great. First drive of the game Cutler looked sharp and they utilized all of their weapons on that drive leading me to think this was what we were in store for the rest of the day. But that did not end up being the case. Matt Forte, who played the best game of anyone on either side of the ball for the Bears, was a major factor in the short passing game, but they went away from him too early in the run where he was not being stopped. And then the injuries started piling up. Roberto Garza and Matt Slausen left the game early with ankle injuries, and then Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey couldn’t stay on the field. So as much as I want to just blame Cutler for everything, he did have two new linemen and question about who would be lined up at receiver every time they left the huddle. But any hope of seeing a “new” Jay Cutler was quickly wiped away. For better or for worse, this was the same old Jay Cutler. The player who showed more poise and patience in the pre-season was no longer, replaced again by the erratic quarterback who in one moment made passes few others could make, and in the next decisions so dumb you’d never think you were watching a nine year veteran.

We thought we’d be getting a more predictable team coming into this season. A high-powered offense and a quarterback finally ready to reach his potential. A defense that wasn’t going to set any records, but would at least be an upgrade from last season. So should we be genuinely concerned? Or does this team still have hope of being the championship team we all hoped just hitting an early season speed bump? Well we won’t need to wait long to find out, as they’ll be tested by one of the elite teams in the NFL this Sunday night in Santa Clara. And sure I don’t see the Bears winning on the road in prime time against the 49ers, but doing so certainly restores hope back here in Chicago. Win or lose, we need to see a better team out there on Sunday.

Bears Pre-Season Check-In

LeSean McCoy, Jeremiah Ratliff

You know its baseball season in Chicago when we start getting excited to watch Bears Pre-Season games. With the dust settled from the crazy NBA free agency period, I am ready to dive headfirst into Bears football. And there is a lot to watch for the Bears entering their second season under Marc Trestman. So lets take a look at the good, the bad and what I’d like to see Friday against Seattle as we hit the half way point of the pre-season schedule.

THE GOOD

So far the first team offense has looked really good. It is the best Cutler has looked and the offensive line, even without Jordan Mills, has given Cutler all the time in the world in the pocket. Cutler looks really comfortable in the system and doesn’t appear to be forcing anything. I love the addition of Santonio Holmes, who is a low-risk signing at the league minimum, but could be a huge upgrade as a number three receiver. We haven’t seen much from Matt Forte, but, if the Bears can take another step forward from last season, this offense could be one of the best in the NFL.

THE BAD

The defense was historically bad last year and so far I have not seen any signs of that changing. Granted, it is only the pre-season and the Bears are a team with a lot of veteran players who understand not to go all-out and avoid injury before the season starts, but I feel like we should have seen more improvement than we have. Last week they let the Jacksonville offense do whatever they wanted drive after drive. The middle of the field still appears to be a huge hole and they are still not getting to the quarterback, even the the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. The safety position is still a big question mark and with Kyle Fuller tweaking his ankle we really haven’t gotten a chance to see what he can do yet. The special teams appears to be an issue again too. Coaches have underplayed the problems, siting a lot of new pieces learning the system, but it cannot be denied that the Bears still have big issues outside of Robbie Gould. Luckily the offense is good, but it could be helped if they can start with a shorter field and put less pressure on the defense.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

This is what I’m looking for going into the 3rd pre-season game where we should see the most of the first teamers. I want to see multiple quality scoring drives from the offense. I want to see them avoid third and long situations and I want to see dt.common.streams.StreamServermore from Matt Forte in the run game. I’d like to see what Holmes can do if they can get him up to speed and see if he clicks with Cutler and this offense.

I need to see the defense prove they can get stops, and what better way to do it than up against the Super Bowl champs. If they can get to Russell Wilson a few times or at least pressure him and limit the run, I’ll be really happy. Close those gaps over the middle of the field – I need to see more from the linebackers this week. We should see Chris Conte for the first time this week and he has a lot to prove to everyone.

No big lapses from special teams. No big returns given up and better protection for whoever they have back there returning kicks and punts.

The Bears front office made all the right moves to improve this team. And this is a great way to see what they are made of because if they want to make it far in the playoffs this year, that road will no doubt go through Seattle.

Bulls lose on stars, but could win with depth

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The last post I wrote was fresh off the Spurs’ NBA Championship, and I wrote about how their win over the Big 3 of Miami signified that teams can still win with teamwork over grouping stars. We were on the cusp of the off-season and the Bulls were tight on the trail of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love. And I’ll be honest, while my expectations were low, I was obsessed with this free agency period. Checking Twitter every few minutes, keeping SportsCenter on while I worked at all times, checking every NBA rumor site. I was hooked. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The thought of having our current roster along with Carmelo Anthony was making my basketball brain explode. But alas, this free agent period ended like all free agent periods in Chicago. We came up short. Carmelo stayed in New York, Love stayed in Minnesota (for now), LeBron went to Cleveland, Bosh and Wade stayed in Miami and Stephenson went to Charlotte. The Bulls made some moves, which I’ll focus on a bit later, but I think the best moves for the Bulls were those made by other teams. Carmelo stayed in New York on a team that is rebuilding instead of teaming up with LeBron somewhere and LeBron James went back to a young but talented Cleveland team, officially ending the Big 3 era. The East has become spread out for the first time since 2009 and as a result, is wide open.

The moves the Bulls made focused on depth, something they haven’t truly had since the 2010 season where they went to the Eastern Conference Finals. They added, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, Doug McDermott, and re-signed Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls are 11 deep if you count Tony Snell, who is having a very good Summer League, into the equation.

Obviously the biggest factor in their success this season is Derrick Rose. Will he play for an entire season and will he return to form. But assuming he does, because for our own mental health we have to, the Bulls have given Thibs reliable options off the bench so he doesn’t run the same six players into the ground the way he did the last two years. Hopefully he’ll be able to follow the Spurs’ model I wrote about in my last post and take advantage of his depth to allow his top players to be fresh come playoff time. Here is my take on the new Bulls.

Pau Gasol: Veteran, great passer, scorer and rebounder. Takes Boozer’s spot, should have numbers about as good as Boozer at his best, with fewer bonehead plays and screams for Jo to “get that”. Interested to see how much he has left in the tank but Pau strikes me as the kind of guy with a skill set that can last him well into his later years if his minutes are managed (which is no guarantee with this coach). Creates are really exciting 3 man big rotation with Jo and Taj, and should be lethal running the pick-and-roll with DRose. He has championship experience and is obviously highly respected by the Bulls.

Nikola Mirotic: Honestly, a big fat question mark, and the best bet is probably not to set expectations too high for him for a while. However, a stretch 4 as your 8th or 9th man with the potential to be a solid shooter and a matchup nightmare is great to have. As long as he isn’t depended on to heavily early on, and my guess knowing Thibs is he won’t be, he could be a really interesting piece. And after waiting on him for three years, I’m just excited to see him out there.

Doug McDermott: I watched a little of him in Summer League, and while I agree with the qualifier “its summer league”, this guy could be really, really good. He is an incredible shooter – the comparisons to Kyle Korver are dead on. Moves well without the ball and has a very quick release. But he is big and can get to the hoop as well, which is something Korver never did. Thibs tends to “red shirt” his rookies, but I can see this guy very quickly eating up Dunleavy’s minutes.

Aaron Brooks: I think this is a great signing. Not only as the Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin, etc. DRose insurance plan, but as a legit 1 who can come off the bench and score. He can give Rose some rest and also allow Hinrich to move over to the 2 in some lineups. Also gives the Bulls a very interesting option to go small and fast with he and Rose together. A trusted veteran who Thibs can trust now allows this team to go a legit 11 deep.

 

Big “T” Over Big 3

 

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Over the last couple weeks, I’ve thought a lot about writing something about how this trend of stars teaming up is not good for the NBA. How I missed the old days when the best players wanted to play AGAINST each other. And we felt the same way as fans. I wanted to see MJ vs. Magic, not with Magic. Thats what the Dream Team was for. Players were competitors, who didn’t become friends until long after their playing days were over. Now they’re all friends. I started to think as a Bulls fan, well, if you can’t beat em, join em. Lets not choose between Melo and Love, lets get BOTH Melo and Love. Super teams are apparently the only way to win now.

And then I watched this year’s NBA Finals, which concluded with the Spurs completing a 4-1 series win last night over the Heat. The Spurs are the anthesis of the new age super team. They are a team with a core built from the ground up through the draft, with role players from free agency filling gaps. They are not flashy, you won’t see them in commercials, but you will see them play fundamental basketball the way it was meant to be played. So to see them beat the Big 3 so handily helped restore my faith in the NBA. I wasn’t just happy that the Heat lost, but I was thrilled that the Spurs were the team that did it. I’ve always been a fan of the way they play and the way they run their organization, from the days of David Robinson to the present. Tim Duncan is my favorite non-Bulls NBA player of all time. But just look at the team they’ve put together. They are filled with late first round or second round draft picks, free agents picked off the slush pile, and international players. No big stars teaming up, no max contracts, no celebrity status. And it doesn’t escape me that the Spurs won because their defense just flat out shut down the Heat.

So this brings me back to the Bulls, and the thought that they should be modeling their team after the Spurs, not the Heat. They have the smart, defensive minded head coach. They have a solid core of home grown players. So what is missing that will put this team over the edge? They need to be able to score. They aren’t just missing one players – they need more of a “pick your poison” team. Players like Danny Green, and Patty Mills need to fill out their bench. Guys that are a threat with the ball. Doesn’t have to be a star, doesn’t have to average 30 points a game. Just needs to be a guy that scares you if he’s open. The current Bulls don’t have that guy. Rose is the closest thing they have but who knows what he’ll be when/if he comes back for a full season. Maybe that player is Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love, or maybe its someone we haven’t talked about yet. But the Bulls aren’t as far from elite as we think. They need to stay healthy, and Tom Thibodeau needs to take a page out of Pop’s book and learn how to evenly distribute his minutes and allow his players to be at their best come playoff time. These are potentially easy fixes, and watching the Spurs in this finals has me off my thought that the Bulls needed to just clean house and find stars. NBA Championships can still be won the right away. The Spurs proved it, and the Bulls can too.

Oh Bulls, I just can’t quit you

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No matter how lost the last two seasons have seemed, I cannot quit these Bulls. No matter how many times they are counted out or how many star players to lose, the Bulls continue to be not only fun to watch, but one of the top tier teams in the NBA who could beat anyone on any given night. After Derrick Rose was lost for the season for the second year in a row, I was ready to cash in all of my chips on these Bulls. Trade away their assets, tank and hope for good draft position going into next year. But for the second year in a row, the Bulls refused to quit. They refused to listen to their critics and they again find themselves one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. Last year was a fun team to watch. Nate Robinson was worth the price of admission and kept the Bulls in several games they should not have otherwise been in. But injuries plagued them all year and by the time they hit round two, they just didn’t have enough to compete with. But as much as Robinson and Marco Bellineli were fun to watch and made big plays, they also made a lot of mistakes that had me yelling at them in frustration almost as much as I did in joy.

Yet somehow this year’s team, with no Rose and no Deng, is a much more fundamentally sound team. DJ Augustin can score off the bench, but can also play defense and makes his teammates around him better. Mike Dunleavy can hit the perimeter shot, but also has size over almost ever small forward in the league. Taj Gibson is improved his scoring, continues to be a force on defense, and now closes every game. Jimmy Butler’s game has improved, and he has settled almost seamlessly into the Deng role. And coach Tom Thibodeau just flat out knows how to get the best out of his players, and put a team capable of winning on the floor every single night.

But the biggest difference is the emergence of Joakim Noah as a leader, a legitimate difference maker, and the heart of this team. Noah’s energy and enthusiasm makes him fun to watch, but its his winning attitude that makes this less of a “try-hard bunch” and more of a team who could make a legitimate playoff run in an overall weak conference. And that is what makes them so intriguing to me this year. They are not the “Little Engine That Could” team they were last year. They play as a team, they have no selfish players, and its no longer a surprise when they beat a good team. So even when they lose like they did last night, they always bounce back. So as a fan, they don’t leave you down for too long. And why I just can’t quit these Bulls.