When the Cincinnati Bengals host the Chicago Bears this Sunday, they will be facing a very unfamiliar foe, one they have only faced 10 times in their 50 years as an NFL franchise. With so little experience against this NFC North opponent, we spoke with Jeff Berckes of Windy City Gridiorn to get to know a little more about the Bengals’ Week 14 opponent.
Scott Schulze: The big story in the early part of the 2017 NFL Draft was the Bears moving up to select Mitch Trubisky, shortly after signing Mike Glennon for a big pile of money. I know his numbers haven’t been outstanding, but beyond the numbers, how as Trubisky looked so far this season? Are fans happy with what they have seen in him compared to having selected one of his fellow draftees like Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, or Patrick Mahomes?
Jeff Berckes: I don't know anymore. I got hammered pretty hard in the comments section last week for saying the trade up from #3 to #2 with San Francisco was "inexplicable". That was by a few fans that are very active, good readers on Windy City Gridiron. Part of my point was that I just couldn't figure out the team building choices of General Manager Ryan Pace at the time and I still can't square them with how I saw the Bears offseason in 2017. I couldn't understand the Mike Glennon decision at the time but I was willing to roll with it as it telegraphed to me a focus on drafting defensive players to try and make that unit elite. Once they moved up for Trubisky, and gave what I would consider significant capital to do it, I was among the harshest critics of those moves on our writing staff.
I was all on board for starting Trubisky as soon as possible as he is clearly the future of the franchise. Maybe it's because my expectations were so low, maybe it's because I think the team context is terrible, or maybe I'm getting soft, but I think he's looked good enough for me to give him a passing grade in his rookie year. The guy can sling it and he has the athletic ability to make plays with his feet. Every rep is crucial for this young man and I'm excited to see what he can do with a new coaching staff that has a plan for his development and a replenished set of receiving options.
As far as the fans, I think it's all over the board. DeShaun Watson's play before his injury has set the bar for the best QB in this draft class. We've yet to see Mahomes and Kizer has looked pretty bad. I suppose that's part of my frustration with the draft, sitting at 3, both Watson and Trubisky were on the board, the Bears could've sat still and taken what was there. The Bears brass liked Trubisky and made the move to ensure they got him. That certainly shows a strong commitment to Trubisky - and the GM's job will ride on how Trubisky develops. I'm hopeful he'll continue to develop and grow as a player - and he doesn't get swallowed up by this impatient media market.
SS: Despite a pair of good running backs in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, the Bears offense is currently ranked 30th in points scored and 31st in yards scored, not to mention dead last in passing yards with about 160 per game. Is there anything that teams are doing to them, which the Bengals should look to copy?
JB: Scott, c'mon man. You really need to throw numbers like that at me? I think as long as a professional football franchise puts 10 or 11 defensive minded players on the field, they can run just about any scheme and be successful. I'm not convinced that you couldn't get away with trying nine players every once in awhile. Basically, stack the box, stop the run, play man coverage against the Bears’ replacement-level wide outs, get off the field and hand the ball to your offense. The Bears like to run, run, pass and that uses up all of their creativity, so there isn't anything left over for the actual play designs / play calling. They rarely get into anything resembling a rhythm and if they do, they'll blow it with drops and penalties. Teams have brought additional pressure while others have sat back in coverage and the result seems to be about the same.
SS: Akiem Hicks has seemingly emerged as a pass rusher since joining the Bears. After a career high of 4.5 sacks before landing in Chicago, he had 7 sacks last year, and 7 sacks so far this year in only 11 games. How have the Bears been using him, and what seems to be working for their defense?
JB: He’s definitely a bright spot on this season, Hicks is a lot of fun to watch. It wouldn't surprise me if Hicks is the sole representative of the Bears in the Pro Bowl. If the team was playing at a higher level, I'd expect him to garner All-Pro consideration but I'm not so sure he'll get the benefit of the doubt on this squad. He's playing a ton of snaps - arguably too many - and that may be taking a toll on his effectiveness of late. I'm not sure they're doing anything special with him scheme-wise. He seems to have continued to grow as a player and his explosiveness off the line has simply overpowered many offensive linemen in his way.
SS: The Bears are currently 3-9 with close losses to the Vikings, Lions, 49ers and Falcons. With their kickers only making 12 of 18 field goals this season, are the Bears better than a 3-9 team, who is being undone by their kickers, or are there deeper roster issues that go beyond the struggling kickers?
JB: The struggles in the kicking game have had an impact, yes. The Bears let Robbie Gould go a couple years ago and all he's done is basically make every kick he's attempted - including 5 last week for the aforementioned 49ers to beat the Bears. Conner Barth was released after having a terrible season and Cairo Santos lasted about 5 minutes before he moved to injured reserve. The Bears are onto former Bengal Mike Nugent for this week, so we've got that going for us. Having said that, give the Bears Justin Tucker for the year and they're probably 5-7. That's obviously better than 3-9 and I do think that investing in a great kicker would be a smart thing for a team with such a small margin for error, but there are weaknesses throughout the roster. The receiving group needs a major influx of talent. Plus, the biggest factor is coaching - get a fresh mind into this team and develop professional game plans designed to win and see what this roster can do.
SS: Who wins this Sunday, and why?
JB: I don't know - I'm terrible at predictions. Given the nosedive of this Bears team, I think you'd have to be crazy to pick them this week. I just haven't had any confidence in the Bears’ 2017 season since dropping a home game against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers coming off a bye week. Add to that the Bears haven't played particularly well on the road, and the cards are stacked against them. The only thing that might be in their favor is that the Bengals are coming off a tough division loss on a short week. If the Bengals can't move on from that loss, the Bears will drag them into the mud and slug out an ugly game and try to steal one at the end...on the foot of Mike Nugent!
Thanks to Jeff and the group at Windy City Gridiron for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find Jeff on twitter @gridironborn.