Ten thoughts after the Chicago Bears fell 20-14 to the Detroit Lions on Sunday for their fourth consecutive loss.
1. In case of emergency, break glass.
If you need a fire extinguisher, you can only hope it works after you break the glass. When you smash the glass on your quarterback depth chart and turn to the backup, you can only hope he provides adequate play.
My biggest takeaway from the Bears' quarterback situation during the loss to the Lions was that Jimmy Clausen looks to have set himself up for the next several seasons. Clausen didn't do anything spectacular but against the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense, he was better than many expected, completing 23 of 39 passes for 181 yards with two touchdowns. The interception at the end was bad. He stared down Alshon Jeffery, allowing Glover Quin to break on the ball from the middle of the field and make a play on a low-percentage throw on fourth-and-10 from the Bears' 45-yard line.
Nothing splashy, but Clausen showed he’s been paying attention all season and he was ready to play despite having only two practices to prepare as Jay Cutler’s replacement. That’s the gig for a backup quarterback. He has to be ready to go anytime. It’s a tremendous lifestyle. The pay is great. The backup doesn’t live with the pressure the starter carries around. He likely can put together a pretty good golf game, and a quality backup can last a long time in the NFL. But when the backup is called upon, he has to be able to perform. Jonathan Quinn was a backup living that comfortable lifestyle for six seasons before the Bears signed him in 2004 because he knew the offense Terry Shea was installing. When Rex Grossman was injured, Quinn was forced into action and failed spectacularly. Quinn was out of the league soon after.
Clausen, 27, figures to start Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium when the Bears close out the season in the NFC North Third-Place Bowl against the Vikings. Coach Marc Trestman said he's not prepared to name his starting quarterback yet but the bet here is it is Clausen. The relationship between Trestman and Cutler is fractured. Pay no attention to what they said last week. Cutler was particularly skilled in taking the high road but they're done with one another.
The Bears under Cutler may have had a shot at driving the 79 yards needed to score a winning touchdown at the end of Sunday's game. Nobody sensed Clausen could put the offense on his back and carry it but he gave a spirited effort, especially when Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah drilled him with a helmet-to-helmet hit that gave the Bears 15 yards and likely will cost Ansah a pretty penny. That moved the offense out to the 45-yard line with 2:18 remaining, but Clausen threw three straight incompletions before the pick as the game ended. He didn’t get any help from wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who had a bad drop on third down and had the ball knocked out by cornerback Darius Slay on second down. It was as bad a game as Jeffery has had in his three-year career. More on him later.
Clausen was generally decisive with where he needed to go with the ball and Trestman said he whittled down the call sheet because of the reduced preparation time. This time around, Trestman wasn't scared off by the No. 1-ranked run defense of the Lions and he involved Matt Forte, who got 19 carries for 55 yards. Definitely would have helped Cutler had he run more with Forte in the first meeting at Ford Field.
It’s impossible to say what lies ahead for Clausen but he was out all last season as he recovered from shoulder surgery and he was on the street until the Bears signed him in the first week of June. Provided he doesn’t bomb out against an underrated Vikings defense, he ought to have enough tape for teams to take a look at him and have some interest.
But no one should be doing cartwheels reviewing Clausen's performance because had Cutler completed 23 of 39 passes for 181 yards – 4.64 yards per attempt – he would have been criticized. It's about winning and the Bears only scored 14 points. That's not enough to get the job done.
2. The play of the game was the 46-yard pass interference penalty against Tim Jennings.
The veteran cornerback got caught in bad position playing off man and bail technique against Corey Fuller. The Lions were facing third-and-10 from their own 37-yard line and Matthew Stafford went for the low-percentage bomb when Fuller got wide open as Jennings failed to turn and run in time. Routes break between 12 and 15 yards and at 17 yards he needed to go. He was slow to transition and Fuller got on top of him and beyond him easily. The problem for the Lions was the pass hung up forever and was underthrown. But Jennings was out of control and couldn’t slow down to avoid what was a painfully obvious interference penalty. Had he turned and run from the get-go, he would have been in perfect position to bat the ball down and maybe even pick it off.
The penalty didn't just move the chains, it moved the Lions half the field. The penalty was the second long pass interference call on Jennings this season. He was called for a 53-yard penalty in the Week 10 blowout at Lambeau Field trying to cover Jordy Nelson.
With one game remaining, Jennings has yet to make an interception after totaling 15 in the previous three seasons. Jennings is like a lot of guys on the Bears' defense: He hasn’t put together the kind of season he’d like and he simply hasn’t made enough impact plays, certainly not enough for someone who got a well-deserved contract extension. The long penalty in this case set up Joique Bell’s 17-yard touchdown run that put the Lions ahead 17-14 with 7:15 to play. If Jennings doesn’t get badly out of position and then out of control, the Lions are punting and the Bears have the ball midway through the fourth quarter with the lead.
3. Sunday's biggest development for the Bears may have happened in South Florida, where Dolphins owner Stephen Ross announced that Joe Philbin will return as the team's coach in 2015. Philbin has been on the hot seat since the end of last season and most figured he was a goner unless he managed to guide his team to the playoffs. The Dolphins will not be part of the postseason, but they rallied for a 37-35 victory over the Vikings on Sunday to improve to 8-7.
What does it mean for the Bears? It reduces by one the number of teams that will be in the market for a head coach. There have been rumors for months that Ross would be driven to swing a trade with the 49ers to acquire coach Jim Harbaugh. So, Harbaugh isn’t going to the Dolphins now. That doesn’t necessarily increase the chances he comes to the Bears. I find it hard to believe the Bears will fork over draft-pick compensation for Harbaugh and/or pay a head coach $8 million or more per season, the amount he reportedly has been offered by Michigan. I don’t know if the Raiders will pony up that kind of coin for Harbaugh but I’d be extra skeptical of the chances that Harbaugh returns to the team that drafted him.
4. Christian Jones looked pretty natural playing weak-side linebacker and I am interested to see how many tackles coaches credit him with after they finish film review. He was given 11 solo tackles in press box statistics and the undrafted rookie from Florida State looks like a player the Bears can count on moving forward at a bargain rate. What's impossible to say is how instinctual he will become. The measurables are all there, though. This is a guy who can turn and run with the tight end and blitz the quarterback. He was helping over Calvin Johnson at one point in the red zone. What we don't know is who the coach will be next season, who the defensive coordinator will be and what kind of scheme they will employ. But you figure the Bears will be in a 40 front in 2015 and maybe Jones has a chance to take over the position that was held for so long by Lance Briggs. Jones has better measurables but Briggs had super-high awareness, even as a young player. He was like a magnet to the ball and he didn't get fooled often. Briggs was also a lot quicker than you might think. His lateral movement was terrific. Jones has the physical tools. It's going to take a lot of work for him to get better but he's got a chance to be a contributor moving forward.
5. I don't know what to make of Lions center Dom Raiola
coming down on the outside of Ego Ferguson’s right ankle with his left foot. The replays don’t look good and it certainly looks more sinister in slow motion. Raiola was under scrutiny last month for a cut block in the closing moments of a loss to the Patriots. Raiola was upset New England scored when Bill Belichick’s team could have run out the clock by kneeling down. In this instance, he came across Ferguson at the end of a play.
"I did not try to stomp on his ankle," Raiola said after the game. "I am not going to try to take somebody out of the game. I apologized at the end of the game and he accepted my apology. That's it."
We’ll see if the NFL weighs in on the matter. Ferguson had the ankle wrapped up and returned to the game, so at least he wasn’t seriously injured.
"I haven't seen the replay but I am pretty sure I know what happened," Ferguson said. "I told the man to keep it between the lines. He said a couple words during the game and a couple words at the end of the game but at the end of the day, it's on the film. The film don't lie."
6. Really tough break for Willie Young
as he faces a long rehab from a torn Achilles tendon. Young turned in a strong season with 10 sacks, proving to be a terrific signing on a three-year, $9 million deal.
Young was playing well before his playing time expanded with Lamarr Houston's torn ACL in Week 8 at New England. In fact, the coaching staff clearly was adjusting and giving Young additional snaps before that point.
“This has been a very interesting year for me,” Young said. “It’s exciting at the same time just to see us grow and with this team dealing with this type of adversity when next year comes around, there’s not going to be anything we can’t deal with. We won’t be new to anything. We have seen everything you can possibly see.”
His previous high for sacks in a season was three and he blew that away in September. What did Young learn about himself?
“The sky is the limit,” he said. “Everybody wants to get to double-digits and it means a lot. It says a lot. It’s fun getting that 10.”
Young joked about having an injury despite wearing a walking boot, but when he was wished luck, he gave serious thanks.
7. For as many snaps as Eben Britton has had on offense
since last season playing as a tackle eligible, essentially another tight end, it was great to see him fire out of his stance on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line early in the second quarter. Britton has joked about waiting for his chance to catch a pass and if memory serves me correctly, he ran two pass routes last season without being targeted.
He was the last read for Jimmy Clausen on this play but the quarterback floated the ball toward him in the back of the end zone. Running back Matt Forte made a poor effort to pick up rushing defensive end Jason Jones and Jones and blitzing linebacker Ashlee Palmer forced Clausen to roll right. What was Britton thinking as the ball left Clausen's hand?
“I was like, 'Here it is, I am going to score a touchdown and help this team win a game,'” he said. “They made a great play and that is just how it goes. Maybe if I had a few more reps at going up and getting balls, I could have come back and made a play to try and get it. I didn’t and things happen quick when you are down there. It didn’t work out.”
Cornerback Darius Slay had time to peel off tight end Dante Rosario and bat the ball down. Britton was open in front of safety Glover Quin. Tight end Martellus Bennett wound up being called for offensive pass interference on the play. He knocked linebacker Josh Bynes down at the line of scrimmage. Clausen still had the ball when the hit, basically at the line of scrimmage, was made. Officials must have deemed Bennett to be guilty of a pick play.
“He ran into me,” Bennett said. “I didn’t see him. I don’t know. I was going the other way anyway so he shouldn’t have called it on me. There wasn’t any reason for me to set a pick. It was a (garbage) call. I’m like Shaq out there. They grab me all day and do stuff to me all day but they never call it. If I run into somebody, they fall down and it’s on me.”
I don't buy that Bynes ran into Bennett but I'm also not sure it was a pick play.
8. What made the Bears more effective covering Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate
than in the first meeting last month at Ford Field? They made a concerted effort to play some press man and give the cornerbacks a chance to jam the wide receivers and re-route them at the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker made the adjustment and the Bears should have been more physical the first time around. Rookie Kyle Fuller has good size and will only get stronger and he needs this tool in his tool box moving forward.
9. Center/guard Brian de la Puente is recovering from surgery to reattach a torn tendon in his right ankle suffered in the Dec. 4 loss to the Cowboys at Soldier Field. The good news? It could have been much worse. De la Puente is wearing a walking boot and has some crutches but he's expecting to ditch them soon.
“It’s not too long,” de la Puente said. “I am in this for another week or two. Then start rehabbing and getting strength back. It was relatively simple, just reattaching it. I will probably be back full-go February-ish so it is really a quick deal.”
De la Puente signed on a one-year contract and I asked him if he's hoping to return.
“I really enjoyed playing here and playing in front of these fans," he said. "I do think there is a good team in this locker room. To be a part of that, that rebuilding and that getting on track, yeah, I could see myself back here. There is a lot that is going to happen between now and then so we’ll have to figure that out. There are a lot of moving parts.”
Those moving parts will start with a likely coaching change.
10. This was a particularly bad game for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
He didn’t do what he needed to in order to help his quarterback. Jeffery’s numbers entering the season finale aren’t bad. He has 83 receptions for a team-high 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns. His average of 13.2 yards per catch is solid. But Jeffery hasn’t shown an attention to detail that is required. He has six penalties, tied for the fourth-most on the team, including four false starts. I’m interested to re-watch the game and count the drops. There has to be at least three. And alligator arms. Sure, the game didn’t mean anything for the Bears in the grand scheme of things but this isn’t the kind of game tape that is going to earn Jeffery the kind of second contract he’s envisioning for himself. Not good.
10 a. The final 2015 regular-season schedule will come down to the NFC North Third-Place Bowl at TCF Bank Stadium. If the Bears win, they will finish third in the division and will host the New York Giants and travel to the New Orleans Saints next season. If the Vikings win, the Bears will finish in fourth place and host the Washington Redskins and travel to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season. So, there is more than just draft position at stake in Week 17.
10 b. Big special teams game for Sherrick McManis, who recovered the ball when it bounced off Lions punt returner Jeremy Ross for a takeaway and made two tackles. That’s the kind of leadership the Bears have expected from McManis all season. Young players have been taking turns making plays and DeDe Lattimore, an undrafted rookie from South Florida, has made real strides since midseason.
"Basically, I'm just starting to pick up, and I've got a lot of vets like Danny McCray and Macs (McManis) that's helping me along the way," said Lattimore, who is starting in four phases. "Just starting to get more comfortable, just starting to make plays now.
“As the weeks went by, I feel like I have picked up very well the speed of the game. I feel like I'm developing myself out there and just starting to fly around. Just flying around and doing my assignment and making plays. Now it's more natural because I've been out there. Now I'm starting to get used to the situation and starting to pick it up every game.”
10 c. Veteran cornerback Charles Tillman took a mini-lap around Soldier Field during halftime and was shaking hands with fans in the front row and posing for a few pictures. Tillman has to know there is a chance it was the final game for him at Soldier Field as a member of the organization. He probably knows it meant a lot to those fans, too.
10 d. Matt Forte has 94 receptions so he will need eight against the Vikings to pass Larry Centers for the NFL single-season record for catches by a running back. That will require a lot of checkdowns by Jimmy Clausen. Forte needs 13 yards rushing against the Vikings to reach 1,000.
10 e. Opponents have gained 753 more yards than the Bears this season, but both have 310 first downs. How about that?