"In The Know" is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. Larry Mayer, senior writer for ChicagoBears.com, gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent, the Chicago Bears.*
Jay Cutler is entering his 11th season in the NFL and he seemed to really turn things around last year. What are the expectations for Cutler now in his second season under John Fox?
Mayer: Well you know, it's really interesting because last year, what he did was he really limited his mistakes that had been hurting him in previous years. He's always had the big arm and could make any throw, threw a lot of touchdown passes, but he always had interceptions along with it. Under Adam Gase last year, he really limited that. So the interesting thing to me this year is to watch with Adam Gase in Miami now and Dowell Loggains taking over as offensive coordinator, who was the quarterbacks coach last year, are they going to open up the offense a little bit more than they did last year? Or will they continue to throw short and avoid turnovers?
One factor is that the top four receivers the Bears had last year were all injured, so they went into the season playing with some guys they weren't really expecting to play. I think that played a role in being more conservative than they wanted to, but I thought Jay deserved a lot of credit for last year – for limiting his mistakes, and obviously the hope this year is that he builds on last year, which is considered his best as a Bear.
How about the departure of Matt Forte? How different does this Bears offense look from last year to this year and what's that whole transition been like?**
Mayer: First of all, in terms of the changes on offense, I think one of the positives is that they did elevate that quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Some people outside of Chicago might think that's a huge change but really, they are employing the same offense they did last year with just a couple minor tweaks. It should be a pretty easy transition, but you did mention Matt Forte leaving.
John Fox, throughout his coaching career in Carolina and Denver, has always liked employing the backfield by committee, so they are planning on doing that and they feel like they have a couple of really good running backs. Jeremy Langford is a guy that came in as a rookie last year and performed very well. Ka'Deem Carey was drafted a couple of years ago and Jordan Howard was selected in the 5th round this year, so they have three promising backs and their going to try – everybody does it a little bit different in terms of their strengths and what they bring to the field – so, I think you're going to see them mixing those guys in a lot with Jeremy Langford starting.
Alright, let's switch gears and talk about defense with the injury to pass rusher Pernell McPhee. Who has stepped up in place for the Bears defense?
Mayer: Well, that's a really interesting question. They really improved their front seven on defense over the offseason, but I'm going to give you the names of two guys that were actually here last season and those were outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston.
A year ago right now, both of them were going into their first time ever in a 3-4 defense. At least that was the case for Willie Young. They had not played that position before with the Bears. They were both coming off serious leg injuries, did not practice in training camp and really started slow. A year later, they are entering their second year in the system. They finished one and two, even despite having Pernell McPhee on the team last year. They finished one and two in sacks last year, so I expect them to really take off this year and really pick up where they left off last year.
They got off to a slow start because they were coming off serious injuries but they really, really fit in well with the defense after learning it and those are going to be two guys to watch. They are both expected to start on Sunday.
On Texans Radio we have a segment called "Optimista/Pessimista" and I'm going to pose a different version towards you. Coming out of training camp, what's the position group that you feel the most optimistic about and the one you feel pessimistic about, and why?
Mayer: Okay, that's a good question. I would say probably the wide receivers, especially after last year. Kevin White, our number one draft pick, the 7th overall pick in the 2015 draft, missed his entire rookie season with a leg injury. Alshon Jeffery was hurt on and off all year. He had four different types of injuries. Eddie Royal was hurt a lot last year too. Marquess Wilson missed the year too, so that's your top four receivers are missing. This year they are all back with the exception of Marquess Wilson and I think the receiving group has a lot of potential, especially with Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White - two very big physical guys to have a great season and really give the offense a lift.
In terms of being pessimistic, I would probably say the one area that I question – and it's really only because of youth – is the secondary. The Bears are very young, especially at safety. They are going to start the season with two second-year pros and Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey, who both got their feet wet last year starting the whole season. Quartey came in after being with the Arizona Cardinals in training camp and Adrian Amos was a guy that was really a surprise contributor. He was picked in the 5th round of last year's draft and ended up leading the Bears in tackles last year, although he didn't really make a lot of impact plays.
The Bears defense forced 15 turnovers all of last season, so that's one area they're really trying to focus on, and again, they have a very young secondary and they're expecting some of these guys to really step up. They selected three corners, three defensive backs, in this year's draft. They are counting on some contributions from those guys as well. It's the kind of thing to monitor over the season but I'm not really that pessimistic there because they do have some talent and some depth, but they're mostly young.
It's rare that a kicker makes big news but in the Chicago Bears case, Robbie Gould was released after 11 seasons in Chicago. Why did that happen now and was this a move that everybody there was expecting or did it come to a surprise just like it did everybody else?
Mayer: No, it was a pretty big shocker in and around Chicago.
Like you said, Robbie Gould has been the all-time leading – is the all-time leading scorer in Bears history. He has been here 11 years. That's very rare. I think it was just a matter of wanting to improve the team and the Bears looked at Connor Barth as a guy who was in a competition in New Orleans, and basically, he was looked at as a guy who, 'hey, if this guy becomes available, we have to consider it.' And that's why they made the move, pretty much. Because Connor Barth got cut by the Saints, lost out on a competition with Kai Forbath.
It's not a matter of like, 'oh my god, we have to replace Robbie. Who is out there?' If that was the case, they would have gotten someone during training camp or preseason, they would have brought him in to compete with Robbie. It was more so, 'hey, is this an upgrade or is this not an upgrade?' and they felt that Connor Barth would be an upgrade. They really like what he's done, especially from 40-yards or less. He's only missed one field goal from that range over the last couple years and it was obviously a very, very tough decision.
Robbie is a really popular player, not only in the locker room, but in the city. He does a lot of charity work, he's very well-known. A lot of people just kind of scoff, 'oh it's just a kicker,' but Robbie was more than that coming in here as a rookie in 2005. He was also the last player left from the Super Bowl team in 2006, and that makes Jay Cutler the most – interestingly – the longest tenured Bear, having arrived in 2009.
What are some of the big story lines for the Bears heading into this week's game against the Texans?
Mayer: Well, I would say the No. 1 is the offensive line, and the Bears were really fortunate when John Fox was suddenly available when no one thought he would be when he left Denver and they hired him last year.
A similar situation happened this week with their biggest rival. That's the Green Bay Packers. All of a sudden, out of nowhere really, they decided to cut Josh Sitton, who has been a three-time Pro-Bowler. He was in the Pro Bowl last year. He's only 30 years old. He's considered one of the best guards in football. I wouldn't say guard was a huge weakness for the Bears. They have Kyle Long, who is probably their best player, also a three-time Pro Bowler, but Josh Sitton was a guy that really was too good to pass up.
They brought him in here, and there's a lot of enthusiasm and excitement for what he's going to bring here in terms of upgrading the line. I would say that's probably the number one area that everyone's talking about and getting excited about at this point, especially moving forward. I mentioned the wide receivers all being back, but especially playing against the Texans and J.J. Watt. I think there has been a lot of focus on the offensive line.
The Texans host the Bears on Sunday at NRG Stadium. Kickoff is set for noon CT on FOX-26 and SportsRadio 610.