Bears loose at tight end

Woe­ful lack of pro­duc­tion at cru­cial po­si­tion among prime of­fen­sive headaches

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BEARS - Bear Es­sen­tials Brad Biggs

Of all the dis­ap­point­ments on of­fense for the Bears this sea­son, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the tight end is the most dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. The po­si­tion has been over­stocked with seven play­ers, in­clud­ing two on the prac­tice squad, for much of the year.

Other than wide re­ceiver Allen Robin­son, just about ev­ery facet of the Bears of­fense has been un­der­whelm­ing. You don’t rank 27th in the league in scor­ing, av­er­ag­ing 18 points per game, with only one prob­lem.

Trey Bur­ton, who with an $8 mil­lion an­nual salary on his four-year con­tract is the eighth-high­est-paid tight end in the NFL, was placed on in­jured re­serve Satur­day, likely end­ing his sea­son. He has only 14 catches for 84 yards in eight games, suf­fer­ing a groin in­jury a week before the opener and a calf in­jury Sunday against the Lions.

Gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace on Sept. 2 la­beled the groin in­jury as “mild,” but it lin­gered and kept Bur­ton from be­ing 100% all sea­son.

Adam Sha­heen, a sec­ond-round pick in 2017, was a healthy scratch Sunday against the Lions and popped up on the in­jury re­port Thurs­day with a foot is­sue. He also will miss the Rams game.

Nagy last week cited at­ten­tion to de­tail when dis­cussing Sha­heen’s sta­tus.

“Some of the mis­takes con­tinue to show up in sit­u­a­tions when he’s been specif­i­cally taught how to do some­thing,” tight ends coach Kevin Gil­bride said. “It’s not ev­ery de­tail, but it’s cer­tain things we need him to do bet­ter.”

Ben Brau­necker max­i­mized his op­por­tu­nity against the Lions with a lung­ing 18-yard touch­down re­cep­tion, which fig­ures to earn him more chances Sunday against the Rams. With Bur­ton and Sha­heen out, per­haps it’s a chance for Brau­necker to step up.

But the ques­tion is: How have the Bears seem­ingly missed on the tight end po­si­tion?

Bur­ton was ser­vice­able last sea­son, catch­ing 54 passes for 569 yards and six touch­downs. He was steady, but those num­bers aren’t what you would ex­pect from one of the top-paid tight ends in the league. It was a pro­jec­tion to sign Bur­ton and pro­mote him to a start­ing role after he spent most of his four sea­sons with the Ea­gles as the No. 3 tight end.

The Bears pro­jected in­cor­rectly with Dion Sims in 2017 free agency. They viewed him as a very good block­ing tight end with un­tapped ath­letic po­ten­tial as a re­ceiver and paid him $6 mil­lion per year — a high price for a player with his spe­cialty. He was a good block­ing tight end for them un­til con­cus­sions de­railed him last sea­son but never showed promise as a re­ceiver.

The Bears pro­jected that Sha­heen could make the tran­si­tion from Di­vi­sion II Ash­land. His col­lege tape was im­pres­sive, and they fig­ured he would have been a high­er­pro­file prospect if he were from a big­ger pro­gram.

He has nine catches for 74 yards this sea­son, and when a player keeps mak­ing mis­takes in Year 3, that’s trou­bling.

So the of­fense has been forced to ad­just with lit­tle pro­duc­tion from the po­si­tion. Tight ends have been tar­geted 44 times — 15% of the 293 at­tempts — with 28 catches for 223 yards and one touch­down, Brau­necker’s score on a nice cor­ner route.

Jes­per Horsted, a con­verted wide re­ceiver from Prince­ton, and Dax Ray­mond are rook­ies on the prac­tice squad. Ray­mond is work­ing as an in-line blocker. It’s pos­si­ble one or both could be pro­moted to the 53-man ros­ter before the end of the sea­son. Any game ac­tion would give the Bears a chance to eval­u­ate them with an eye to­ward 2020.

Bur­ton fig­ures to be in the mix next sea­son, if for no other rea­son than $4 mil­lion of his $6.7 mil­lion base salary is guar­an­teed.

It’s not the big­gest el­e­ment that is ail­ing the of­fense, but the tight end is a big part of Nagy’s pass­ing at­tack. And it sim­ply hasn’t de­liv­ered.

Sec­ondary con­cern

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the Rams’ re­vamped sec­ondary, with cor­ner­back Jalen Ram­sey added via trade last month, plays against Mitch Tru­bisky. The Bears quar­ter­back strug­gled last sea­son in the 15-6 home vic­tory against the Rams in Week 14, com­plet­ing 16 of 30 passes for 110 yards with one touch­down and three in­ter­cep­tions.

The Rams mixed things up and played zone cov­er­age in the red zone, where Tru­bisky was 3 of 7 for 16 yards with a 2-yard touch­down pass to el­i­gi­ble of­fen­sive line­man Bradley Sow­ell. The Bears were 1for-3 on red-zone pos­ses­sions.

“We were ex­pect­ing a lot of man-to-man and they zoned us out,” re­ceivers coach Mike Fur­rey said. “It was guar­an­teed, 100% man (in the red zone on the scout­ing re­port). Then it was flat-out zone, zone, zone, zone.

“The big­gest thing now is, ob­vi­ously we were re­ally young at that time. Now we just pre­pare for ev­ery­thing. You take a pic­ture of what they’re giv­ing you — you’ve seen Cover-0, -1, -2, -3, -4 — so no mat­ter what we (pre­pare for) dur­ing the week, let’s adapt to what­ever they’re giv­ing us or so­lid­ify that this is what we thought and this is what they’re do­ing.”

Scout­ing re­port

Jalen Ram­sey, Rams CB

In­for­ma­tion for this re­port was ob­tained from NFL scouts.

Jalen Ram­sey, 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, is in his fifth NFL sea­son and pre­par­ing for his fourth game with the Rams after they ac­quired him in a block­buster trade with the Jaguars last month. The Rams traded two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to land the star cover cor­ner. Ram­sey has nine ca­reer in­ter­cep­tions, is a two-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion and was All-Pro in 2017.

“(Rams de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor) Wade Phillips has shifted since they got him,” the scout said. “On third downs, they’re much more man-heavy with Ram­sey. What that al­lows is Jalen to go on the No. 1 re­ceiver and gives them an ex­tra guy some­where else. So that means they can ro­tate a safety and play two-man to the other side of the field. You can use that safety to cut crossers or you can bring pres­sure up front and get an ex­tra guy in the box. I think that’s why they went out and got him. It was a huge price to get him, but they wanted a lock­down guy. In his first game, he played against Julio Jones and won a lot of bat­tles. Julio caught two passes against him in true man cov­er­age, a crosser and a fade route.

“He is ex­tremely phys­i­cal and real grabby, and if the refs let him play, he’s go­ing to grab all day long. He wants to snug up to the hip of the wide re­ceiver and be phys­i­cal. He’s go­ing to go after ev­ery sin­gle re­lease. He wants to be in press man. He will play off in Cover-3 and quar­ters tech­nique, which Wade plays a lot of, too, but when he plays man, (Ram­sey is) up in press cov­er­age and he’s go­ing to use his phys­i­cal traits. He’s got re­ally good speed and he’s got ex­cel­lent hand con­tact at the point of at­tack, and he’s long. He’s got long arms.

“I’d bet they will put him on Allen Robin­son a ton. Last week, he was on JuJu Smith-Schus­ter and he shut him down pretty much. The Rams got him to take the No. 1 re­ceiver from the other team. It’s not a case like New Eng­land where they use Stephon Gil­more ver­sus the No. 2 and dou­ble the No. 1 re­ceiver with bracket cov­er­age. They put Ram­sey on the No. 1. He will travel with the re­ceiver (Robin­son) in man sit­u­a­tions be­cause if you’re look­ing at the Bears, who else would he go against? Some­one else is go­ing to have to win matchups. And if Mitch (Tru­bisky) gets stuck, which he has done this sea­son when he can’t find his first or sec­ond read and the ball au­to­mat­i­cally goes to Robin­son, he bet­ter be care­ful this week with that.”

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Trey Bur­ton, fail­ing to make a catch against the Saints, has been bat­tling in­juries and a lack of pro­duc­tion at tight end.

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