Brad Biggs Chicago Tribune
Protecting quarterback Justin Fields has been a challenge for the Chicago Bears all season, and now their pass protection will be tested again Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings.
Left tackle Jason Peters is battling a high ankle sprain that threatens to sideline him for several weeks, and right tackle Larry Borom on Wednesday was placed on the reserve / COVID-19 list. To complicate matters, Teven Jenkins, Peters’ likely replacement, was one of seven players to miss Thursday’s game due to an unrelated COVID-19 illness that swept through Halas Hall.
The Bears aren’t just downsized to the coaching staff level because all three coordinators – Bill Lazor (offense), Sean Desai (defense) and Chris Tabor (special teams) – are in COVID-19 protocol. Twelve players (11 on the 53-player roster and one on the coached squad) are on the reserve / COVID-19 roster, and the squad has been hit so hard that coach Matt Nagy has made the decision to scuttle regular workout and take a walk by.
Jenkins struggled to replace Peters in a noisy road environment at Lambeau Field, being called up for two holding penalties and two false starts and relinquishing two sacks, one resulting in a turnaround.
It was a tough place for Jenkins on his NFL debut with no training camp or preseason. Mid-season practices don’t do much to replicate the action linemen see in games, and with the Bears walking around that Jenkins missed, the problem is exacerbated.
“He understands the game plan,” center Sam Mustipher said. “It’s not the mental aspect of the game at all for Teven. It’s about getting these live reps, these live training reps, these live padded reps and understanding in a game situation that they’re hitting the quarterback. OK, so the situation live, they bend the edge, turn the corner, rush, rush. It’s about studying pass rushers and understanding the flow of a match. How is the game going? How can I change my set? How can I change things until he doesn’t get beaten on the quarterback every play? “
On Monday, Nagy said everything was on the table when it comes to replacing Peters, including moving Jenkins to the right tackle. The plan now is to keep him on the left tackle, as switching sides could create more obstacles to development, as evidenced by left guard Cody Whitehair and right guard James Daniels earlier in their careers. (Daniels also missed Thursday due to illness.)
The Vikings lead the NFL with 41 sacks at the start of Week 15, but their pass rush isn’t as menacing as it was at the start of the season with defensive end Danielle Hunter (pectoral muscle) on the injured reserve and defensive tackle Everson Griffen on the reserve / non-footballer illness list. But coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is still dangerous, coming off a five-sack performance against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Fields and Roethlisberger are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to mobility, so some of the problems that Minnesota has created for the Steelers’ offensive line won’t necessarily lead to sacks against the Bears. Still, this is a concern because Zimmer has always been a master at disguising pressures.
While Fields will have new games on Monday night, it’s something he tries not to focus on.
“Keep that out of your mind,” Fields said. “I mean, you can’t have this. You can’t think of that when you play. You have to think about the game to play and run the game and if someone is flashing in front of your face, D lineman is flashing in front of your face, you have to face it when you cross that bridge.
“You can’t walk into a game or walk into a game thinking, ‘Uh, I don’t have exactly the tackle that’s been playing all year.’ You have to have confidence in all of your teammates and know that they are going to do their best to perform.
The Bears have used four different starting combinations on the offensive line this season with all changes limited to the right tackle. Borom has moved to the post, but his status for Monday is on hold after being placed on the reserve / COVID-19 list, and Peters is likely out.
This led to more uncertainty for an offense which fought mightily.
The Bears started the training window for veteran right tackle Germain Ifedi to come back from the injured reserve. He has been sidelined since the Oct. 10 victory in Las Vegas and is expected to be in line to start against Minnesota.
Elijah Wilkinson has been on the COVID-19 roster for almost three weeks and he is an option at either tackle position if cleared in time. The only silver lining for the Bears right now is that they have an extra day with the game on Monday.
“There are moving parts there,” Nagy said. “For Teven, if you look at where he was in that first game, it’s not an easy deal to close. And I think he will grow up, he will get better. The plan is to be able to try and keep him on the left tackle. It’s not easy to go back and play a straight tackle or turn around. So we would like to be able to keep him on the left tackle.
“And then with Larry playing the right tackle and doing him a good job there, I think he has some flexibility with him. But I think you want to be careful with Teven trying to move him too much.
The first step will be to get Jenkins back to good health. Nagy said it’s uncertain the Bears will have enough numbers to lead normal practice on Friday. They are doing their best with four games to go.