Another week, another void to fill at tight end for the Bears.
After a second consecutive missed practice with a concussion – one of two, along with Taylor Gabriel’s, which Matt Nagy said Tuesday was self-reported after the win over the New York Giants – Ben Braunecker won’t play on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. Braunecker has been the team’s top option in the two weeks since placing Trey Burton on injured reserve with a calf/groin issue and putting Adam Shaheen in mothballs with what the team is calling a sore foot. Braunecker caught his first career touchdown in the 20-13 win against Detroit three weeks ago.
Gabriel won’t play either, and the fact that he’s now suffered two head injuries in the past nine weeks obviously is a major concern. The Bears at least have clear alternatives in the wide receiver corps with Javon Wims likely assuming a larger role and rookie fourth-round WR Riley Ridley likely to dress for only the second time this season.
Tight end is a much different story. Undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted will be active for the second time after playing four snaps and making one catch in his NFL debut Sunday, but the converted Princeton wideout made it clear last week that he’s very much a work in progress – a sentiment shared Tuesday by Nagy.
“He didn’t play a whole lot, but the times he was in there he made a nice play on the gap screen, the catch that he had. So he definitely has talent,” the head coach said of the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Horsted, Princeton’s all-time receptions and touchdowns leader. “It’s going to take him some time to learn the position, so we’ve got to be patient with that.”
Although Nagy admitted that “it’s totally different” dealing with the constant instability at one of the most important positions in his offense, the Bears aren’t making excuses.
They’ve also struggled to find answers, much like they addressing the disparity between their offensive production to begin games and to begin second halves. To wit: Nagy’s bunch ranks 30th in the NFL in first-quarter scoring, held out of the end zone before intermission in eight of 11 games, but ranks second in points in the third quarter, buoyed by Sunday’s 16-point outburst.
Several members of the Bears’ offense Sunday cited increased confidence coming back out of the tunnel after getting a chance to see how the defense is playing schematically.
“That might be part of it. We know what they are giving us, and we’re able to make those adjustments at halftime and come out and just kind of play our game,” said Mitch Trubisky, who’s thrown only one of his seven touchdowns since September before intermission. “But we have to do better studying throughout the week and know what they are going to start the game in and have those looks ready to go. Obviously, playing a team in our division that we are familiar with, hopefully that helps us get off [to] the faster start.”
Starting fast Thursday will entail another obstacle, too. Sure, the Lions are bad on defense – they rank 30th against the pass and permitted three Trubisky touchdowns less than three weeks ago – and nothing comes easy for the Bears’ offense. But with kickoff set for 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving, it could be that the team that’s better prepared will be the one that enjoys the faster start.
Yet with the Lions unsure who’ll be starting under center with Matthew Stafford fill-in Jeff Driskel limited with a sore hamstring in back-to-back practices – the Bears are expecting Driskel, not undrafted rookie David Blough, for what it’s worth – and the rumblings regarding Matt Patricia’s increasingly tenuous job security growing louder, could this be the game Trubisky and Co. come out of the gate firing on all cylinders?
“That’s probably our No. 1 objective right now,” Nagy said. “Let’s come into these games with a faster start, and let’s see what happens when we do that.”