This trio help Chicago Bears turn things around
It is quite possible that the biggest difference in the Chicago Bears team that has won three straight and four of its last five are three names I never thought I might offer in that context: J.P. Holtz, Jesper Horsted and Cornelius Lucas.
That the Bears received little from Trey Burton and practically nothing from Adam Shaheen before the two tight ends landed on injured reserve had been an anchor around the necks of head coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Look at what Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz mean to the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, and you'll see what tight ends mean to Nagy's offense.
While it might still be likely that neither Holtz nor Horsted ever become household names, their contributions over the last five weeks have been crucial to the improved play of the Bears' offense. When I asked Matt Nagy about it he explained,
"I think that you had two other guys in Trey and Adam that were a little bit beat up and hurt physically," Nagy said. "You have two other guys that come in and are 100%, and they have different types of talent. So we're trying to figure out the best way to use them.
"I want to credit them, especially J.P. Holtz. Here's a kid that's come in here and done everything that we've asked, and he's helped us out at that Y position."
Following last week's victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Trubisky was clear in his appreciation of two of his newest teammates.
"The tight end group has done a great job stepping up. J.P. and Jesper, just filling in that role, making big plays," the quarterback said. "J.P. had a huge screen early on in the game. With a front like that, I think that keeps them honest the rest of the game, that they have to be alert for screens, can't just go out for the pass every time.
"Then making catches, they have to cover all 11 of us on the field. It was a great job by them."
Nagy added: "Starting out early, you saw J.P. Holtz had some nice catches, got open. That's nice to have that. It definitely helps out.
"He happened to be that guy on some of the plays. Those guys have stepped up. They've helped us out in that role. You can see when you have that tight end, that presence there, it helps out."
Both Holtz and Horsted remain men of few words in spite of their sudden notoriety.
Asked if he's having fun after the Dallas win, Holtz said, "Yes, definitely. Definitely. Anytime an opportunity comes your way, you have to execute and make the most of it."
I had a chance to talk with Horsted on the field immediately after the Thanksgiving victory at Detroit in which he caught his first NFL touchdown, and I asked him about the journey from Princeton wide receiver to Bears tight end in just 10 months.
"I'm really just taking it a day at a time and I feel like I'm getting the receiving end of the job down, but my blocking is a work in progress."
Of that first TD, he just said, "unbelievable feeling!"
So where does Lucas fit in this equation?
Clearly he has been invaluable stepping in for three starts at right tackle for a banged-up Bobby Massie without skipping a beat, including the second Lions game and the Cowboys game in which the Bears had two of their better rushing performances.
But they also began using Lucas regularly as a second tight end in 12 and 22 personnel Week 8 against the Los Angeles Chargers, consistent with when the ground game started to come around.
Lucas is likely to be the Bears' swing tackle for some time, and while upgrading the tight end position still will almost certainly be a priority in the coming off-season, Holtz and Horsted both appear likely to be part of that equation.
Holtz, in particular, has earned the admiration of tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride, who said, "He just loves to play the game, and he loves to hit people. That's just who he is."
If the Bears are to continue their winning ways over the next three weeks, look to these three to be a big part of it.