The Bears placed guard Kyle Long and defensive end Mitch Unrein on injured reserve Tuesday, the eighth and ninth starters lost to season-ending injuries in 2017.
For Long, it marks the latest injury setback for one of Bears’ best players. The 29-year-old started 47 of 48 games and made three consecutive Pro Bowls to begin his career. But he’s been limited to 18 games the past two seasons, both ending on injured reserve.
Long began the 2016 campaign with a torn shoulder labrum after signing a four-year, $40 million contract extension including $18 million guaranteed on the eve of the regular season. But he suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Week 10 that ended his season and required surgery.
He was initially expected to have his shoulder and ankle repaired last offseason, but a bad reaction to prescription drugs lengthened his recovery from the surgery and he opted to play a second campaign without fixing the shoulder.
Long, who was to make another position switch, from right guard to left guard, missed most of training camp and the first two games of this season while rehabilitating the ankle. He then started nine of 10 games – all on the right side – while battling the ankle, finger and shoulder injuries before sitting out the second half Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers after aggravating the shoulder injury.
The effect of having a healthy Long on the field this season has been profound for the Bears offense, particularly in the running game. When long was active in Week 10 but played just one special teams snap, the Bears managed only 55 rushing yards on 17 carries (3.2 yards per carry). In his return the next week against the Detroit Lions, the Bears had their third 200-rushing yard day – all with Long – including a season-high 7.4-yard-per-carry average.
The Bears’ offensive line depth took a hit in training camp when valuable and versatile backup guard/center Eric Kush suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. Kush and now-Dolphins guard Ted Larsen filled in ably in Long’s absence last season.
But Long missing time or playing at less than 100 percent this season has created a ripple effect up front, where Hroniss Grasu and Bradley Sowell have struggled in their replacement roles, and 2016 All-Pro center Cody Whitehair has regressed while being forced to move back and forth between center and guard to compensate for Long’s absences and Grasu’s deficiencies.
Unrein, who appeared in the first 12 games (eight starts) and recorded a career-high 2.5 sacks and 32 tackles, suffered a knee injury Sunday and did not return. The 30-year-old has appeared in 39 games (21 starts) over the past three seasons. In Unrein’s absence, 2016 third-round draft pick Jonathan Bullard will see extended action in the final four games.
In corresponding moves, the Bears elevated outside linebacker Harold Jones and offensive lineman Cameron Lee from the practice squad to the active roster and signed offensive lineman Will Pericak and tight end Colin Thompson to the practice squad.
The Bears, mired in a five-game losing streak and headed toward a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the division, play Sunday at the 5-7 Cincinnati Bengals.