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Bears key to 2012 and beyond: The "Flex" Factor

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Bears key to 2012 and beyond: The "Flex" Factor

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. Beyond the error-plagued efforts on the first day of Bears training camp were signs of something else happening besides balls bouncing around on the ground, on the offense in particular but also deeper down.

Call it the flex factor. It is something that has been subtly running through the 2012 Bears and may be one of the true keys to the current and future fortunes of the organization.

Consider: The Dallas Cowboys of Tom Landry were famous for their 4-3 Flex defense. It was a scheme that had some defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage; some a little back from it; most players in a one-gap system; one in a two-gap.

And no one quite able to figure out where everyone was, where they were going, or exactly what they were doing.

If you were watching the goings-on Thursday, you were seeing a different kind of Flex taking shape.

A Flex offense
In theater, action is character. So it also is in the NFL.

On the first play of Thursdays team session, quarterback Jay Cutler passed off a rollout to his right. After a quick-release throw on second down, running back Matt Forte burst untouched through the middle of the line and was just about to St. Louis before he decided to stop and jog back.

It went on like that. Indeed, the exact character of the 2012 offense was difficult to discern from what was on display Thursday.

That would in fact be the whole idea, perhaps the theme in all of what is developing under offensive coordinator Mike Tice.

The Minnesota Vikings ran an eclectic offense while Tice was their head coach. He had his Randy Ratio for wide receiver Randy Moss, yet a tight end led his teams in receptions twice.

Tice coached and played under Dennis Green, he of the classic West-Coast-offense tree, and also played under Chuck Knox, of Ground Chuck notoriety for his run-based thinking.

Tice was Bears offensive line coach the last two years and the one most responsible for bring balance to the offense in both 2010 and 2011 after it had lost its compass under Mike Martz.

Jeremy Bates was hired this offseason as quarterbacks coach but is the de facto passing-game coordinator even without the title, according to insiders. Bates, Cutler and Brandon Marshall had huge production in Denver under head coach (and West Coast practitioner) Mike Shanahan.

(A side note: Marshall also caught 101 passes and had a career-high 10 TDs the year after Bates, Cutler and Shanahan all left. The message here would be that Marshall does quite nicely no matter what the system the designerprototype Flex receiver.)

What has become amply evident, however, is that where both Martz and predecessor Ron Turner were strict adherents to their systems, the new Chicago Bears offense may be difficult to pigeonhole precisely because its not wedded to one system.

Its going to be a combination of all of our coaches and our ideas, and coach Tice is flexible, as long as you really explain it and it makes sense, Bates said Thursday.

Coach Tice is going to bring his knowledge and so is the rest of the staff.

The Emery Element

The flex factor was in evidence off the field as well on Thursday.

While analysis of Phil Emerys background understandably focused on organizations of which he was a part, perhaps more immediately more relevant were the systems for which he provided personnel.

Unlike some general managers, Emery brought with him zero absolutes on schemes. He was part of staffing the 4-3 two-gap scheme of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, with 290-pound defensive ends and 350-pound defensive tackles keeping blockers away from Brian Urlacher.

In Kansas City, where Emery was prior to Chicago, the Chiefs ran one of the few true 3-4 schemes and ranked just outside the top 10 in points allowed and yardage the past two years.

He was hired in Chicago with a 4-3, one-gap coach in place and made a 260-pound edge rusher the No. 1 draft priority.

But the Thursday trade of a late-round draft pick to Tampa Bay for defensive tackle Brian Price was a flex in a completely opposite direction.

Price is listed at 343 pounds. The biggest defensive tackle on a Lovie Smith team has been Alfonso Boone at a paltry 318 pounds.

Price may very well not make the 2012 Bears roster (he did not fare well in the conditioning test in Tampa). But he was a No. 2 pick and at a time when starting nose tackle Matt Toeaina is 308 pounds, the Bears are looking outside the tackle box at options.

The NFL may be a passing league but the Bears are making sure than they do not get run on, either.

In that, they are decidedly not flexible.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."