Cubs

Bears training camp capsules: Secondary

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Bears training camp capsules: Secondary

Third in a series

Half of Bears starting secondary facing stiff position battles in camp

In the Cover-2 mindset practiced by coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the defensive backfield is expected to provide certain things, among them peace of mind in the back end of the defense.

Sometimes performance falls far, far short of expectations.

A turnstile situation at safety and questions at one cornerback position have the secondary on the brink of perhaps one of its most competitive training camps under Smith.

The reasons are simple. The overall pass defense was generally adequate but individual breakdowns came too often from too many players in a scheme that demands discipline and functioning within the system.

That is expected to change. Or else.

2011 in Review

Despite a pedestrian pass rush (29th in sacks per pass attempt) the Bears finished tied for sixth with 20 interceptions and seventh in yards per pass attempt, the latter being one of the bellwether indicators for a defense and the former a crucial turnover component.

Tillman was voted to his first Pro Bowl and nickel back D.J. Moore collected 4 interceptions for the second straight season.

Overall the Bears ranked fourth in the NFL in percentage of opponent possessions ending in three-and-outs, meaning the pass defense was doing something right on a lot of third downs. Since 2004 the Bears are No. 1 in the NFL in three-and-outs forced.

The defense also ranked eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). The Bears allowed ratings above 90 for a game only six times and two of those were Aaron Rodgers, one Drew Brees and one Philip Rivers. The others were Matthew Stafford and Tavaris Jackson.

But seven of the interceptions were by linebackers (Lance Briggs 1, Brian Urlacher 3) or a player no longer here (Corey Graham 3).

It also was a year marked with what can only be termed as chaos in the deep regions. The Bears had six different safety combinations in the first seven games and eight for the year.

Chris Harris, brought back in 2010 to give a veteran presence at the back end of the defense, was cut midway through the season after repeated disasters. Brandon Meriweather started four games, just enough to show why Bill Belichick excused him from New England after a Pro Bowl season. Injuries to Chris Conte and Major Wright added to the problems.

Tillman had a superb season at right cornerback but Tim Jennings was replaced by Zackary Bowman for game 15 after managing just one interception through the first 14 (he recorded his second INT the following week).

The net was a year that sent the organization looking for help in the secondary (drafting safety Brandon Hardin in the third round) ahead of linebacker or defensive tackle, all positions of seemingly more immediate need.

2012 Training Camp What to Watch

Depth chart
RCB Charles TillmanJonathan Wilhite
LCB Tim JenningsKelvin Hayden
3CB D.J. Moore
FS Chris ConteBrandon Hardin
SS Major WrightCraig Steltz

Others to watch: Isaiah Frey, Greg McCoy

Conte, Moore and Tillman are set going into training camp. Moore has emerged as a playmaker in his spot role and another solid year with four interceptions will enhance his value going into free agency.

After that

Cornerback

The left-corner job is Jennings to lose but the Bears signed Hayden to a one-year deal, meaning he will be highly motivated, and he fits the big-corner model that facing the Packers and Lions receivers demand.

The telling point through camp is expected to be takeaways, one area that coaches wanted more of from Jennings last year. Hayden, however, played in only eight games for Atlanta last season, with one start, so is in need of a jump-restart for his career.

The Bears used their last two draft choices on cornerbacks, with Isaiah Frey from Nevada in the sixth round and Greg McCoy from TCU in the seventh. Frey is 6 feet, 180 pounds and had 5 interceptions as a senior making All-WAC first team. He will not challenge for a significant role this year but has the size the Bears want against the big receivers of the NFC North.

Safety

Conte is a former cornerback who made his share of rookie mistakes but played well enough to be a virtual lock at free safety.

Wright is anything but. He has struggled with injuries since his arrival in 2010, a surprise for someone who was all but bomb-proof during his career at Florida.

But Wright has been a mild disappointment when hes managed to stay on the field. His discipline and angles have been suspect inconsistent, more a product of over-thinking at times and over-reacting at others.

If Wright stumbles, the Bears have options. Hardin will get a serious look, but not to be overlooked is Steltz, who re-signed with the Bears this offseason after starting five games last season, including the last four.

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

As the White Sox have added young Cuban stars in the making in Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Jose Abreu's long-term role on the team has shifted.

The 31-year-old first baseman has been looked at as something of a mentor for the two young Cubans. He seems to be delivering on that so far.

Abreu picked up Moncada from the airport when he first was called up to the White Sox last July. Now he's helping Robert in the batting cage.

The Cuban trio is expected to play a big part of the White Sox future in the coming years. 

Robert has already stated his goal of making it to the majors this year to join Abreu and Moncada, but that may be an overly ambitious goal. Either way, plenty of eyes will be on him throughout 2018 as he marches towards the White Sox roster and his Cuban teammates.