Bears

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the defensive line

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the defensive line

With training camp starting later this month, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: The defensive line. 

1. Will Eddie Goldman stay healthy?

When healthy, the 6-foot-4, 320 pound Goldman has been a run-stopping menace in the defensive interior. But “when healthy” is critical here: An ankle injury limited Goldman to only six games and a total of 198 snaps last year. It’s not a coincidence, then, that with Goldman largely absent, Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranked the Bears’ run defense 28th out of 32 teams in 2016. John Jenkins was signed to back up Goldman, but the Bears need the former Florida State Seminole to be as healthy as possible in 2017. 

“We missed him and he was, I think, primed to have a good season,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said in May. “So if we can get him back to where he was, and a little bit better, I think we'll have a good player there.”

2. What kind of a player will Jaye Howard be?

The versatile Howard broke out in 2015 with 5 1/2 sacks, which earned him a two-year, $12 million deal from Kansas City. A hip injury limited him to only eight games last year, though he wasn’t particularly effective when healthy, notching just one sack and 24 tackles. The Bears signed Howard after Kansas City released him in the spring, hoping to add someone who could be a starter in Fangio’s base 3-4 and provide flexibility in nickel packages. If Howard is healthy and re-captures the form he had two years ago, then his one-year contract is a steal; if not, he at least can provide some depth at a cheap price. 

"I'm definitely coming out here with a chip on my shoulder," Howard said during OTAs. "Me and (Akiem) Hicks are already pushing each other. We're looking to have a big year and hopefully we can stay here together. Just watching him on film last year and what Jay Rodgers was able to do with him (career-high seven sacks), I'm hoping I can take my game to that next level as well."

3. Can Jonathan Bullard put a disappointing rookie year behind him?

Howard, Bullard and Mitch Unrein will compete to start alongside Hicks and Goldman, and ideally for Rodgers and Fangio, it’ll be a close competition. But that’ll only happen if Bullard can flush a meek rookie season (one sack in 296 plays) and prove he was worth 2016’s 72nd overall pick. Whiffing on on a third-round pick isn’t a disaster, but for a Bears team trying to build through youth, getting something out of Bullard would certainly be nice. 

“He understands more of what’s expected of him playing in the NFL, in the trenches,” Fangio said. “I don’t think he was quite ready for that last year, both physically or mentally. Emotionally I think he’s more ready. We’re hopeful that he does well.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

Seth Gruen (Bleacher Report/”Big Ten Unfiltered” podcast), Chris Emma (670TheScore.com) and Matt Zahn (CBS 2) join Kap on the panel. If the Bears lose badly to the Lions, should Sunday be John Fox’s last game? 

Plus Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill joins the panel to talk Bulls as well as the Niko/Portis cold war.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing.