Bears

#BearsTalk Pick Six: What are the important storylines for veteran minicamp?

#BearsTalk Pick Six: What are the important storylines for veteran minicamp?

This week’s mandatory three-day minicamp at Halas Hall  closes out the Bears’ official off-season program. Once practice concludes Thursday afternoon, the players are on their own for six weeks before reporting to training camp in Bourbonnais Wednesday, July 26, with the first practice expected a day later.
 
Here’s are a six-pack of storylines CSN's Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz will be especially keeping their eyes on:

1. Roll Call

Only three of the Bears’ 10 Organized Team Activities over the past three weeks were open to the media. A good portion of the roster was out on the field each day we were allowed to witness the workouts at Halas Hall. 

But there were other times a handful of key players were either nowhere to be seen, or off to the side working with the training staff. How much from a group that includes the likes of Josh Sitton, Hroniss Grasu, Markus Wheaton, Zach Miller, Eddie Goldman, Jaye Howard, Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Eddie Jackson will be taking part, from individual drills to 11-on-11? If not every day, any days? And is it because of the coaching staff is playing things cautiously, due to the bad injury track record the past two years, or from setbacks, or something new? 

We won’t get definitive answers on that from John Fox, who’s said the primary objective is to get everyone ready to go by training camp, or the regular season. Mark Sanchez, Cam Meredith, Danny Trevathan and Kyle Long are not expected to be taking part when the offense and defense line up opposite each other. And based on the forecasted temperatures in the 90’s, it wouldn’t be a surprise to reduce risk by working out inside the Payton Center.
— Chris Boden

2. Mike Gennon’s command of the offense

By all accounts, Mike Glennon hasn’t wavered in taking command of the Bears offense since Mitch Trubisky was drafted in April. His “this is my year” line was a public declaration of the approach he’s taken with his teammates, which has been roundly praised before and after April’s draft. This week will be Glennon’s last opportunity to build on-field trust with his teammates before July, but he’ll likely use the six-week summer break to keep building relationships off the field, too. 
— JJ Stankevitz

3. ”Tru” at No. 2               

It’s hard to think Ryan Pace and the coaching staff will stray from their plan to begin the season with the second overall draft pick sitting third on the quarterback depth chart. But with Sanchez sidelined, Mitch Trubisky at least has an opportunity to make them think otherwise. No, he won’t be going up against an angry opponent’s number-one defense that’s scheming to rattle the rookie. But you’d have to think Dowell Loggains (and Vic Fangio) will try to push and challenge the quarterback of the future, who’ll get consistent work with teammates projected to be higher up the depth chart. Should he impress, it won’t change minds of the position pecking order heading to Bourbonnais, but Trubisky showing he’s a quicker study than expected could at least open the door slightly more to that possibility. 
— Chris Boden

4. Where does Kevin White fit?

Among the “ifs” on the Bears’ roster — and there are many — Kevin White may be the biggest. The 2015 No. 7 pick has only played four games in the last two years, but if he can be the guy the Bears (and plenty of draft analysts) thought he was coming out of West Virginia, he’ll go a long way toward replacing Alshon Jeffery. The importance of veteran minicamp for White is mostly just getting him reps, even if pads and contact aren’t involved, as he continues to build his way back from those two leg injuries. 
— JJ Stankevitz

5. The first thing for the secondary

For a secondary with four offseason additions — cornerbacks Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara, and safeties Quintin Demps and Eddie Jackson — OTAs have mostly been important for developing trust and chemistry within the unit. This is a group that will be tasked with creating more turnovers than last year’s total of 11 (tied for the lowest in a single season in NFL history), and the process of developing that takeaway-focused mentality began during the offseason program. For the new players and the holdovers from last year, learning everyone’s strengths and weaknesses now will help get this group on solid footing heading into training camp in July. 
— JJ Stankevitz

6. The “baby” Bear       

So Cam Meredith and Zach Miller have injuries they’re working their way back from, Kevin White still has to prove himself going into Year 3, and the last thing you want to do is put Jordan Howard through any more work than needed before Sept.10. Now’s a good time to start seeing how 5-foot-6 waterbug Tarik Cohen can be utilized, whether it’s coming out of the backfield, split out wide or in the slot. This offense needs weapons and diversity even when everyone is healthy. Cohen has the potential to supply that, provided he can evade and outrun defenses at the NFL level like he did at North Carolina A&T.  (And by the way, he wouldn’t like being called baby Bear. It’s used for these title purposes only. He’s used his size as a chip on his shoulder to become a fourth-round draft pick.) 
— Chris Boden

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

While the Bears praised Mitchell Trubisky’s operation of a controlled gameplan in his second NFL start, they’re not losing sight of the special kind of athleticism and playmaking ability the rookie quarterback possesses. Two plays in particular stand out — plays that led to anywhere from a five-to-10 point swing in the game. 

Trubisky’s 18-yard third down completion to Kendall Wright in overtime seems to looks better every time you watch it on film. Trubisky was pressured by two Baltimore Ravens pass rushers, but managed to wriggle free and slide to his right, only to find linebacker C.J. Mosley waiting in front of him. The blend of athleticism and aggressiveness Trubisky displayed in firing high over the middle toward Wright — who made a specular play of his own — is one of the many reasons why the Bears are so excited about him. 

“To be able to throw that ball with both hands in the air and changing your arm angle – that’s why you draft a kid second,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Because of things like that.”

But there was another instinctual, athletic play Trubisky made that was just as impressive, and just as important. Cody Whitehair’s snapping issues cropped up at the Bears’ 13-yard line, with the center sailing a snap over Trubisky’s head and toward the end zone. 

If Baltimore recovered that ball, it would’ve tied the game; had Trubisky simply fell on the ball, it very well could’ve led to a safety that would’ve brought the Ravens within five points about a minute after the Bears took a 17-3 lead. Instead, Trubisky picked up the ball, scrambled to his right and threw the ball away — one of six throwaways he had on Sunday. 

“(That) was a critical, critical play at that time,” Loggains said. 

This isn't to say that two plays — only one of which gained yards — are enough to say the Bears' offense is in a good place. It's still a group that necessitates a controlled gameplan, similar to the one they used with Mike Glennon. But the difference: Trubisky can make plays. 

Briefly, on Whitehair

Since we’re on the subject of another poor snap by Whitehair, here’s what Loggains had to say on that topic: 

“He’s gotten better. We still had one too many. The thing and point I want to make with Cody Whitehair is, obviously wants to talk about the snap, but you’re talking about two weeks in a row of completely dominating. We’re an outside zone team that ran 25 snaps of inside zone because of what they were playing. It changed our game plan and Cody’s a big part of that. The last two weeks we’ve been able to move those guys inside. He’s a really good football player. 

“We’re going to battle through these snap issues. We’re cutting them down. He’s more accurate. He did have the one that obviously is unacceptable and no one owns that more than Cody Whitehair does. But he is a really good football player and let’s not lose sight of the 79 snaps where he really helped the team run the football and you can’t do that without a Cody Whitehair at center.”

Loggains has a point here — if Whitehair were struggling in the run game, against the defensive looks the Ravens were showing, the Bears wouldn’t have been able to run the ball 50 times with the kind of success they had. But the poor snaps nonetheless are ugly and have to be eliminated — imagine the uproar over them if Trubisky didn’t make that play in Baltimore. The Bears' offense won't always be good enough to overcome those kind of self-inflicted mistakes. 

Loggains and coach John Fox have praised Whitehair’s attention to the problem, and as long as Hroniss Grasu is still limited with a hand injury, Whitehair will have some time to work through these issues. One final thought: Who would’ve expected, back in May, that Whitehair would have the problems with snaps, and not Trubisky?