Bears

Grizzled and experienced: Bruce Arians

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Grizzled and experienced: Bruce Arians

One of the hottest coaches and biggest names Bears general manager Phil Emery has on his head coaching list is Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinatorinterim head coach Bruce Arians, whom Emery is scheduled to interview this week.
Arians has a long coaching history with some of the greatest coaches that helped build the great game of football. Arians played quarterback for Virginia Tech, finishing his senior season as team MVP in 1974 before embarking on his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Hokies one year later.
Arians has come a long way since running the Hokies wishbone offense, where he only completed 53 of 118 pass attempts (44.9) for 952 Yards, 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions during his MVP season. Quite a turnaround from when he played and when now compared to Arians' latest quarterback project, first round pick Andrew Luck, who just broke the rookie record for most pass attempts in a season (627).
Arians was actually accused of throwing the ball too much when he served as Steelers offensive coordinator for five seasons, from 2007-2011. While coaching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Arians helped win three AFC North Division titles, two AFC Championships and Super Bowl XLIII. Arians served as wide receivers coach when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL under Bill Cowher.
Under Arians' direction, Pittsburgh became known as a passing team where Roethlisberger averaged 247.4 net passing yards per game from 2007-2011, ranked eighth in the NFL and fifth in the AFC. Roethlisberger also became the first quarterback in Steelers history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season. This same offensive unit in 2009 had two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher, which were also Steelers firsts.
Steelers ownership wanted to get back to their trademark of running the football, and it was rumored Arians was too close in his relationship with Roethlisberger. They live close to one another in Georgia and would play golf two-to-three times a week in the offseason. Roethlisberger is on record stating Arians was a father figure to him during some difficult times off the field.
RELATED: Plenty of candidates, but who is Bears' target?
Arians is a hard-nosed coach who rides his players to succeed. He demonstratively denounces those who question his ability to run the football. I run it when the defense dictates we should run it, he told me during the SirusXM NFL training camp tour in Anderson, Ind. this past fall. Its hard to argue his point, as Arians Temple Owls led the nation in rushing while he served as their head coach from 1983 to 1988.
A little Paul Bear Bryant must have rubbed off on Arians when served on Alabamas staff, but plenty of former Indianapolis offensive coordinator Tom Moores genius certainly has. Moore was the Colts offensive coordinator who was given the job of breaking in Peyton Manning into the NFL. His offenses and their success speak for themselves. They are quarterback-driven, where the entire playbook is at the quarterback's fingertips at the line of scrimmage. Who served as Peytons quarterback coach under Tom Moore in Indianapolis? None other than Bruce Arians.
Arians is more than capable of being a head coach and reigning in quarterback Jay Cutler. His job as interim head coach for the Colts while Chuck Pagano recovered from leukemia this year speaks for itself. Some worry about longevity as Arians was thinking about retirement before Pagano threw him a life line to tutor Andrew Luck. Arians is a lifer and why Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson is trying to fatten Arians contract to finish what he started in Indianapolis. On a funny note, Bears fans may have to put the earmuffs on during an Arians press conference... he's old school!

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?