Bears

Why Jaye Howard is joining the Bears with 'a chip on my shoulder'

Why Jaye Howard is joining the Bears with 'a chip on my shoulder'

Before signing in Chicago a month ago, most Bears fans were probably most familiar with Jaye Howard for the baptism he gave center Hroniss Grasu in his first NFL start.

It was October 11, 2015, at Arrowhead Stadium when a big, heavy Chiefs defensive front paired with their talented linebacking corps to give the rookie all he could handle in the chaos and noise of Kansas City's home field. Grasu was in the middle of it, one week after Will Montgomery's season-ending leg injury. Howard released off the snap with the the Bears offense backed up near its own goal line, pulled off a stunt to confuse and occupy Grasu, and crushed Jay Cutler in the end zone for a sack, knocking the ball loose for Ramik Wilson to pounce on it for an early Chiefs touchdown.

"Oh not yet," Howard chuckled when asked Tuesday whether he's brought that memory, or nightmare, up with Grasu. "That's past me and I'm with these guys now. That's old and I'm just looking to make some big plays here."

His new teammates and coaches hope so. He made his share in four seasons in Kansas City, starting 23 games in 2014 and 2015, the latter registering 5.5 sacks, including the one against the Bears. But after signing a lucrative two year deal a year and a half ago, he missed the last half of 2016 following hip surgery.

"Bone spurs. It was just one of those things where I just woke up and was walking funny," Howard said. "It was hard to play through and eventually it was just time to shut it down."

And with the Chiefs having difficulty maneuvering a salary cap crunch, he was let go as they were preparing for the NFL draft. Technically, they announced Howard failed a physical, but it was strictly about money. He visited the Bears and a couple of other teams, actually leaving Halas Hall after his original visit without a contract. He then came back and signed a couple days later.

"There were other possibilities but I ended up staying (in town) after I left to just clear my mind, prayed about it and felt like this was the best opportunity for me," he said. "To come in, be able to contribute and be wanted, that was the opportunity that was presented and I couldn't pass on it. I'm embracing this opportunity."

The Bears' long list of "ifs" on the health front includes a potentially solid combination in the 3-4 base defense - if Akiem Hicks, if Eddie Goldman, and if Howard himself can stay together most of the season.

"I'm definitely coming out here with a chip on my shoulder," said Howard, who's been doing individual work during OTAs but is expected to be full-go physically when training camp begins. "Me and 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."

He was part of a Chiefs defense in those 2014 and 2015 seasons that ranked seventh overall both years, playing with the likes of Dontari Poe, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Allen Bailey and an outstanding secondary. He hopes to contribute to similar success here under Vic Fangio, with a little luck on the health front.

"It's a good group of guys all around, us and the linebackers, and our guys in the secondary are stepping up.  I really see that we can be a good front."

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?