Bears

Will the Packers do what the Steelers didn't to scheme against Jordan Howard?

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USA TODAY

Will the Packers do what the Steelers didn't to scheme against Jordan Howard?

According to NFL’s Next Gen stats, the Pittsburgh Steelers had eight or more men in the box on only four of Jordan Howard’s 23 runs on Sunday. None of Tarik Cohen’s 12 rushing attempts came against a loaded box, either, per those numbers. 

That seems to go against conventional wisdom. The Bears have struggled to find consistency passing the ball, so why wouldn’t an opposing defense load up the box and try to shut down a running game that racked up 216 yards between its “thunder” (Howard) and “lighting” Cohen?

“They were in a lot of split safeties, playing Tampa 2 a lot, and they thought that was the best answer to stop us and they stayed in it,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “And (I) thought that we did a really good job up front.”

Perhaps that was Pittsburgh betting that its front seven — led by linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Cameron Heyward, but without defensive end Stephon Tuitt and linebacker T.J. Watt — could shut down Howard and Cohen without needing extra help. Or, as Loggains admitted:

“At the end, I don’t know that teams respect us enough right now to say hey, they can put a 12-play drive together and go score on us, and we’ll bleed them out and see if they’ll make a mistake.” 

That’s what happened in Week 2, when Mike Glennon completed his first six passes but threw a debilitating interception on his seventh. The Bears fumbled five times on Sunday but only lost one, while Glennon was picked off once (and it could've easily been twice). 

But not facing loaded boxes has actually been a bit of a trend so far for the Bears' offense: 26.67 percent of Howard’s runs have come with eight or more men in the box, the 25th-highest percentage among running backs with at least 20 carries. Only 12.5 percent of Cohen’s attempts have come with eight or more men in the box, too — the sixth-lowest percentage in the same group. 

How the Green Bay Packers scheme against the Bears offense in a short week will be interesting, given the Packers have lagged against the run (4.5 yards per carry, 24th) and pass (7.6 yards per attempt, 21st). Would they try to sell out to stop the thing the Bears do well — run the ball — or try what the Steelers did and drop into zone coverage and hope Glennon makes a mistake? 

The answer to that question will be key in how much success the Bears’ offense will have Thursday night at Lambeau Field. 

Under Center Podcast: What did win over Bengals mean for John Fox and Ryan Pace?

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AP

Under Center Podcast: What did win over Bengals mean for John Fox and Ryan Pace?

JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin debate what the Bears’ blowout win in Cincinnati meant for John Fox and Ryan Pace. Plus, how can Mitchell Trubisky and Adam Shaheen grow from how well they played on Sunday?

Listen to the latest episode here:

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

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AP

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

Jeff Rodgers had to gameplan for Devin Hester twice in his career as a special teams coordinator under John Fox: First, in 2010 with the Carolina Panthers, and second, in 2011 with the Denver Broncos. 

“You're holding your breath,” Rodgers, who’s in his third year as the Bears’ special teams coordinator, said. “There's been nobody like him in my generation.”

Neither of those games were necessarily the most memorable performances by Hester, who set an NFL record with 19 special teams touchdowns (14 on punt returns, five on kickoff returns). But the fact that Rodgers — like every other special teams coordinator from 2006-2016 — had to gameplan for Hester was notable in and of itself. 

“He was really the first guy that you really game-planned for and you saw different people take different approaches,” Rodgers said. “You see people try to punt the ball out of bounds. Well, defenses can combat that with some of the rush scheme so you may have to change that. Saw people try to kick fair catch balls and short because the reality is, if you played Chicago when he was rolling and you came out of the game with a 35 or 36 punt, which isn't great, but against him, you're usually taking that every time. He's as good as it gets.”

In that first meeting, on Oct. 10, 2010 in Charlotte, Rodgers’ strategy was to punt out of bounds or away from Hester to prevent him from fielding anything. 

At first, it didn’t work: Hester ripped off a 50-yard return on the first punt he fielded.

“We tried to punt the ball out of bounds and our punter put the ball about four inches from the sideline,” Rodgers said. “He reached in and got it and shot straight up the sideline.” 

From there, punter Jason Baker largely succeeded in kicking away from Hester, with his next six punts not being fielded or being fair caught. But the downside to that strategy was the Bears frequently received good starting field position — though having drives begin between the 40s was preferable to Hester ripping off a big return to set up a drive beginning in the Panthers’ red zone. 

A year later, Rodgers again had to figure out how to mute Hester’s success with the Denver Broncos. He was more successful in this Dec. 11, 2011 meeting, with Hester returning one kickoff for 25 yards and gaining 36 yards on two punt returns. Hester fair caught four punts, and one went out of bounds.

But Hester still notched returns of 26 and 10 yards despite Denver’s strategy to kick the ball as high as possible. 

“In Denver, we tried to hang it up there,” Rodgers said. “Did a good job on the first couple. Actually the best ball that our punter hit that day, that was the 2011 game, the best ball our punter hit that day with hang time and distance, he kind of circled around, went backwards, sideline, all of a sudden he turned a corner and you're holding your breath. We were able to get him on the ground, but he's a game-changer.”

The game-changing success Hester found as a return specialist should get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, unless the rather strange stinginess on special teamers in Canton continues. But there’s no doubt in Rodgers’ mind when it comes to how great Hester was — and how maddening it was to scheme against him. 

“I'd say (he) changed the game on both kickoffs and punts,” Rodgers said. “He's the best that's ever done it.”