Bears

Johnson returns to Fire, but won't play Sunday

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Johnson returns to Fire, but won't play Sunday

The Fires 1-0-1 record after two games is the same as last years at the same point in the season, but one thing is certainly different: the Fire has much more depth in Frank Klopas first full season as head coach than it did when Carlos de los Cobos was in charge for the dismal start to the 2011 campaign.

Why else would Klopas hold out his top goalkeeper and most experienced defender for the third league match of the season?

Sean Johnson, who finished up a tour of duty with the U.S. under-23 team in the Olympic qualifying tournament on Monday in Nashville, has rejoined his club team and Arne Friedrich, a veteran of Germanys World Cup squads, went through Thursdays training session as well.

Neither, though, are expected to play in Sundays Major League Soccer road match against the Colorado Rapids. Klopas doesnt feel either are ready, though he didnt flat rule out Johnson.

While Johnson is widely recognized as one of the best young goalkeepers in the U.S. and spent a fruitful offseason experience-wise, he hasnt had much match time lately. That can be corrected in the next two weeks.

Johnson, 22, had seven shutouts in 28 matches last season. His play on a teams that struggled for 44 games over two seasons under de los Cobos but finished 2011 strong under Klopas, earned him some extra opportunities. Johnson earned his first cap with the U.S. national team, playing the second half of a 1-1 draw against Chile in January, 2011.

After the '11 MLS season he was invited to 12 days of training with Everton of the English Premier League, where he worked with U.S. national team mainstay Tim Howard. Johnson then joined the U.S. under-23s for their failed bid to qualify for the Olympics. Those opportunities caused Johnson to miss much of preseason training and the Fires first two MLS matches.

The Olympic experience was all good.

Bill Hamid, the D.C. United goalkeeper, earned the nod over Johnson when U.S. under-23 coach Caleb Porter lined up his squad for the Olympic qualifying tournament. Hamid was in goal for a 6-0 win over Cuba and a 2-0 loss to Canada, the U.S. teams first loss to the neighbors to the north in 20 years. He also allowed two goals before leaving the third match of group play against El Salvador on Monday.

The U.S. needed to protect a 3-2 lead, and Johnson came in and made some saves after entering the match in the 39th minute. A win would send the U.S. into the semifinals, while El Salvador needed only a draw to advance. The Salvadorans got it when Johnson got his hand on a bouncing shot in the final seconds of stoppage time but couldnt keep the ball from trickling into the net.

"Obviously it was a disappointing result but, results aside, training with those guys -- the best of the best -- was great," said Johnson. "With Everton, it was different. Theyre in the top league in the world, and their practice facilities in Liverpool are massive. Everything was first class, and it was a valuable experience seeing how they operate over there."

Playing in Europe as well as performing in an Olympic atmosphere delayed, but didnt spoil, Johnson for the start of his third season with the Fire.

"It was a busy offseason, and now its time to take that into whats going on now," he said. "Chicagos my home, and all that (offseason stuff) was great, but now its time to look forward and get on with the season."

Because of his lack of match time Klopas is expected to delay Johnsons return to the Fire lineup until April 15, when the Houston Dynamo come to Toyota Park. Thats when Friedrich will likely make his Fire debut as well.

"This is a team, and weve got to manage all these difference personalities," said Klopas. "Its a tough decision, managing whos on the field, but weve got to deal with those situations."

Johnson wants to play right away.

"Im ready to go. Its just a matter of the coachs decision, whether its this game or later on," said Johnson.

Klopas is also influenced by what went on while Johnson was away. Paolo Tornaghi, a 23-year old Italian, played well in the first two games and apparently will get a third straight start. Plus, the more experienced Jay Nolly, earned a shutout in the first reserve team match of the season and hes available, too. The three keepers provide the Fire with the most solid netminding in the franchises 15-year history.

"Seans No. 1, but we brought in Jay because hes a veteran, experienced guy and we knew there was a possibility of Sean being away with Olympic qualifying," said Klopas. "Its been a healthy competition, and thats one thing we wanted to create -- depth at every position."

Therell be some reserve team matches, plus a friendly with a minor league club from Louisville, before Houston becomes the fourth MLS opponent, so Johnson can get some live matches under his belt before returning to the MLS wars.

Thats the thinking with defender Friedrich, too, though an injury to right back Dan Gargan could impact on Fredreichs immediate impact on the Fire. Gargan jogged during Thursdays training session and his availability might be a game-time decision at Colorado. At any rate, Klopas prefers to wait on Friedrich until his fitness has improved. He doesnt want any injuries that might be avoided through cautious coaching.

"With him its just fitness, and hes getting better with that each day," said Klopas. "After (Sundays game) weve got a break, and weve got to be smart and careful. Its a long season."

Can the Bears make enough plays to beat the Carolina Panthers?

Can the Bears make enough plays to beat the Carolina Panthers?

Everything changed for the Bears after going up 17-3 last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Mitchell Trubisky’s 27-yard touchdown to Dion Sims was immediately followed by Bobby Rainey running a kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown, then the offense was bogged down with three fumbles (two lost) on three consecutive possessions. 

But Adrian Amos seemed to seal the game with his 90-yard pick six — that is, until Michael Campanaro ran Pat O’Donnell’s punt back 77 yards for what wound up being a game-tying touchdown after a two-point conversion.

The point is the Bears should’ve cruised to a comfortable win last week; a few critical mistakes didn’t allow that to happen. The Bears haven’t led at the end of the fourth quarter this year, a pretty strong indicator they haven’t played a complete game yet despite having two wins. 

The Carolina Panthers have road wins over the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots this year, and only lost to the Philadelphia Eagles by five points last week (despite Cam Newton throwing three interceptions). The bet here is the Bears keep things close on the backs of a strong defense, but either can’t make enough plays or make too many mistakes to win. 

Prediction: Panthers 20, Bears 16

Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

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USA TODAY

Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw a lot of Mitchell Trubisky last year, with the North Carolina quarterback on TV quite a bit in the Charlotte area. The Panthers, set with Cam Newton, weren’t in the market for a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Trubisky nonetheless stood out to the seventh-year Carolina coach and former Super Bowl-winning Bears linebacker. 

For Rivera, more than Trubisky’s arm strength and athleticism jumped off the screen. 

“Leadership,” Rivera pointed to. “When you watch him when he was playing — I love watching guys that either get on their teammates when they’re not doing it or they take accountability when they make a mistake. And you saw that with him.

“… We think the young man has got what it takes. We like who’s he’s gonna become. We do. We think the future can be bright for him. We are big fans here.”

Trubisky took accountability for both of his turnovers against the Minnesota Vikings: The interception Harrison Smith baited him into was certainly his fault, but his sack-strip fumble was more the result of Everson Griffen jumping the snap and blowing past left tackle Charles Leno. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Trubisky also lost a fumble on a sack-strip when cornerback Lardarius Webb hit him and dislodged the ball.

Trubisky’s explanation of that fumble was that he moved off his first read too quickly, causing him to miss Webb making a beeline for him in the backfield. But according to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, that fumble wasn’t the quarterback’s fault. 

“That’s because he’s a stud,” Loggains said of Trubisky taking responsibility for it. “We screwed the protection up. We should have been sliding to the guy. The guy should not have been coming free. That’s Mitch taking a bullet that he doesn’t need to take. The reality is he saw the guy coming and tried to get over to the check down quickly but we got to do a better job up front protecting him.”

But that Trubisky was willing to say he was at fault for that fumble plays into why he quickly gained the respect of the Bears’ the locker room. That’s what a quarterback should be doing when speaking to the media after the game — accepting responsibility and deflecting off his teammates, even if he’s not at fault. That kind of stuff doesn’t go unnoticed. 

Stopping Superman

Pernell McPhee offered this goal up for his fellow defensive teammates this week: Make sure Newton stays as Clark Kent on Sunday. 

“He’s a very talented guy, but the only thing I told the defense is let's make him be Cam Newton, not Superman,” McPhee said, referring to Newton’s signature touchdown move. “We don't want him opening up the cape.”

So how does a defense stop Newton from being Superman?

“He’s a very versatile quarterback,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Obviously his running the ball, whether it be through his improvising with scrambling on called pass plays, or the called running plays they do have for him, that’s a strength for him. We can’t just focus on stopping that. We’ve gotta stop Cam Newton the passer and the runner. They’ve got good running backs they’re handing it off to and receivers and running backs he’s throwing it to, so you’ve got a total offense to stop.”

One point to note here: Newton threw three interceptions last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and had been picked off eight times this year. A Bears secondary that intercepted Joe Flacco twice last week could have some more shots at takeaways on Sunday. 

High praise

Sunday will mark Thomas Davis’ 156th game in the NFL, with the linebacker playing every one of those with the Carolina Panthers. He played for John Fox from 2005-2010. But where we’re going here is what he had to say about how the Bears run their offense with a rookie quarterback:

“I think this is probably the best running game that we’ve seen from an offense with a rookie quarterback,” Davis said. “You look at some of the other rookies that come in. Teams want to run the ball. But when you look at the physicality and the style of play that this team plays with, I think that really makes the job a lot easier for a young quarterback. So I definitely feel like that physicality in their running game is definitely going to help him out.”

The Bears ran the ball 50 times against a Baltimore Ravens defense that played a lot more Cover-2 than expected. With star linebacker Luke Kuechly out for Sunday, the Bears may try to use a similar strategy, even if Carolina loads the box more than Baltimore did (a little more than once one every three runs by Jordan Howard). 

But if the Bears’ offense is going to have success, it’s going to be behind Howard, Tarik Cohen and an improving offensive line. Maybe Davis’ comments are hyperbole, but he’s also played a lot more football than you and me.