Adam Shaheen

Bears starting to see Adam Shaheen take the right steps in his development

Bears starting to see Adam Shaheen take the right steps in his development

Sunday was a bit of a showcase game for Adam Shaheen, who until last weekend was mostly a sparingly-used third tight end asked to, primarily, block. But Zach Miller’s season-ending injury and Dion Sims’ absence due to an illness vaulted Shaheen to the top of the Bears’ tight end depth chart, providing a clean slate for the second-round pick to make an impression. 

Shaheen started the game strong, with two catches for 39 yards in the first quarter, and he felt like he could’ve rumbled for more than 31 yards on his longest reception: “I’m just mad I missed the stiff arm by about an inch or I might have been able to make it even longer,” he said. 

But after those two early targets, Shaheen didn’t have a pass thrown his way the rest of the game. Daniel Brown wound up playing more snaps (38) than Shaheen (31). Still, for a guy who was only targeted twice in eight games prior to Sunday, the Bears thought he took a step in the right direction. 

“I thought he played well,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “I thought he started fast in the game. The coverage kind of dictated where the ball went with him. He did a good job in a lot of ways.”

Shaheen was harder on himself, saying “anyone could have just run through there” of his wide-open catch that led to that 31-yard gain. He felt like his run blocking was “in and out” and pointed to getting beat badly by Clay Matthews as one of his bigger mistakes. 

But with Miller out of the rest of the year and Sims not practicing again on Wednesday (coach John Fox said Sims is getting better and exercising, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll play this weekend), Shaheen will continue to get more opportunities to grow in the second half of the season. Building off the limited things he did against Green Bay — that were still an overall positive — would be a good start. 

“I hope that I can keep contributing,” Shaheen said. “Once Dion gets back, I’m going to do my role. If that is blocking and getting on a few routes too, then great. But it’s not about me. It’s about helping the team out in any way I possibly can.”

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

11-6connorbarth.jpg
USA Today

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

The Bears are 3-5 halfway through the regular season, and returned to Halas Hall on Monday after recharging during their off week. If this team is going to mount a serious shot at eight wins -- or, more ambitiously, a legitimate playoff push -- it'll need this group of players to step up in the second half of the season: 

1. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky

For all the talk of the different energy Trubisky brought to the offense, and for all the (fair) points about talent issues around him, Trubisky is 38/80 for 512 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and a rating of 66.2 through four games. The Bears were able to spend last week self-scouting and taking a bigger picture look at their rookie quarterback, and that could reveal some different ways to get Trubisky into a rhythm and help him be a more effective passer within this offense. Still, the most important thing Trubisky can do in these next eight games is not turn the ball over: It’s no coincidence the Bears are minus-43 when they turn the ball over more than two times and plus-six when they have two or fewer turnovers. 

2. [Insert a wide receiver here]

We’re not picking a specific receiver, but the Bears need at least one guy to step up from this group: Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Tre McBride, Tanner Gentry and Josh Bellamy. Inman hasn’t been active in a month but has the length (he’s 6-foot-3) to possibly this receiving corps go three-wide more than they did in the first half of the season. It’s easier to envision Wright — who hasn’t played much but has been the Bears’ most reliable receiver — being on the field more in the slot with Inman and Tre McBride/Tanner Gentry manning the outside. McBride showed against New Orleans he can be productive, especially when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains schemes to get him open in space. Wheaton could return from a groin injury at some point this month, and perhaps could re-discover the skills that made him an effective deep threat in 2014 and 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bears may not have a traditional go-to receiver in this group, but there could be enough players to cobble together a relatively effective unit in the final eight games. 

3. Tight ends Adam Shaheen and Daniel Brown

With Dion Sims on pace for an average pass-catching season for him (he had nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown; his 2013-2016 average was 18 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns), the Bears will need either or both of Shaheen and Brown to step in and fill Zach Miller’s pass-catching shoes. Brown may be more of a direct replacement — he had 16 catches for 124 yards in six games with the Bears last year — but Shaheen carries high expectations as a second-round pick and needs to be targeted more than the two times he was in the first half of the season. Miller is third on the Bears with 20 catches and 236 yards; replacing that production would go a long way toward the success of this offense in the second half. 

4. Defensive end Akiem Hicks

Hicks played at an All-Pro level in the first half, racking up seven sacks (which tied his career high set in 2016) while being a force against the run. He’s not like everyone else on a list of players that largely needs improvement — but he was the most important player on the Bears in the first half of the season, so it stands to reason he’ll keep that spot in the second half. 

5. Kicker Connor Barth

Barth has made only 64 percent of his field goal attempts, which ranks 27th among the 29 kickers who have attempted at least 10 field goals this season. Three of his misses have been from 40-49 yards, with his other miss on a 52-yard attempt. Barth is, for now, the Bears’ kicker, but he’ll have to be better for a team that likely will find itself in a number of close games in November and December.