Pernell McPhee

Three and out: Pernell McPhee talks relationships, Kyle Long describes the Bears’ ‘beacon of hope’

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USA Today

Three and out: Pernell McPhee talks relationships, Kyle Long describes the Bears’ ‘beacon of hope’

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens let Pernell McPhee hit free agency after the 2014 season, in which the former fifth-round pick recorded a career high 7 1/2 sacks. So Sunday will be an awkward homecoming of sorts for McPhee against the team that spurned him a few years ago. 

“If your girlfriend or your wife leaves you, that’ll hurt, right? Okay,” McPhee said, “that answers that question.” 

That’s one way to put it. Defensive end Akiem Hicks — who will face a former team of his, the New Orleans Saints, in the Bears’ next road game — expanded on that thought. 

“Any time you go against your former team you want to prove a point, correct?” Hicks said. “He hasn’t made too big a deal out of it and he hasn’t been hoo-rah’ing about it. But I’m sure as anybody else that’d be going into that situation you want to go out there and put on a show.”

A big game from McPhee and/or Leonard Floyd against an interception-prone Joe Flacco could, at least, help keep things close on Sunday, or at best swing momentum in the Bears’ favor and push Mitchell Trubisky to his first career win. 

“I mean, it just was a relationship, just like you’ve got a girlfriend. They leave you sometimes,” McPhee said. “It is what it is, but like I said, I’m just very thankful that (general manager) Ozzie Newsome and coach (John) Harbaugh gave me the chance to become a Raven and see how it was to be a Raven. That’s the best feeling I got out of it.” 

More flowing analogies

While McPhee described facing the Ravens in terms of relationships, offensive lineman Kyle Long offered an eloquent description of how badly Bears fans want Mitchell Trubisky to finally end the quarterback drought in Chicago. 

“Being here since 2013 I’ve definitely understood the obsession with the quarterback position in this town,” Long said. “I mean, Mitch is a young guy with a lot of talent and this is a town that’s hungry for success in their sports, especially football. And I think that they see a beacon of hope and light with Mitch Trubisky, and it’s my job and the guys around me, their job is to keep that beacon of light nice and shiny and keep him upright.”

Snap decisions

Cody Whitehair has had some rather odd issues snapping this year, with a handful of snaps going high to both Trubisky and Mike Glennon over the Bears’ first five games. The second-year center wasn’t making any excuses when asked about it on Friday, but it is worth noting the Bears moved Whitehair between center and guard due to injuries to Long, Josh Sitton, Tom Compton and Hroniss Grasu in training camp and through the first three weeks of the season. 

“Just get back in that muscle memory,” Whitehair said. “For whatever reason, I dunno why, they’ve been bad. That’s what I’ve been focused on this week.”

Whitehair, who was flagged for holding against Minnesota, summed up his season to date:  “I haven't been where I've wanted the last four games and I'll continue to work on that. I feel like I'm getting back into my groove and we'll see how the season goes.”

The Bears don’t have any long-term concerns about Whitehair, who was solid as a rookie last year and should continue to be an important piece of their offensive line. 

“Once we get that consistent, exactly where we want it, he’s moving guys off the ball,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “He’s a big part of the run game. He’s a really talented player.” 

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

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USA TODAY

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

Great defenses, even individual units within some defenses, can engender nicknames: Doomsday Defense. Orange Crush. Killer B’s. Purple People Eaters. Steel Curtain. New York Sack Exchange. Legion of Boom.

The 2017 Bears defense doesn’t have a nickname. The reason is the problem:

“We haven’t earned one,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks.

Nicknames come with winning, and they also are reflective of a group identity. Bears haven’t won much of anything. More important than any clever moniker, however, the Bears haven’t particularly established a clear defensive identity that comes with being dominant somewhere, beginning on the scoreboard and pegged to the one stat universally cited as defining a defense.

“We need to get more turnovers,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee.  “Coach has been emphasizing that from day one and that has to be our main focus if we want to get to another level and be a dominant defense. “If you do that, people might start calling you ‘The Turnover Machine’ or something.

“But you’ve got to win some games. No matter how dominant your defense is, you still got to win games to get recognition.”

The overall has been serviceable. The Bears rank 10th in yardage allowed, the stat most used for ranking defenses but not the best for defining a defense. And turnovers by the offense have led to opponents’ points and difficult defensive situations. Of the 73 opponents’ scoring possessions last season, less than one-third (31.5 percent) needed longer than 50 yards for points. This year, that figure is up sharply: of 22 opposing possessions, nine (41 percent) have needed to go less than 50 yards.

Perhaps the absence of a collective identity shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The unit has lost its leading tackler and inside linebacker (Jerrell Freeman); its sack leader over the past three seasons (Willie Young); and its projected interception leader via free agency (Quintin Demps).

Regardless of reason, the Bears’ defense is not a ball-hawking one; they are one of only three teams (Oakland, Miami) with zero interceptions.

Theirs is not a unit that terrorizes quarterbacks. The sack total (13) is in the top 10, and the Bears are 10th in sacks per pass play. Opposing quarterbacks are posting an average passer rating of 101.5; only four defenses are being thrown on to that degree. Perhaps most alarming: The Bears are allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 45.5 percent, ahead of only Tampa Bay, Oakland, San Francisco and New Orleans. None of the five worsts on third downs have winning records.

They do not present not a run-stuffing wall, in the middle of the pack allowing a respectable but nothing-special 3.9 yards per rush and 101 rushing yards per game.

Forging an identity isn’t entirely within the control of the defense. Offenses can define themselves largely along lines of their own choosing: West Coast, run-based, vertical-passing, whatever. Defenses are tasked weekly with being the antidote to whatever offense breaks the huddle.

“We just need to be able to stop the different types of offense that we see week in and week out,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Offensively, you can do what you want, week in and week out. Defensively, we’ve got to be able to stop the various different offenses that we see from week to week. Some weeks, that’s going to be playing a lot of zone. Some weeks, it’ll be playing a lot of man. Some weeks, it’s going to be playing more of a loaded box. Some weeks, it’s not.

“I guess the identity is we need to be a versatile defense that can handle the variety of offense that we’ll see.”

Not flashy, but accurate and realistic.

How Willie Young's reported season-ending injury impacts the Bears

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USA TODAY

How Willie Young's reported season-ending injury impacts the Bears

Since the beginning of training camp, the Bears' defense has had to deal with an avalanche of season-ending injuries, from outside linebacker Lamarr Houston to inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman to safety Quintin Demps. According to the Chicago Tribune, Willie Young will be added to that list with a season-ending torn triceps. 

The Bears listed Young as a limited participant in Thursday's practice, but the veteran outside linebacker didn't participate in practice on Friday or Saturday and was officially deemed doubtful for Monday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Young had two sacks this year, tied for the team lead with Akiem Hicks and Pernell McPhee, and totaled 26 sacks since joining the Bears from the Detroit Lions in 2013. 

"It’s definitely going to impact the rotation," McPhee said of Young's injury. "Just another guy who knows how to get after the quarterback. This is where our depth in our room is really going to show in how much we trust in each other. I think we got the guys who can make up for it, but you really can’t make up for Willie, so we got guys who are going to play a major role in this game."

Without Young, the Bears likely will elevate either Isaiah Irving or Howard Jones from the practice squad to the active roster for Monday night. Irving, an undrafted rookie from San Jose State, notched three sacks during preseason play while Jones had five sacks in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

But Young's injury puts the Bears' defensive depth — which was already going to be tested Monday night —​ in an even more precarious position. McPhee and Leonard Floyd are the only outside linebackers with recent pass-rushing success (Sam Acho had seven sacks in 2011, but only has one sack in four years with the Bears). And Floyd hasn't made an impact getting to the quarterback this year, whiffing on a shot at Ben Roethlisberger in Week 3 and recording his first sack last Thursday against the Green Bay Packers. 

The Bears will need Floyd, especially, to step up and fill the pass-rushing void left by Young. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio intimated that Floyd's back injury, which limited in practice earlier this season, played a part in his slow start to his second year in the NFL. 

"He’s had his good moments and not so good," Fangio said. "He played the first week or so with a little wrenched back that affected him some in the first game and some of the second game. I thought he played well against Pittsburgh. And then last week really none of us played well enough to win.

"... I think he’s progressing on a good, upward trend. It maybe hadn’t translated to the stats, which you guys want to see, but he’s doing fine."

While the Bears' defense has been solid, it hasn't made a lot of big plays: Nine sacks (21st) two forced fumbles (20th) and no interceptions (29th). McPhee on Saturday described what can help jump-start those playmaking efforts —​ efforts that, without Young, will need to be successful for this defense to weather another significant injury. 

"Just (go) out there and — I call it playing chess instead of checkers — just beat your guy," McPhee said. "Don’t worry about how he’s going to block you, just — everybody stays study your opponent, but sometimes you have to study yourself. You could study your opponent all you want to but if you ain’t studying yourself and don’t know what you did wrong, you’ll never win no matter how much you study a guy. So for me, it’s just like, make a guy block you, go make a player, especially when you get that one-on-one."