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Bears training camp capsules: Secondary

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Bears training camp capsules: Secondary

Third in a series

Half of Bears starting secondary facing stiff position battles in camp

In the Cover-2 mindset practiced by coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the defensive backfield is expected to provide certain things, among them peace of mind in the back end of the defense.

Sometimes performance falls far, far short of expectations.

A turnstile situation at safety and questions at one cornerback position have the secondary on the brink of perhaps one of its most competitive training camps under Smith.

The reasons are simple. The overall pass defense was generally adequate but individual breakdowns came too often from too many players in a scheme that demands discipline and functioning within the system.

That is expected to change. Or else.

2011 in Review

Despite a pedestrian pass rush (29th in sacks per pass attempt) the Bears finished tied for sixth with 20 interceptions and seventh in yards per pass attempt, the latter being one of the bellwether indicators for a defense and the former a crucial turnover component.

Tillman was voted to his first Pro Bowl and nickel back D.J. Moore collected 4 interceptions for the second straight season.

Overall the Bears ranked fourth in the NFL in percentage of opponent possessions ending in three-and-outs, meaning the pass defense was doing something right on a lot of third downs. Since 2004 the Bears are No. 1 in the NFL in three-and-outs forced.

The defense also ranked eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). The Bears allowed ratings above 90 for a game only six times and two of those were Aaron Rodgers, one Drew Brees and one Philip Rivers. The others were Matthew Stafford and Tavaris Jackson.

But seven of the interceptions were by linebackers (Lance Briggs 1, Brian Urlacher 3) or a player no longer here (Corey Graham 3).

It also was a year marked with what can only be termed as chaos in the deep regions. The Bears had six different safety combinations in the first seven games and eight for the year.

Chris Harris, brought back in 2010 to give a veteran presence at the back end of the defense, was cut midway through the season after repeated disasters. Brandon Meriweather started four games, just enough to show why Bill Belichick excused him from New England after a Pro Bowl season. Injuries to Chris Conte and Major Wright added to the problems.

Tillman had a superb season at right cornerback but Tim Jennings was replaced by Zackary Bowman for game 15 after managing just one interception through the first 14 (he recorded his second INT the following week).

The net was a year that sent the organization looking for help in the secondary (drafting safety Brandon Hardin in the third round) ahead of linebacker or defensive tackle, all positions of seemingly more immediate need.

2012 Training Camp What to Watch

Depth chart
RCB Charles TillmanJonathan Wilhite
LCB Tim JenningsKelvin Hayden
3CB D.J. Moore
FS Chris ConteBrandon Hardin
SS Major WrightCraig Steltz

Others to watch: Isaiah Frey, Greg McCoy

Conte, Moore and Tillman are set going into training camp. Moore has emerged as a playmaker in his spot role and another solid year with four interceptions will enhance his value going into free agency.

After that

Cornerback

The left-corner job is Jennings to lose but the Bears signed Hayden to a one-year deal, meaning he will be highly motivated, and he fits the big-corner model that facing the Packers and Lions receivers demand.

The telling point through camp is expected to be takeaways, one area that coaches wanted more of from Jennings last year. Hayden, however, played in only eight games for Atlanta last season, with one start, so is in need of a jump-restart for his career.

The Bears used their last two draft choices on cornerbacks, with Isaiah Frey from Nevada in the sixth round and Greg McCoy from TCU in the seventh. Frey is 6 feet, 180 pounds and had 5 interceptions as a senior making All-WAC first team. He will not challenge for a significant role this year but has the size the Bears want against the big receivers of the NFC North.

Safety

Conte is a former cornerback who made his share of rookie mistakes but played well enough to be a virtual lock at free safety.

Wright is anything but. He has struggled with injuries since his arrival in 2010, a surprise for someone who was all but bomb-proof during his career at Florida.

But Wright has been a mild disappointment when hes managed to stay on the field. His discipline and angles have been suspect inconsistent, more a product of over-thinking at times and over-reacting at others.

If Wright stumbles, the Bears have options. Hardin will get a serious look, but not to be overlooked is Steltz, who re-signed with the Bears this offseason after starting five games last season, including the last four.

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: