Bears

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Here's what NFL media thinks about this year's Bears team

Here's what NFL media thinks about this year's Bears team

Prediction szn is upon us all. 

It's about now -- Week 3 of the preseason for most teams -- when the shine of exhibition football starts to wear off. With Week 1 in sight, media outlets are starting to unveil their season predictions. Sheild your eyes, Bears fans.

Sports Illustrated: 7-9, Last in the NFC North

"The offensive line took a big hit losing guard Josh Sitton and the defense, while improved with Roquan Smith at linebacker, still needs to find a pass rush. It may take one more year for this group to gel."

CBS Sports: 4-12 (oof), Last in the NFC North

Yahoo Sports: 7-9, Last in the NFC North

ESPN: 7-9, Last in NFC North

"The NFL did the Bears no favors with early games against Green Bay and Seattle, but the schedule lightens up considerably beginning in Week 3."

Bleacher Report: 7-9, Last in NFC North

"Chicago is well-positioned to rapidly improve even though its home schedule is difficult, with the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Jets and Buccaneers coming to town beyond its regular rivalries." 

Pro Football Focus: O/U 6.5 wins - Over

"Among optimistic plays on win totals, the Bears OVER 6.5 wins (even at -130) offers the best value, especially given the aforementioned environment surrounding second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky."

Newsday: O/U 6.5 wins - Over

"If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that the Bears are my breakout team for the 2018 season. They had such a great offseason that they can be this year’s 2017 Rams."

USA Today: 7-9, 3rd in NFC North

"Let's not expect them to fully replicate the Rams' model of success in 2017. But if Mitchell Trubisky is the real deal, he and new coach Matt Nagy should finally get this proud franchise pointed in a direction that could reasonably mean playoffs ... in 2019."

For The Win: 6-10, 3rd in the NFC North

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

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Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure on Monday if Adam Shaheen’s right ankle sprain would keep him from playing Week 1 in Green Bay. If it does, though, it would represent the fourth consecutive regular season game the second-year tight end would miss dating back to last year. 

In a coincidental connection, too, it would mark the second straight year Shaheen wouldn’t be able to immediately build off a strong showing against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last December, Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards with a touchdown in the Bears’ 33-7 win in Cincinnati; he caught all three of his targets for 53 yards against the Bengals in Aug. 9’s preseason game. 

Shaheen suffered a chest injury during that Bengals game last December and was inactive for the Bears’ final three games of the season. Coincidences aside, Shaheen’s ankle injury represents another speed bump in his developmental path, depending on the severity of it. 

But the good news, perhaps, is that Shaheen has made strides this training camp and preseason. We’ll look at one specific play against the Bengals that stands out below. 

To set it up: Earlier this month, Shaheen talked about how he’s improved at reading coverages and how that’s helped him improve as a route runner. That’s something that has come with experience as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“It’s a big part of this offense as a receiver, recognize the coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen said. “How you get there is everything.

“… There’s a little more not-so-much focus on, like, a perfect square cut. It’s more, like I said earlier, against this coverage you need to be in that hole at the right time. You might just be in that hole just pulling a defender another way to open up your teammate. That’s a big part.”

That growing savviness was on display in Cincinnati on Aug. 9. Specifically, this play:

Shaheen runs a drag over the middle on third-and-four but encounters linebacker Hardy Nickerson (red circle) standing in his way.

Instead of keeping strictly to the route and trying to run through or beneath Nickerson (yellow arrow), Shaheen faced up to the Bengals’ linebacker, did an inside-out juke move and goes to Nickerson's outside shoulder (blue arrow).

Shaheen is then able to use his strength and athleticism to gain leverage on Nickerson and work his way into the open field. 

The whole play took all of two seconds to develop, and by the time Chase Daniel releases the ball, Shaheen has a step on Nickerson. The result is not just a first down, but a 29-yard completion. 

“Some routes are locked in, and other ones we’ve got a little wiggle room to work,” Shaheen said. “Those ones are obviously very good to see a linebacker over there because you know you can really have an opportunity to get the ball and work him.”

Those little things will continue to grow Shaheen’s game with more experience. The potential is there for Shaheen to play a significant role in the Bears’ offense in 2018 — provided he’s healthy for the start of it.