Bears

Bears could develop 'twin towers' personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

Bears could develop 'twin towers' personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Coaches are loath to give away competitive information, which can cover just about anything from play design to flavor of Gatorade dispensed by the training staff. But Matt Nagy offered an intriguing what-if personnel grouping that his offense could confront defenses with in 2018. It’s one that has been overlooked so far, for a variety of reasons.

The what-if personnel pairing is Allen Robinson and Kevin White as the outside receivers, a tandem that would put two 6-foot-3 wide receivers at the disposal of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Bears have not had a tandem of effective big receivers since Alshon Jeffery (6-3) and Brandon Marshall (6-4) averaged a combined 159 catches per year from 2012-14.

White’s injury history has relegated him to found-money status in many evaluations, and he has typically been running at Robinson’s spot while the latter was rehabbing this offseason from season-ending knee injury.

But Nagy on Wednesday cited Robinson’s ability to play multiple positions and clearly raised the prospect of his two of his biggest receivers being on the field at the same time.

“The one thing you’ll see here in this offense is that we have guys all over the place in different spots,” said Nagy, who credited GM Ryan Pace with stocking the roster with options at wide receiver. “Ryan did a great job of looking at these certain free agents that we went after, some of these draft picks that we went after and getting guys that are football smart, they have a high football IQ and they’re able to play multiple positions.

“When you can do that, that helps you out as an offensive playcaller to be able to move guys around. Is it going to happen to every single receiver that comes into this offense? No. But we do a pretty job I feel like at balancing of where they’re at position wise, what they can and can’t handle, and then we try to fit them into the process.”

The organization and locker room can be excused for a collective breath-holding on White, who has gone through his third straight positive offseason but whose last two seasons ended abruptly with injuries in the fourth and first games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

White was leading the Bears in with 19 receptions through less than four full games in 2016, then was lost with a fractured fibula suffered against Detroit. The injury was all the crueler coming in a game in which White already had been targeted nine times in 41 snaps and had caught six of those Brian Hoyer passes.

White’s roster status has been open to some question with the signings of Robinson and Taylor Gabriel together with the drafting of Anthony Miller. All represent bigger deep threats in terms of average yards per catch than White (9.2 ypc.) at this point: Robinson, 14.1.; Gabriel, 15.1; and Miller, 13.8 (college stats).

But Trubisky’s budding chemistry with White was evident throughout the offseason. And the second-year quarterback has studied what Robinson has been and seen some of what he can be.

“We know he has great hands, he’ll go up and get it,” Trubisky said. “Explosive route-runner. The more reps we get, it’s all about repetitions for us, continue to build that chemistry. Just going against our great defense in practice is going to allow us to compete and get better.”

Folding in the expectations for an expanded presence at tight end (Trey Burton), “targets” will be spread around the offense. How often the Bears go with a Robinson-White “twin towers” look clearly depends in large measure on White’s improvement as well as his availability.

Opportunities will be there. The Kansas City Chiefs ran 51 percent of their 2018 snaps, with Nagy as offensive coordinator, in “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. Whether White earns his way into that core nickel-wideout package opposite Robinson is part of what training camp and preseason will determine.

“[White] has had a good offseason and just like our team, he needs to carry that momentum into camp,” Pace said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, he’s very focused. The real expectation, just be the best he can be. Focus on himself, which is what he’s been doing.”

Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Add two more names to the list of Bears Pro Bowlers this season.

Offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno Jr. are also heading to Orlando to help lend some protection to Mitch Trubisky, who was named as a replacement to Rams QB Jared Goff Monday.

Leno takes the place of Saints tackle Terron Armstead and Whitehair is replacing New Orleans center Max Unger for this weekend's exhibition game.

Whitehair and Leno have been staples on the Bears offensive line, starting every game the last three seasons (Whitehair at center or guard, Leno at left tackle). 

Whitehair, 26, was a 2nd round selection in 2016 while Leno, 27, was a 7th round draft pick in 2014 in Phil Emery's last draft as Bears GM.

Both players were a huge part of a line that paved the way for Trubisky and Co. to pass for 3,747 yads and rush for 1,938 yards with 44 total offensive TDs.

The complete list of Bears players going to the Pro Bowl after a 12-4 season now sits at: Trubisky, Whitehair, Leno, Tarik Cohen, Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. 

This is the first time the Bears have had 8 Pro Bowlers since 2007 (following the 2006 season). They previously had 9 selections in the Super Bowl championship season of 1985 and 11 Pro Bowlers in 1942.

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Elite? More proof the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2019

Elite? More proof the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2019

Comparisons in sports are both easy and inevitable, particularly when the actual entities being compared don’t in some way compete directly against each other to settle the discussion. Joe Louis didn’t ever meet Muhammed Ali in the squared circle. The ’85 Bears defense was a decade too late to take the field against the ‘70’s Steel Curtain, and besides, they wouldn’t have been on the field at the same time anyway.

But comparing the 2018 Bears – and for purposes here, the 2019 Bears – to the current standards of excellence – Super Bowl entrants Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots – is possible. And arguably relevant. More on that momentarily.

For context’s sake, consider the Bears vs. the NFC North and in particular the two measuring standards going into last season, Green Bay and Minnesota.

The Bears went a convincing 5-1 in the division. They dispatched the Detroit Lions twice by a combined 19 points, including 7-point win in Detroit in the second game when their backup QB outplayed the Lions’ starter, whose arrow is what it is at this point. Detroit had won nine of the previous 10 meetings before last year; it can all change that quickly.

The Bears also took the measure of the Packers, going on the road in week one and letting complacency creep into a game they controlled. That was back when Cody Parkey was making all (three) of his field goals and before a young team fully grasped that a wounded animal is sometimes more dangerous than a healthy one. By the time the Packers made their visit to Soldier Field, the Bears had evolved to the point of never trailing in a game in which they, fittingly, clinched the NFC North outright.

As for the Vikings, the popular pick to win both the division and the NFC was squashed a second time in a season. The Bears won going away over a team that was playing for its playoff life.

Pulling the camera back for a wider perspective…

The division is one thing, and it’s entirely possible that the Bears could be incrementally better in 2019 with a settled-in coach, system and roster and still lose more than one game in the division. Green Bay is getting a new coach, Kirk Cousins could perform closer to the level the Vikings thought they were getting with their $84 million guaranteed, and the Lions could…well, the Lions…the Lions are tough at home.

But with the not-assured assumption that the Bears at least offensively can improve in 2019, the case can be made that they in fact are deserving of being in the NFC-elite discussion, perhaps NFL-elite.

The reasons start with the obvious, that they field a defense that is superior to that of the Patriots (16th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking) and the Rams (19th). The correlation between that and success, however, isn’t automatic: Only they and the Baltimore Ravens from among the top seven defenses reached the postseason.

Seven of the top 10 offenses, based on Football Outsiders’ metric, did reach the playoffs, though, and Nos. 2 (Rams) and 5 (Patriots) play for the next Lombardi. The Bears ranked 20th; among the playoff participants, only Houston (21st) and Dallas (24th) ranked lower, and the Bears and Texans were out in the wild-card round.

The Bears benefitted from a fourth-place schedule that included only three playoff teams – Rams, Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. But the Bears did defeat two of those three (Rams, Seahawks).

Next season, six of the Bears games are against playoff teams, plus two against 8-7-1 Minnesota, meaning that half of their games are against winning teams, based on that strength-of-schedule permutation.

But getting to a final point of comparison, the Bears defeated the Rams despite an-overamp’ed Mitchell Trubisky throwing three interceptions (to Jared Goff’s four). They led the Patriots early in the third quarter, fell behind and came up a yard short on a Hail Mary that would’ve tied the game (with the leap of faith that Parkey would have converted the PAT). Trubisky threw 2 interceptions but the Bears out-rushed the Patriots, an area that has been an underappreciated area of strength for the Brady offense. The majority (81) of the Bears rushing yardage (134) came from Trubisky, and an upgrade at running back rates here as the No. 1 offseason Bears need. (Well, tied for No. 1, with kicker; that’s in a different class.)

The future is promised to no one. GM Ryan Pace said as much in his season-ending remarks: “It’s on us to ensure that we’re on the right track and that we stay on the right track.”

But rare has been the season this decade that ended with legitimate bases for projecting the Bears into a position where the oft-amusing odds of winning the Super Bowl get at least a cursory look for reasons other than ridicule. Reflecting on the conference championship games and the upcoming Super Bowl, the Bears have those legitimate reasons.

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