Bears

Bears respond to Matt Nagy’s win-at-all-costs plan by throttling Vikings on way to playoffs

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USA TODAY

Bears respond to Matt Nagy’s win-at-all-costs plan by throttling Vikings on way to playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS — The Bears danced and yelled in Club Dub. Matt Nagy ripped off three of his trademark “boom” celebrations. The Bears won, again. Same as it ever was, right?

For the 12th and final time in 2018’s regular season, the Bears celebrated a win, this one a 24-10 extinguishing of the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. This wasn’t a trip to Minnesota to rest starters and make sure players were as fresh as possible for the playoffs, relegating the outcome of the game to a secondary focus. The Bears aren’t a team that, pardon the expression, half-asses anything.

That starts with Nagy, who told his players after they clinched the NFC North against the Green Bay Packers that their goal for the final two weeks of the season was to go 2-0. There was no talk about resting guys who weren’t hurt, or hiding things within the playbook to save for the playoffs.

And it wasn’t just that the Bears’ focus was to win — it was the manner in which they did it on Sunday, not holding anything back against a team with everything to lose.

“They probably could’ve thought, like hey they’re already in the playoffs, we might be taking our foot off the gas a little bit,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “But that wasn’t the case today.”

So Nagy called “Lollipop,” which featured Amukamara running four wind sprints along the line of scrimmage and Mitch Trubisky converting a two-point attempt with a pass to linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. The Bears got after Kirk Cousins, again tormenting the Vikings’ quarterback and causing a public quarrel between him and wide receiver Adam Thielen on the sidelines. Dalvin Cook, the basis for Minnesota’s offensive success after the firing of ex-coordinator John DeFilippo, was held to a meager 39 yards on 11 carries – while Jordan Howard physically rumbled for 109 yards on 21 carries.

While Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel both exited with injuries, Javon Wims stepped up with the first four catches of his career for 32 yards, some of which were critical plays. The Bears’ depth flexed its muscle on Sunday, too.

It wasn’t until Trubisky engineered one of his best drives of 2018 — a 16-play, 75-yard march on which he converted four third downs — did Nagy call off the dogs, with his team up by two scores midway through the fourth quarter. And even then, the replacement dogs — in this analogy — forced back-to-back four-and-outs on which Cousins completed none of his seven passing attempts.

So while the Los Angeles Rams cruised to a bye-clinching win over the San Francisco 49ers — rendering the outcome of Sunday’s game meaningless for the Bears’ playoff seeding — Nagy didn’t care. He wasn’t informed of that Rams’ score until FOX reporter Erin Andrews told him at the start of halftime, and it didn’t alter the approach he wanted his team to take.

“Coach has a great plan in place for us,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who had yet another spectacular game, said. “I believe in him. He has done us right so far, going through OTAs, training camp and now in the regular season. If he feels like it is time for us to play, we are going to go out there and play ball.”

If the Bears looked like the team with everything to play for, it’s because they believed that was the case. These players didn’t care about playoff seeding, or who their opponent may be in the playoffs — which now will be the streaking Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 6 at 3:40 p.m. Finishing the season with a win over a division opponent was incredibly important to this group. Having the starters be pulled from a game that wasn’t in hand — or not being played at all — would’ve sent a conflicting message to the one consistently provided by Nagy all year.

“I love it because resting starters, I mean, you only got a certain amount of opportunities for this game that you play,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said.

Would the Bears have rather faced the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs? Based on the results of their two games this year, probably. But there’s a reason why they won’t face the Vikings: The team that was the presumptive favorite to win the NFC North prior to this season wasn’t, actually, all that good. Linebacker Anthony Barr admitted his team didn’t deserve to make the playoffs; by the lackluster way they played on Sunday with everything on the line, he was spot-on correct in that assessment.

So the opponent will be the Eagles, a team that’s won three games in a row and embraces its underdog mentality. This will not be an easy game for the Bears to win, even if Nick Foles — who suffered a rib injury in the Eagles’ win over Washington — winds up not being available.

But the Bears will welcome the Eagles to Soldier Field next Sunday with loads of confidence they can win their first playoff game in eight years. And what they did in Minnesota to end the season only added to that.

“We didn’t care who was going to be — we’ve been through so much already this season, we’ve been battle-tested — it doesn’t matter who comes to Soldier Field, we’re ready to play them,” Leno said. “Just let us know what day it is. We’ll be there.”

 

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Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

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USA Today

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

The Bears battle for the 53-man roster doesn’t have many contentious positions entering training camp.

Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy brought back largely the same roster from their breakout 2018 season, finding replacements for the few players gone in free agency.

Outside of kicker, the entire starting lineup is pretty much set for Week 1, and the main competitions to stick with the team are at the bottom of the depth chart.

It leaves the roster with no notable veterans that stand out as candidates to be cut. ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson was asked to name one for an article, and he couldn’t come up with any.

He mentioned Taquan Mizzell, who made the move from running back to wide receiver this offseason, but as Dickerson pointed out “Mizzell is hardly a well-known commodity around the league.”

Former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but the Bears have seemed comfortable keeping him around in a backup role.

The Bears roster has very little fat to trim. The only other player who could potentially qualify is cornerback Sherrick McManis, since the team has so many young players at his position, but he’s been working at safety to increase his value, and he’s one of the team’s best special teams contributors.

The trim down from the 90-man roster shouldn’t have too many significant surprises, which is why so much of the attention this offseason continues to go to the kicker position.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

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USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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