Bears

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

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USA TODAY

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

The coach of a woeful college basketball team was asked in a postseason media session if the fact that he had all five of his starters returning was cause for optimism. “The kids tried hard,” the coach pointed out, “but we won two games last year. So having everybody back isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

The Bears approach the 2018 season and training camp returning their entire starting secondary – cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller on new, multi-year contracts, safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson now being touted as one of the NFL’s top safety tandems.

And continuity is unquestionably a prized element, particularly with offensive lines and defensive backfields. Having the four principle starters back should be a good thing.

The problem is, the Bears tied for 29th in the NFL with eight interceptions, matching a franchise-low for the third straight season. The starting DBs four accounted for just five total interceptions, suggesting that for all the supposed continuity, the whole was somewhat less the some of the parts where the critical turnover ratio is concerned.

The last time the Bears intercepted more passes (19) than their opponents (13) was 2013 – the last time the Bears saw .500.

The importance of one statistic can be overstated, but turnovers, particularly interceptions, are the one measurable with the greatest correlation to winning. The top 11 and 13 of the 14 teams with positive turnover ratios all posted winning records in 2017 (the Bears were 15th, with a zero net differential). And while fumble recoveries obviously also count as takeaways, interceptions are key: The top 10 teams in interceptions all posted positive records and all 14 of the turnover-ratio leaders intercepted more balls than they recovered.

Of the takeaways by those top 14 in turnover ratio, 65.8 percent of their takeaways came on interceptions. The Bears and the bottom half of the NFL turnover gatherers picked up only 55.7 percent of their takeaways on interceptions.

“Well, we hope we’re going to improve there,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “That takes 11 guys doing it, but we’ll see. That’s obviously going to be an emphasis for us.”

Creating a different mindset

Individual Bears defensive backs had flash moments: Jackson became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 75-yard defensive touchdowns in a season; Amos returned an interception 90 yards for a score; Fuller was one of only two NFL players with at least 65 tackles and 20 passes defensed.

The Bears self-scouted enough to understand those for what they were – exceptions, bordering the fluke-ish, given the overall. The result was that even during minicamps and OTA’s, there was an edge to the play of the secondary. Mitch Trubisky and his quiver of weapons will have to earn things, beginning against their own teammates.

“We’ve been getting the receivers and the running backs a little mad, but they know that we’re just trying to get better at [takeaways],” Amukamara said. “And just catching the ones that the quarterback throws to you. But if we keep making the most of our opportunities we know that those numbers will go up.”

The numbers could scarcely go anywhere but up.

Amos, who was languishing on the bench and a possible roster bubble before Quintin Demps suffered a forearm fracture in week three, went 2,638 career snaps before collecting his lone career interception last season on a ball deflected to him seven yards away.

Amukamara was signed to a new three-year contract with $18 million of its $27 million guaranteed – this despite a dubious streak that has reached 2,340 snaps and more than two full seasons since his last interception.

The goal is to change that by “just getting to the ball, everybody,” Amos said. “Everybody is making efforts at the ball during camp. It’s just something that we just are emphasizing every day trying to create more takeaways.”

Pro Football Focus rated the Bears’ secondary No. 30 going into the 2017 season, factoring in veteran safety Quintin Demps signed coming off his best NFL season and Fuller coming off a season missed with a knee injury.

That is not a given. Pass defense begins with a pass rush, but roster losses have cost the Bears more than one-third (14.5) of their 2017 sack total (42).

Bears offense opens up in 24-23 comeback win over Denver Broncos

Bears offense opens up in 24-23 comeback win over Denver Broncos

Preseason games are about isolated goods and bads, snapshots really, rather than sweeping overalls. All in the eye of the beholder. And for the Bears, after losses to Baltimore and Cincinnati in Matt Nagy’s first efforts as a head coach, getting out of Denver with a 24-23 win over the Broncos looked pretty good in the eyes of any Bears beholder.

Saturday’s preseason game three was a collection of snapshots for the Bears, playing their third “practice” game but the first with enough of the starters on offense and defense to matter, or at least as much as these can matter.

The Bears achieved their first win under Nagy on the right arm of No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel, pressed into extra duty when Tyler Bray was hurt in the third quarter, and who completed 19 of 28 passes for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner just inside the 2-minute warning on a 12-yard throw to tight end Ben Braunecker. The win was preserved when cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc punched the ball out of the hands of Denver receiver Isaiah McKenzie and linebacker Isaiah Irving gathered in the loose football to end a potential Denver comeback drive at the Chicago 38.

Before all of that, in his longest appearance of the presesason, quarterback Mitch Trubisky started and directed a pair of sustained drives, the first covering 51 yards to a missed field-goal attempt, and a second going 75 yards and culminating in a touchdown. Combined with the work by Daniel, the Bears put up five drives 50 yards or longer. Trubisky completed 9 of 14 passes for 90 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and the No. 1 offense produced 10 first downs.

Notably perhaps, the Trubisky score came in a fashion that was previewed more than a few times throughout camp, and that projects as a template for a staple in the offense under Nagy:

A high-percentage flip going to tight end Trey Burton cutting across the field and going seven yards for Trubisky’s first TD pass of the preseason. The design of the play forced the Denver secondary to drop in coverage of Bears wide receivers and left rush linebacker Von Miller needing to choose between dropping into a short zone or going after Trubisky. Miller did the latter and Burton, who caught 4 of 5 passes directed to him for 45 yards, was alone in the underneath zone.

“I’m just trying to be who I am, do what the coaches ask me to do and go wherever that leads,” Burton told the FOX 32 broadcast. “Obviously, every week and every game is different so whatever my role is, I’m down for it.”

Trubisky did suffer his first interception over the span of two preseasons and 71 pass attempts, but appeared to be victimized when running back Tarik Cohen broke off the route on a short in-cut and failed to break back toward Trubisky. The throw was to where Cohen was supposed to be but was instead an easy pick for Denver safety Justin Simmons.

“I think [Cohen] learned he can’t do that,” Nagy said.

But the passing offense overall was functional under Trubisky, not insignificant in the context of the quarterback in a new offense with a complement of receivers largely unfamiliar with him. And some who hadn’t graced stat sheets to date.

Kevin White came up with his first two catches of the preseason and followed each with some nifty running after the catches. White also drew a 37-yard pass interference penalty that accounted for about half the yardage on the Trubisky touchdown drive.

Rookie Anthony Miller caught 3 passes for 33 yards, with a long of 19 yards. Allen Robinson started by played sparingly in the first half in the first test of his surgically repaired left ACL and was not targeted. Taylor Gabriel, with a foot injury, did not play for the third straight game.

Thoughts from Bears-Broncos: Injury absences, special teams woes and a world of confusion over new helmet rule

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USA TODAY

Thoughts from Bears-Broncos: Injury absences, special teams woes and a world of confusion over new helmet rule

No Roquan Smith but Bears injury absences vs. Broncos far more troubling
 
No real surprise that coaches decided to hold linebacker Roquan Smith out, given that the rookie had exactly one practice in pad and two without pads last week after signing his contract on Monday. But it was not Smith’s absence that was concerning coming out of the Bears ____ loss to the Denver Broncos.
 
Linebacker Leonard Floyd, who has been hampered by injuries in each of this first two Bears seasons, went out midway through the first half with an unspecified hand injury and did not return. Tight end Adam Shaheen, starting his second straight game after three catches for 53 yards at Cincinnati, caught a first-quarter pass from Mitchell Trubisky but left the field on a cart after injuring his ankle during the ensuing tackle.
 
Along with Floyd’s absence, the pass rush was again without outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who hasn’t been on the field since the first practice of training camp, that after missing play time with ankle twisted in the first April minicamp practice and with a hamstring strain in a June minicamp practice.
 
The Bears did get a sack from Roy Robertson-Harris, his third in as many games and likely establishing him as the starting defensive end opposite Akiem Hick in the Bears’ base 3-4.
 
First quarter not-so-special teams
 
Repeating a pattern from some years past, Bears kick returns did the offense no favors early, with multiple mistakes in first quarter alone:
 
Recently signed running back Knile Davis took the opening kickoff six yards deep in the end zone and got it only to the Chicago 15;
 
After the first Denver three-and-out, Cre’Von LeBlanc fair-caught a punt at the Chicago 5 instead of gambling on a touchback. Three plays later Mitch Trubisky mishandled a high snap and was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
 
On the free kick, reserve tight end Ben Braunecker lost contain and contributed to a 17-yard return by Isaiah McKenzie, setting the Broncos up at their 40, from where they moved for a first-quarter field goal. After that field goal, Davis returned the Denver kickoff 43 yards but the runback was nullified by a holding penalty.
 
Throw in Cody Parkey’s missed field goal from 52 yards and Bears special teams combined for one of the poorer possible quarters short of allowing a touchdown return.
 
 
Helmet hi-jinks
 
And the league thought it had problems with the catch rule?
 
The NFL’s leading-with-the-helmet prohibition and its enforcement bordering on the bizarre reared its ugly head early  flag on Denver cornerback Isaac Yiadom for his tackle of Bears tight end Adam Shaheen defies explanation. Yiadom got his head in front of Shaheen’s quads in a textbook go-low tackle with minimal risk to either player but was hit with a 15-yard penalty. Not sure what Yiadom was supposed to lead with? His feet?
 
Then Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller drew a leading-with-the-helmet when he went shoulder-first into tight end Andy Janovich, while Denver left tackle Garrett Bolles went helmet-first into a basic cut block on linebacker Leonard Floyd and drew no flag.
 
 
Duly noted
 
Quirky rules and their enforcement don’t account for a worrisome spate of penalties (eight through three quarters) that cost the Bears more than 100 yards. 
 
In the first half alone, besides the Fuller flag, tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie drew holding penalties, and a holding penalty on the kickoff-return team negated a 43-yard return by Knile Davis. Tight end Ben Braunecker was tagged for pass interference.