Bears

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

CINCINNATI — If the Bears pull off a Los Angeles Rams-esque turnaround in 2018, their future offensive success might look a little like what went down in Sunday’s 33-7 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mitchell Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over while operating more aggressive offensive gameplan. Jordan Howard rumbled for 147 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns, and Tarik Cohen provided a spark with 80 yards on 12 carries. Adam Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards and reeled in a touchdown. The Bears’ offensive line, despite a rash of first-half penalties, largely kept Trubisky upright and paved the way for Howard and Cohen to account for more rushing yards (227) than team had total offensive yards a week ago (147).  

“What’s been frustrating for me and the coaches is that a lot of us have had our day in the sun, but to see young guys come in and work hard and not reap those benefits,” coach John Fox said. “I thought Mitch Trubisky played very well last week. When you don’t experience the end result that’s a W, it’s hard to put much into that. I’ve seen him grow every week he’s been out there since all the way back to Minnesota. It’s just kind of nice to see some of those young guys experience the benefits of all the hard work.”

Kendall Wright, who’s due to hit free agency, had a massive game (11 targets, 10 catches, 107 yards) and said he won’t focus on where he’ll wind up signing until after the season. But he did add: “If they want me, I’m here. I’m cool with it.”

The Bears’ exact blueprint on Sunday won’t necessarily be easy to follow in 2018, let alone these last three games, given the Bengals’ defense was 1) missing a number of key players, like linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and 2) didn’t appear to give a very good effort. But more important than Howard bludgeoning the Bengals into submission over the course of a lackluster afternoon was the Bears, for the first time in 2017, scoring a touchdown on their first offensive possession.

“That was big for us,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “It was just a confidence thing. We’re capable of doing it, we just got to do it.”

The Bears’ gameplan from that point on felt more aggressive, with Trubisky slinging passes toward nine different teammates while looking comfortable going through his progressions in the pocket. This was a far cry from what the Bears did after getting an early lead against the Carolina Panthers back in October, with Trubisky taking a bunch of sacks and barely throwing the ball in an uninspiring offensive performance.  

The Bears jumped ahead Sunday and, instead of conservatively trying to protect the lead, aggressively tried to grow it. The result was the franchise’s biggest margin of victory in half a decade.

“Everybody wanted the ball,” Trubisky said. “The linemen wanted the ball to run behind them, the receivers wanted the ball in their eyes, and the running backs wanted (to run). When everybody has that hunger, that desire to want to go out and execute the next play, it makes it fun on offense.”

Perhaps the biggest question about Sunday’s game is where this gameplan was all season. But getting in the end zone on that first drive not only boosted the confidence of the players, it could’ve boosted the confidence of Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to open things up.

“(We were) making some of those plays that we maybe didn’t make earlier in the year,” Wright said. “But when you’re making those plays and having fun, it makes it easier for Mitch to find whoever, it makes it easier for Dowell to call whatever plays he wants.”

The story of the 2017 season, though, was written before Sunday’s win ended a five-game losing streak that included duds against the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. All the Bears can do in these final weeks of the season is work to build a foundation for 2018, and that starts with validating that the work they’ve put in this year hasn’t been for nothing.

For Trubisky, it’s not necessarily about personal validation — he’s been confident in his growth even without the wins to back it up. But for the Bears’ young core that played so well on Sunday, it counts for something right now — and may count for something next fall.

“(The losing streak) felt like s***,” Massie said. “You’re getting your ass kicked all the time — it doesn’t feel good to lose. All the work we put in, we deserve this win. We came out, did what we were supposed to do and we got it.”

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).

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Dear Mom and Dad:
 
Camp’s finally here, the guys all reporting and I think really ready to get started for real after the camps and OTA’s this spring and summer. Practices start tomorrow (Friday) and fans’ll be able to watch practice starting on Saturday. 
 
I and the other quarterbacks decided to come in Monday with the rookies, kind of to get going but really to connect with the young guys. I know what they’re going through – they were me this time last year. Allen Robinson came in, too, and he says his knee is feeling great and there won’t be any holding back, which is good to hear since Allen is a wide receiver who is great at going up and getting the football.
 
Coach Nagy tells us this’ll be a physical training camp. He says he wants to get his team “calloused.” Akiem Hicks said that physicality wasn’t really a problem in the past but the coaches want to establish an identity from the get-go, and a big part of my job will be to be a leader at setting that.
 
Someone asked whether it was fair that the coaches last year got so much criticism for holding me back. I said that I guess from my point of view I want to just say I was doing what I was asked to do. Last year is definitely different than this year. I’m going to have more responsibility and more, I guess, responsibility to do what I wanna do in the offense. I’ll have more options. Last year, it was what it was. the coaches’ philosophy. I tried to do to the best of my ability what they asked me. this year I’m going to do the same. Whatever they ask me to do I’m gonna do, and just roll with it.
 
Gotta run. Send money. (just kidding).
 
Your quarterback son,
 
Mitch
 
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No Ro’ yet
 
Barring a late contract breakthrough, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t expected before the start of practices on Friday. Smith is one of more than a dozen No. 1 picks still unsigned, not completely unusual because of details like offset language in the event a player is released before the end of his fourth season and the structure of paying signing bonuses. The Bears are not evincing serious concern at this point, although defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is among those who have acknowledged the impediment that missed time poses to a player’s development.
 
“There's a lot of details that go into these things,” said GM Ryan Pace. “We're optimistic that he's here soon. It's really part of the process and meanwhile we're rolling forward with the guys that are here and you know that chemistry and continuity is important.
 
The Bears are working on contract extensions for a handful of what they deem to be rising talents, as they did this offseason with a four-year contract for cornerback Kyle Fuller. “Obviously we're mindful of the guys in the final years of their contacts,” Pace said. “We've got a handful of them. Obviously those contract [details] we're going to keep internal. Those are really good players and we're mindful of it as we go forward and we'll have a plan in place.”
 
 
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Long-range danger
 
Wide receivers Allen Robinson, Kevin White, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton have been tasked with bringing a level of firepower that the organization is counting on to be on par with the Martellus Bennett-Matt Forte-Alshon Jeffery-Brandon Marshall cluster of five seasons ago. One key member of this year’s group sees danger for defenses regardless of where the Bears are on the field.
 
“Kevin White brings a lot to the table, as well,” Robinson said. “I think for him being such a big physical specimen, I think he’s at any point on the field and any point in time, I think he’s where we literally can possibly get six points on the board. Maybe off a deep ball. Maybe off a catch-and-fun. Anything like that.
 
“Whenever you’ve got him and Taylor and Anthony and those guys on the field, I mean, to be honest, we can any point in time are six points away.”
 
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How “physical” is too physical? Too soft? Just right?
 
The Bears have grappled with injury demons for too much of the past five seasons, with training-camp intensities ranging from a lighter, get-off-your-feet program under Marc Trestman to a time-tested system under veteran head coach John Fox. Neither approach saved the Bears once the season commenced, and now Matt Nagy has declared “physical” to be the measuring standard. The trick will be balancing full-contact, padded practice sessions with enough near-realistic intensity without risking injury any more than necessary.
 
“It has to be competitive,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It has to be where you get out there and a couple days hot, back to back to back, and coach is running you hard and it’s giving us a little test. You need those moments. Those are the moments I look forward to at training camp, where you know it gets a little aggressive out there. I think that builds not only your team confidence but that tenacity, that edge you need to have to play, especially defense.”
 
Training camps before the backing-off occasioned by the strictures of the collective bargaining agreement were notoriously physical, with double-session days in full pads common. They were also longer, as long as the 32-day first camp under new coach Dave Wannstedt in 1993. Camp opened that year on July 14 for a season with a Sept. 5 opening day.
 
This preseason year is in that range. The Bears begin their season Sept. 9 at Green Bay, and are starting now with the extra week of prep for a fifth preseason game on Aug. 2 as part of Hall of Fame ceremonies.
 
“I think it’ll be good to get a chance for our offense to sharpen up what they need to sharpen, our defense to relearn and revisit some of the things we need to revisit.,” Hicks said. “More time together is only beneficial. You just have to make sure you’re taking care of your guys. And I’m sure our coaching staff won’t have a problem doing that.”