Bears

Should you be worried about the ‘hardest’ stretch of the Bears’ schedule? Hardly

Should you be worried about the ‘hardest’ stretch of the Bears’ schedule? Hardly

When 2018’s schedule was released, a reasonable observer could’ve looked at the Bears’ final four games as the toughest stretch of the year: At home against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, then on the road against the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings. Our own John “Moon” Mullin, for instance, picked the Bears to lose all four of those games when the schedule game out last April, and was thoroughly reasoned in believing that. 

The Bears were two weeks away from drafting Roquan Smith, Anthony Miller, James Daniels and Bilal Nichols and were four and a half months away from trading for Khalil Mack when last year’s schedule came out. Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t yet torn his ACL, nor had Aaron Rodgers suffered a knee injury at the hands of Roy Robertson-Harris. The Vikings were not only the clear favorite in the NFC North, but were considered a Super Bowl contender. 

As it turned out, only the Rams met the expectations set on them last April. And the Bears still won that game in one of the most dominant defensive performances seen at Soldier Field in recent memory. 

The Bears’ 2019 schedule inherently is more difficult. Instead of playing the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they get the New Orleans Saints by virtue of both teams winning their respective divisions. The Los Angeles Rams are again on the schedule, this time in the warm confines of California. And the Bears — like the rest of the NFC North — swap the three-team flotsam of the AFC East for the AFC West, which might wind up being one of the best conferences in the NFL this year. 

All this, of course, is said before the NFL Draft and long before any injuries or cuts re-shape rosters across the league. Right now, there are two stretches of the Bears’ schedule that look the most difficult: Weeks 7-9 (Saints, Chargers, at Eagles) and Weeks 14-17 (Cowboys, at Packers, Chiefs, at Vikings). 

But the flip side to that stretch is this: The Bears emerged from their most difficult stretch of 2018 — which wound up being a three-division-games-in-12-days stretch with the shortest turnaround in NFL history — with a 3-0 record. That stretch was one of the biggest season-defining moments for a team that went on to reach the playoffs for the first time in eight years. 

“What they saw was if they just believe in what we’re telling them and how they do it, to trust us, that we’ll win games,” Nagy said of that stretch. “And we did that. We went 3-0. After we got by that stretch our guys, you could really feel whatever we said, they were all in on. Whether it was pulling back reps or adding reps, the quality vs. quantity deal, how we’re going to approach the playoffs, how we’re going to approach in the playoffs and I just — I thought that was really good.”

The Bears didn’t know how difficult that stretch would be until their game against the Vikings was flexed to Sunday Night Football, creating that grueling turnaround ahead of an early kickoff against the Lions on Thanksgiving. The toughest stretch doesn’t have to involve the most difficult opponents, too. 

But right now, while Weeks 7-9 and 14-17 look difficult, keep in mind: It won’t necessarily stay that way in the fall. And if it does, the Bears could always wind up turning it into a positive, too. 

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

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USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An NFL.com article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”