Bears

Could Alex Bars solve the Bears' growing tackle problem?

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USA Today

Could Alex Bars solve the Bears' growing tackle problem?

INDIANAPOLIS — Three years ago, Harry Hiestand needed Alex Bars to play tackle. The then-Notre Dame offensive line coach had a hole to fill after Ronnie Stanley left for the NFL, and with Mike McGlinchey locked in to one starting gig, Hiestand hoped his former four-star recruit could succeed as a right tackle. 

“I think for what we need for our team, he definitely needs to play tackle,” Hiestand said at the time. “We need another guy that can play tackle so he’s being pushed in that role right now. … But he’s a very good guard, too. He’s a very flexible guy.”

The point of bringing up this quote from an old media availability at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend is this: Hiestand, now the Bears' offensive line coach, needed Bars to play tackle Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts

With four-year NFL veteran T.J. Clemmings carted to the locker room with a right leg injury late in the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium, and with second-year tackle Rashaad Coward already out with an elbow injury, the Bears suddenly had a red-line need at tackle. Cornelius Lucas, a five-year veteran, was badly beat numerous times in the first half, which didn’t feel like an anomaly based on his prior preseason performance. Bradley Sowell, the team’s backup swing tackle for the last two seasons, was moved to tight end this spring, and shed plenty of weight to make that transition.  

So the Bears called on Bars, who last played tackle in 2016 with Notre Dame, to play left tackle for two quarters. The result was notably positive. 

“I thought he did a great job,” Nagy said. “I was happy for him. You never know what you’re going to get, but he does have experience playing at Notre Dame there at that position. You could see that come out, which was good.”

Bars had already made a strong push to make the Bears’ roster over the last month as a guard, the position he played at Notre Dame following that 2016 season before a torn ACL and MCL ended his 2018 season prematurely — and knocked him from being a mid-round draft prospect to undrafted free agent. Showing the Bears he can play tackle should only help his case to survive the cut.

Still, two quarters of playing tackle against mostly third-stringers won't necessarily lead the Bears to trust Bars in a similar spot when the games matter in the regular season. 

The good news for the Bears is starting left tackle Charles Leno Jr. has proven to be one of the team’s most durable players over the last few years — he played every offensive snap in 2016 and 2017, and only didn’t in 2018 because Nagy removed most of his team’s starters during a relatively meaningless Week 17 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Right tackle Bobby Massie played all 16 games for the Bears in 2018, though he did miss a single game in both 2016 and 2017. 

But the Bears’ depth behind Leno and Massie feels like a problem. Bars, at the least, offered a glimmer of hope Saturday night that he could be the solution to it. 

“When you got some of your linemen on the sideline coming up to you that aren’t playing telling you man, he’s really doing well,” Nagy said, “you know he stands out.”

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Bears reportedly expect Akiem Hicks to come off injured reserve in eight weeks

Bears reportedly expect Akiem Hicks to come off injured reserve in eight weeks

The Bears expect to activate Akiem Hicks off injured reserve as soon as they can — which would be for their Week 15 game against the Green Bay Packers — according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

The NFL requires players placed on injured reserve to spend eight weeks on it before they can be activated. While losing Hicks for half the season certainly presents a significant challenge to the Bears’ defense, that he does not need surgery and is expected to return in 2019 is at least a silver lining. 

The Bears officially placed Hicks on injured reserve Tuesday and promoted offensive lineman Alex Bars from their practice squad. 

While Hicks won’t be on the field for a while, he will be present around Halas Hall and Soldier Field as the Bears, defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. 

“He’s going to be with us throughout the gameplanning, he’s going to be with us on game day, he’s going to be on the sidelines, all those kinds of things,” Rodgers said. “You’re going to feel the presence of him on the sideline and everything we do from here to whenever that is.”

Bears can feel Trey Flowers' pain with NFL's over-emphasis on hands to the face penalties

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USA Today

Bears can feel Trey Flowers' pain with NFL's over-emphasis on hands to the face penalties

The Detroit Lions felt victimized by two brutal hands to the face penalties assessed to defensive end Trey Flowers on Monday night, flags which significantly contributed to the Green Bay Packers kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired. Those two penalties sparked yet another officiating firestorm for the NFL to put out. 

But while those two fouls came in high-leverage, fourth quarter situations — and helped the Packers score 10 points on their way to a division-best 5-1 record — they were just two fouls. The Bears have been flagged for illegal use of hands/hands to the face a mind-numbing eight times in 2019, easily the highest total in the league. 
No other team has been flagged more than four times for it. 

The Bears, collectively, were flagged twice for illegal use of hands in 2018 (defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Akiem Hicks were the offenders). 2019’s breakdown encompasses three units and quite a bit of frustration: Cornerback Prince Amukamara (3), left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (2), and right guard Kyle Long, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (1). 

So on Tuesday, we asked around the Bears’ position coaches to get their take on why all these hands to the face penalties are occurring in Chicago, and also their thoughts on the high-profile mistakes made by Clete Blakeman’s officiating crew in Green Bay on Monday. 

“You just gotta avoid it,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “There’s times where it happens, times where it doesn’t happen, especially when you get your hands on sweaty, slippery guys in the fourth quarter, it’s going to happen.”

Long, prior to his season-ending injury, said officiating crews previously would mete out warnings of sorts for hands to the face. Perhaps baked into those were an understanding of what Rodgers said — sometimes, these things just happen unintentionally in such a physical, fast-moving sport. 

Now? Seemingly any contact with a player’s face — facemask or helmet — is whistled. 

“Those guys don't seem to get it as far as people's heads are moving all the time,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “What I read this morning, one of the things that was important about it is that (a player’s hand) stays there and that it's kind of an act of getting an edge by doing it. You just want to prevent that.”

Still, even while some of these hands to the face fouls aren’t preventable or are just straight up blown calls, there are coaching points for these players on both sides of the ball. 

“You just gotta watch the release of that receiver, keep (your) eyes down,” cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend said. “Sometimes it’s incidental when a guy ducks his head, but you gotta focus on putting your eyes where they should be and that’ll force him to keep his hands down.”

So that’s the coaching point for Amukamara, at least. For Rodgers’ defensive linemen and Ted Monachino’s outside linebackers, it’s similarly all about hand placement. 

Rodgers said a lot of the rushes he teaches his players involve hand strikes near an offensive lineman’s armpit, which if executed correctly won’t allow for the possibility of a hands to the face penalty. And for guys like Mack, Monachino said they need to be aware of keeping their hands more toward the middle of a lineman’s numbers and not anywhere higher near the collar or facemask. 

Because while the second of the hands to the face penalties called on Flowers was admitted as a blown call by NFL VP of operations Troy Vincent, his hand was close enough to left tackle David Bakhtiari’s face that a blown call became a possibility based on what he’s coached to do. 

“As a protector, they’re taught to keep their face out,” Monachino explained. “So as he’s getting driven back, he’s got his head back so he can do that. From the side, that doesn’t look very good, right? But that pass rusher, Flowers, he wasn’t the reason that his head was back. It was because David Bakhtiari is a good player. He wants to get his face out of there so he can have a chance to recover.”

So it wasn’t like Bakhtiari flopped or sold the penalty like he was suited up for Manchester United and not the Green Bay Packers. But with the NFL making hands to the face a point of emphasis in 2019, anything that looks remotely like it is liable to be called. 

Monachino said he’ll use those two calls against Flowers as coaching points this week, not to remind them of how sub-optimal the league’s officiating has come across this year, but to remind his players of where their hands need to be to make sure officiating mistakes don’t happen, let alone reasonably-called penalties. 

And at some point, the Bears’ string of hands to the face penalties aren’t just on the officiating crews calling their games or random bad luck. They’re on the coaches and players for not getting the league’s message that anything contact close to an opponent’s face isn’t acceptable. 

“Those are judgements now,” Hiestand said. “Their eyes are on that a little bit, so we've got to do a better job.”

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