Bears

Takeaways from Bears loss to Bengals: A little Mitch, O-line flux, and paging Kevin White and a pass rush

Takeaways from Bears loss to Bengals: A little Mitch, O-line flux, and paging Kevin White and a pass rush

Definitive conclusions are typically in short supply outside of film-room reviews of preseason games. But the Bears’ second preseason loss contained a handful of “notables.” 

What a difference a Trubisky year makes

The state of Mitch Trubisky is the over-arching question for the 2018 Bears preseason, a little like it really was about this time last year, Mike Glennon or no Mike Glennon.

Trubisky took his first step into playing his way into a quarterback controversy last preseason, starting with completing his first 10 passes against the Denver Broncos and finishing with 18-of-25 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown. This time there’s no quarterback controversy but neither were the Bears particularly interested in exposing much of Trubisky, who took a total of 10 snaps, two of which were rendered “no play” by penalties.

Kevin White struggling for a connection

Wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson were out of the mix on Thursday but it was difficult not to wonder if Trubisky was putting a little more juice into trying to get Kevin White up to a higher level in the offense. It didn’t work.

White has been serviceable through camp to this point but not evinced much that would suggest he was once the seventh pick of a draft if you didn’t know it already. He and Trubisky have a clear personal comfort component, enhanced by shared time working out in California, and Trubisky came out with throws to White on two of the game’s first three plays.

“He knows I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Trubisky said.

Unfortunately neither pass resulted in a completion, a deep first-down throw that was incomplete, and White dropped the second, shorter throw in a play that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer flag against the Bengals.

“It was a drop,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And he would tell you that.”

Trubisky went to White a third time on the Bears’ second possession, again looking deep, but the attempt was incomplete, making White the only Bears receiver targeted in the game but who did not register a catch.

O-line in motion?

One thought is that the Bears’ offensive line is far from settled under returnee coach Harry Hiestand. And that is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Hiestand, O-coordinator Mark Helfrich and Nagy presumably will use the five-best-will-start plan, and the best combination may still be yet to form at two spots. Cody Whitehair rates as a clear member of the five-best’ers, but whether the line is its best with him at center or guard is open to discussion, and was a topic inside Halas Hall after last season.

Whitehair was the starting left guard through his rookie (2016) preseason, moving to center just before Opening Day because of the Bears signing Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. He stayed there last season and was graded as the No. 4 run-blocking center and allowed just one sack, according to Pro Football Focus.

Meanwhile, the Bears invested a high second-round pick in James Daniels and said initially that Daniels was going to work at guard despite a career at center for Iowa that included some All-American and All-Big 10 mentions. More immediately relevant perhaps, Daniels was clearly behind Eric Kush and Earl Watford in the guard mix.

Shifting Daniels’ focus to center in mid-camp sticks out as potentially significant, where he would be flanked by Whitehair and Kyle Long. The decision, as so often in these situations, is not whether Daniels is better than Whitehair (he’s not), but whether Daniels is a better center and Kush is a guard.

Daniels rates an unofficial edge on potential, Kush on experience.

Duly noteds

In what may have been a mini-preview of a crucial segment of the emerging Bears iteration of the time-honored West Coast offense, tight ends were a collective factor even in defeat. Tight ends caught 10 of the 11 passes thrown to them, topped by Daniel Brown’s five and Adam Shaheen’s three. Ben Braunecker caught one of the two thrown to him, while Trey Burton and Colin Thompson each caught their one target.

Notably, yards after catch were in evidence. Brown took one short completion 56 yards, Shaheen turned one upfield for 29 yards, and Braunecker’s catch went for 20.

Cincinnati quarterbacks dropped back 37 times in Thursday’s game. Only twice did a Bears defender register even a hit on one, and both of those by linebacker/end Roy Robertson-Harris, who collected his second sack of the preseason. No other Bear was credited with a quarterback hit, although Leonard Floyd and rookie Kylie Fitts will be credited with hurries.

Cornerback Marcus Cooper was a bad signing in free agency last offseason, and did not look much better as a re-signing at a guaranteed $1.15 million. Cooper was beaten in coverage and failed to close on two must-tackles on the first Cincinnati touchdown drive.

 

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

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USA Today Sports Images

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

DENVER — With Roquan Smith finally in tow, the Bears headed to Denver on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Broncos leading up Saturday’s preseason game at Mile High Stadium. 

The Bears last held joint practices with the New England Patriots in 2016, and for coach Matt Nagy, this week will be his first experience with practicing with and against another team. For Bears players, the opportunity to practice against opposition — instead of their teammates, as has been the case for nearly a month — will inject some life into the dog days of the preseason. 

“It’s a great opportunity to compete against other guys and you get to go out there, and you’ve been beating on your guys all year long and all training camp long,” defensive end Akiem Hicks. “It’s an opportunity to have some other type of competition. And then to finish it up and play them at the end of the week, it just works well.”

Nagy said on Sunday he doesn’t anticipate Wednesday and Thursday’s practices will be live, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph said on Tuesday he spoke with Nagy about working to prevent the kind of fights that have popped up in some other joint practices this month. Washington and the Jets, most notably, had an all-out brawl earlier this week in a joint practice. 

“It’s always good the biggest thing when you do these team scrimmages together, you just want to stay away form the fights,” Nagy said. “As long as guys do that it’s definitely a benefit for both teams.”

The main benefit lies in the boost players should get from competing against another team's players instead of their teammates. That competitive jolt is beneficial, especially for a team that’s been practicing longer than anyone else besides the Baltimore Ravens thanks to participating in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 2. 

“It’s a different defensive scheme all week,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We are lucky to go against a great defense in practice, but it will be nice to go against someone else (with) different styles and different coverages.

“It’s going to be competition all week, so we definitely have to bring it. It will be a great week for us to get better and compete and see who wants to win every single snap — not just a game, not just practice periods, but every single snap, every single rep.”

For Smith, Wednesday and Thursday will be a head-first dive into the Bears’ defense. Even if coaches try to ease him into things — which won’t necessarily be the case — it will come against an offense not controlled by Nagy and Mark Helfrich. These two practices will be a good early test for where Smith is in terms of knowledge and football shape after his four-week holdout. 

And for the rest of the Bears, these two practices represent an opportunity to compete against someone different while breaking up the monotony of preseason practices. That’s generally a good thing — even if you’re, say, a tight end who all of a sudden has to try to block Von Miller. 

“I know they have some good edge guys,” tight end Adam Shaheen said with a bit of a grin. “… I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends were looking at those guys. it’ll be a good challenge and a good chance to get better.”

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”