Bears

Balancing act: “Coach” Tracy Porter works at his own CB job while helping Bears wobbly young secondary

Balancing act: “Coach” Tracy Porter works at his own CB job while helping Bears wobbly young secondary

When Charles Tillman retired earlier this year, more than an elite cornerback was exiting the game. Tillman was a mentor to young defensive backs, even though he made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in moving on to coaching in his next career.

When the Bears re-signed Tracy Porter to a three-year contract this offseason, one that committed some $4.5 million to a cornerback who’d been with five different teams over the past five seasons, they were cementing in place more than just their top defensive back. They were committing to one of those hard-to-find individuals whose presence makes the whole greater than just the sum of the parts.

Porter, who has played 16 games just once (Oakland, 2009) in his eight NFL seasons, has started as many games in his career (79, including six in postseason) as the rest of the Bears defensive backs combined (75). The result is that Porter suddenly becomes the bell-cow for a group that is struggling to establish itself and a level of NFL competence.

“We’re young in the secondary outside of Tracy Porter for the most part and we’re just going to have to see what they’re capable of doing mentally as we go through the process here,” said coordinator Vic Fangio, “and how many schemes we can ask them to do effectively.”

[SHOP: Add to your collection of Bears gear here]

A significant measure of how many of those schemes and everything else the secondary will be able to do traces (no pun intended) to Porter. He is not only the best defensive back on the roster; he also is the most experienced, from time in schemes with New Orleans, Denver, Oakland, Washington and now the Bears.

The situation is complex, however.

Veterans are too often assumed to be mentors to young players, even to the point of helping know where to line up, techniques and such. That involves in-game help, which is the nature of defense anyway. But a player assuming too much of a role in coaching others in his group can lose focus on his own job, a prelude to disaster.

“It can, but I try to do my best to focus in on what I need to do, and then once I see those guys taking their reps, then that’s when I go into the coaching mode,” Porter said. “But when I’m out there on the field, I’m locked in to what ‘21’ [his own number] and the rest of the defense has to do.

“But when the younger guys are in, I’m definitely in coaching mode. I’m getting my mental reps. At the same time, I’m watching those guys what they’re doing, if they’re having a missed assignment or having a not-so-good technique that I can help them with.”

The Bears had high hopes last year for tall cornerback Alan Ball, who started the first three games as Porter worked his way back from a preseason hamstring strain. Ball failed to capitalize on his opportunity and Porter replaced him at Seattle, then started the rest of the year.

And he has has begun this year working at setting an example as he did last Nov. 26 when he intercepted one Aaron Rodgers pass and broke up four others – most by any player in Rodgers’ career. Last Thursday’s game at New England was preseason, meaning that stats are typically dismissed as meaningless (which they are decidedly not when they indicate a pattern or trend). Inside the Chicago 10 Porter stripped the football from a Patriots running back and recovered it. The play was one the Bears practiced and the result was a takeaway in a second straight game, something the Bears were unable to accomplish over the final seven games of 2015.

It also was the only pass breakup or forced/recovered fumble by any member of the secondary in the game.

But that is part of preseason, and with the spiraling injury list in the secondary, Porter’s work away from the football will continue to be an unofficial on-field “assistant” to defensive-backs coach Ed Donatell.

“My biggest challenge?” Porter reflected. “Just keeping the guys into it that are injured and bringing the guys that weren’t getting many reps, getting those guys up to speed, to catch up the first- and second-team defense.”

Matt Nagy describes Aaron Rodgers’ literal attempt to get first leg up on 2019 Bears

Matt Nagy describes Aaron Rodgers’ literal attempt to get first leg up on 2019 Bears

A year after finishing 6-9-1 and seeing the Bears win the NFC North, the Packers find themselves in an unfamiliar role in the division: hunter, not the hunted.

Green Bay very well could win the NFC North in 2019, though they’ll have stiff competition in the division in the Bears and Vikings. Thus, the Packers need to do what they can to get a leg up on the competition.

Enter Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers and Bears head coach Matt Nagy were two of the many sports celebrities to compete in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship Tournament in Nevada from July 12-14. Thursday, Nagy recalled a prank Rodgers pulled on him at the event.

“So we're all in there and I'm scrambling to get in the back and stand up, and there’s about 100 guys sitting down in the back row,” Nagy said. “As I’m walking, all of a sudden, I trip.

“I kind of catch my knee. Somebody is sitting down. I look back. Someone stuck their knee out to trip me. I look back, and (Rodgers is) just sitting there and he’s just staring at me laughing, giving me this grin.”

Okay, so Rodgers tripping Nagy doesn’t actually give the Packers a leg up on the Bears entering the 2019 season. However, it sure is a fun way to kick off the latest rendition of the rivalry, as the two teams square of on Sept. 5 to open the NFL season. Plus. Nagy took the whole thing in stride.

“I just looked at him, and all I thought about is: ‘This is going to be fun,’” he said.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

Allen Robinson is looking like a true No. 1 receiver. Can he break the Bears' 1,000-yard drought?

8-22allenrobinson.jpg
USA Today

Allen Robinson is looking like a true No. 1 receiver. Can he break the Bears' 1,000-yard drought?

Here’s a fact that feels surprising every time it’s brought up: Allen Robinson is still in his mid-20s, turning 26 on Aug. 24. 

This is a guy who’s entering his sixth season in the NFL, having debuted while Marc Trestman was still Bears' coach. He’s four years removed from his 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown explosion with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but is also two years removed from the torn ACL that wound up ending his career there. 

As he enters his second season with the Bears, the difference from Year 1 to Year 2 has been noticeable. 

“I look like a totally different player,” Robinson said. 

That statement runs deeper than in just how he’s played over the course of the Bears’ preseason practices. He was able to grow his rapport with Mitch Trubisky during OTAs — a year ago, he wasn’t participating in those — and no longer has to focus on rehabbing his knee to get back on the field. 

But how Robinson looks even goes beyond his connection with Trubisky or his health. Cornerback Prince Amukamara practiced against Robinson when the pair were in Jacksonville in 2016, and said the receiver he was then isn’t the receiver he is today — in a good way. 

“He was real good in Jacksonville, and I feel like he’s better now,” Amukamara said. “I feel like in Jacksonville he really just went up and got the ball, they threw him a lot of jump balls. But now he’s running routes, he’s very crafty, he changes his tempo and he just seems very polished right now. He makes our jobs harder on defense.”

Amukamara pointed out that, of course, Robinson can still go up and snag those jump balls. Trubisky’s confidence in Robinson’s go-up-and-get-it ability grew in 2018, and is stronger entering 2019’s season. 

“I have a lot of confidence within myself, with me and him's chemistry,” Trubisky said. “And just being on the same page, if I put it up in his area 12 is going to come down with it.”

But it’s clear Robinson is more than a jump ball guy to Trubisky. The Bears can use him in a number of different ways, and the detail he puts into his routes and his ability to read coverages makes him a threat anywhere on the field. 

Similarly encouraging: Robinson and Trubisky are seeing things the same way. 

“I think for me and Mitchell I think we’ve done that a lot, being able to see whether it’s the breaking angle out of a route or stuff like that,” Robinson said. “I think, for us, we got a chance to rep a lot of that and to be on the same page — like if the corner plays it like this or if they run this kind of pressure or whatever it may be.”

Coach Matt Nagy said he’s observed Trubisky’s trust in Robinson being “a lot higher” than it was a year ago, too. 

“(Robinson) understands coverages,” Nagy said. “I think that separates the good wide receivers from the ones that become great. He has that next-level awareness. When you have that and you put the 'want' into how bad he wants it with his quarterback, that's where it's gonna be fun to see what those guys, how they connect this year.”

The Bears haven’t had a receiver eclipse 1,000 yards since 2014, representing the longest drought in the NFL. This is an offense, though, that believes in its ability to spread the ball around to a number of weapons, from Robinson to Taylor Gabriel to Anthony Miller to Trey Burton to Tarik Cohen to Cordarrelle Patterson to David Montgomery, etc. Not having a 1,000-yard receiver — sorry, fantasy football players — wouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a bad thing inside Halas Hall. 

Yet Robinson will enter 2019 with the best shot at hitting that mark, as he did four years ago. He stood out more than any other receiver during training camp, looking like a go-to guy for Trubisky if the offense is in a tight spot. That’s what he proved to be in the final seconds of January’s wild card loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, in which he dominated the final 20 minutes and made two critical catches that set up what could’ve been a game-winning field goal with time expiring (we all know what happened after that). 

So whether or not Robinson has a three or four-digit receiving yards total feels less important than the continuation of his development into a reliable, trustworthy target for his quarterback at any time in a game. And from what we've seen over the last month, that's what he'll be for Trubisky in 2019. 

“He's pretty much winning,” Trubisky said. “When it's one-on-one, the ball is going to 12 and he's unstoppable when he can go like that."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.