Bears addressing center transition with rare outsider


Bears addressing center transition with rare outsider

BOURBONNAIS — The Bears ended an era last April when they released veteran center Roberto Garza. Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, the team is tasked with staffing that vital position on the offensive line with a starter who wasn’t with the team the previous year or longer.

For the better part of the last 16 seasons the Bears went through myriad permutations of offensive lines. But throughout that stretch there was one anchor of continuity, that of the center position. That is changing in 2015.

For seven of those 16 seasons their centers represented the Bears in the Pro Bowl. Olin Kreutz, who won the starting job in 1999, went to six Pro Bowls, and Garza was selected as an alternate in 2011, his first year starting after Kreutz and the Bears separated over a contract impasse.

And even when Kreutz left, his successor — Garza — had been lined up to his right for the five previous seasons. That would be the epitome of “continuity.” Garza stepped in at center during the 2011 training camp in Kreutz’s absence, a move that became permanent in part because quarterback Jay Cutler instantly developed a liking for Garza’s handling of the position.

[MORE BEARS: Bears defense gets first three INTs of camp in practice No. 5]

Garza retired last offseason, and the Bears were tasked with filling a need/vacancy that hadn’t existed for more than 30 years, back through Garza, Kreutz, Casey Wiegmann, Jerry Fontenot and Jay Hilgenberg.

The Bears acquired Oregon center Hroniss Grasu with a 2015 third-round pick — the same round in which the Bears drafted Fontenot (1989) and Kreutz (1998). This after first securing the position with some experience, signing former Denver center Will Montgomery this offseason to replace Garza.

“(Montgomery) is familiar with the system,” said coach John Fox, who saw Montgomery work in the system of then-Broncos and now-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “There’s a lot to the center. He’s kind of the quarterback of the O-line. So we know how he fits that way and what his demeanor is.

“That’s why a lot of coaches and staffs move around, they bring players with them they’re familiar with. He’s adapted well. I think he’s helped the growth of our offensive line with that knowledge of the system.”

Montgomery has been ensconced as the starter since his acquisition. That has set him up with difficult matchups in Jeremiah Ratliff and rookie Eddie Goldman during much of practice. Grasu has worked against Goldman and Terry Williams, a 329-pounder. Grasu responded Monday with a stout stop of a bull rush by Williams, one of the surprise rookies of camp. Both have had wins and losses against some of the stoutest interior linemen in camp.

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Running back

The competition for roster spots got interesting on Monday as multiple backs produced impact plays. Diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers turned the corner and extended a sweep with quality moves on Kyle Fuller and Antrel Rolle. Quarterback Jay Cutler also went to Rodgers with a short flip that Rodgers took through traffic to the goal line. Rookie Jeremy Langford broke a run off the right side, got to the second level and reached the ball into the end zone for a score. That helped make up for being stuffed in the backfield by a power rush from defensive tackle Brandon Dunn.

Ka’Deem Carey is running with more confidence in his second training camp, hitting holes and executing blitz-pickup assignments like someone who has been in his playbook, which he said he has been. Daniel Thomas, the power back on the roster at 230 pounds, broke a run around the left side with a spin move that caused whiffs by two defenders who mercifully will remain nameless here.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.


Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.