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Bears building blocks for 2016? Not necessarily who you think

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Bears building blocks for 2016? Not necessarily who you think

I had an interesting chat with the Comcast SportsNet Bears Pre/Postgame Live crew and the subject was “building blocks,” and whom the Bears have that fit that critical distinction. Because at 6-9, positives aren’t just lying around everywhere.

These are not simply players who will be Bears in 2016, but ones with both the impact talent and at the positions around which offenses and defenses are structured.

Meaning: The key is not simply who are the Bears’ best players, but where those players play. For example, Lovie Smith prioritized building blocks on defense as three-technique defensive lineman and weak-side linebacker. He had both in Chicago with Tommie Harris and Lance Briggs. Brian Urlacher was the bonus to form “elite,” and when you throw in an Alex Brown and Charles Tillman, now you’ve got something. But the building blocks at the pivotal positions are where it starts.

[MORE BEARS: Bears place Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Goldman on IR]

And so it is with the Bears. All clichéd talent-bashing notwithstanding, the Bears in fact DO have core pieces in-house. Most important, they in fact do sit in those key positions, and they are young, many from GM Ryan Pace’s first draft.

Not all are the obvious ones, though.

Defensive bedrock’ers

Eddie Goldman

Pernell McPhee

Willie Young

No slight of Jarvis Jenkins or Ego Ferguson or Will Sutton or anyone else, but the Bears now are a 3-4 team, which builds from a base at nose tackle. A question before this season, the one true building block emerging from this year, in that linchpin position, is Goldman. A dominant nose tackle is to a 3-4 what a disruptive three-tech is to a single-gap 4-3, and Goldman became a force who had pieces of five different sacks and 13 other quarterback hits.

The second spot of absolutes is pass rusher. The Bears have issues at inside linebacker, but that is less of a must-have building block than pass rushers in the John Fox/Vic Fangio scheme. McPhee was signed to be that signature sack guy, and his leadership character has emerged. He’ll have surgery to clean up a balky knee this offseason but McPhee was Pace’s biggest signing, at a bedrock position, and McPhee’s play before his knee betrayed him was building-block stuff.

But the third building block on defense is one that ironically didn’t see himself as one in this system when 2015 started.

[MORE BEARS: The problem areas the Bears cleaned up vs. Buccaneers]

Willie Young may not like being called or thought of as a linebacker, but if he’s playing like he has the second half of this season, Fangio can call him whatever he pleases. Someone who nets 6.5 sacks despite barely seeing the field the first half of the season is pure platinum, regardless of scheme, and Young is a core piece of the critically important nickel package.

And Young has emerged as a true leader, respected for performance, work ethic and personality.

“I think it goes to show you the kind of guys it takes to play in this league,” said Fox. “He came off a season-ending injury; that’s never easy, a lot of work that goes into rehabbing an Achilles injury just like any surgically repaired injury, learning a new defense, fitting into a completely different scheme – it’s not easy.”

Lamarr Houston, idle much of the early season, has come on with six sacks and established himself as an impact part of the Fox/Fangio defensive concept. But Houston has cap hits just short of $7 million in 2016 and 2017, and $8 million in 2018. The Bears have a decision to make on Houston and with McPhee and Young set, Houston is simply too expensive for a spot-player.

Adrian Amos at safety has been a steal as a fifth-round pick. But for safeties to be franchise building blocks, think Ronnie Lott, John Lynch, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed. Not sure Amos is quite that. And Kyle Fuller did little to play up to his hoped-for standard as a foundation piece at cornerback. The building blocks are up in front of those guys.

Offense skill set’ers

Jay Cutler

Jeremy Langford

Kyle Long

Matt Slauson

Kevin White

Offensively the key building blocks are in place and obvious. Cutler became a different quarterback in 2015 under Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains. And Langford has a place at the grown-ups’ table. Now.

The offensive line has its questions but also has two set-it-and-forget-it’s. Unless a tackle drops into the Bears’ lap this offseason, Long will be a tackle with more than seven days to prepare for his next opening-day start. “I would take 10 of him if there were 10 available,” Fox said. “I would take 10 Kyle Longs.”

Matt Slauson is set, at either center or guard. A ruptured chest muscle cost Slauson most of 2014 but also gave the rest of him a year away from NFL abuse.

“I feel better this year than I’ve ever felt,” Slauson told CSNChicago.com. “I’m stronger, in better shape than I’ve ever been. It did give me extra time [to heal].”

He added with a smile: “But I would have much rather been on the field.”

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

And Slauson is the savviest all-around lineman on the roster. “If I’m called on to move over [to center], I’m happy to do it,” he said. “Now that I’ve gotten a lot of snaps there this year, I am a lot more comfortable with that move.”

Alshon Jeffery will be a marquee free agent and is expected to be in Chicago in 2016, possibly on a multi-year deal if the guaranteed money is palatable. But for a pivotal building block: White. He was drafted to be the centerpiece and a de facto hedge against losing Jeffery. He is the future.

Indeed, the prospect of pairing White with Jeffery won’t keep Gase from turning down a head-coaching job if one is offered. But having those two together should lessen a little of the sting if one isn’t, or if the ones offered are “no-way’s.”

“As far as our core guys that have been out there with us the entire time,” Gase said, “they have done a good job of progressing in the offense.”

Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

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Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

As Tom Brady approaches what in all reasonable likelihood will be his last game against the Bears and in Soldier Field, the first time this reporter saw Tom Brady comes very much to mind. Actually the first times, plural. Because they were indeed memorable, for different reasons.

That was back in 2001, when Brady should have started replacing Wally Pipp as the poster athlete for what can happen when a player has to sit out and his replacement never gives the job back. Drew Bledsoe, who’d gotten the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl, had gotten injured week two of that season. Brady, who’d thrown exactly one pass as a rookie the year before, stepped in and never came out, playing the Patriots into the AFC playoffs the same year the Bears were reaching and exiting the NFC playoffs when Philadelphia’s Hugh Douglas body-slammed QB Jim Miller on his shoulder.

After that the playoff assignments were elsewhere, including the Patriots-Steelers meeting in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. Brady started that game but left with an ankle injury and Bledsoe came off the bench to get the Patriots into Super Bowl.

Then came one of those rare moments when you are witnessing history but have the misfortune of not knowing it at the time.

The question of Super Bowl week was whether Bill Belichick would stay with Bledsoe’s winning hand or go back to Brady. Belichick of course waited deep into Super Bowl week before announcing his decision at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, the second time that season Belichick had opted to stay with Brady over a healthy Bledsoe. And of course Belichick didn’t announce the decision himself (surprise); he had it put out by the team’s media relations director.

You did have to respect Belichick, though, going into his first Super Bowl as a head coach with a sixth-round draft choice at quarterback and leaving a former (1992) No. 1-overall pick with a $100-million contract on the bench. The Patriots upset The Greatest Show on Turf Rams in that Super Bowl, Brady was MVP, and Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo that offseason.

History.

That Super Bowl also included one of those performance snapshots the Bears envision for Mitch Trubisky but missed a chance to let him attempt last Sunday at Miami in his 17th NFL start. Brady took the Patriots on a drive starting at their own 17 with 1:30 to play and no timeouts, ending with an Adam Vinatieri field-goal winner.

If Belichick was all right letting his second-year quarterback in just his 17th start throw eight straight passes starting from inside his own red zone, the next time Matt Nagy gets the football at his own 20 with timeouts and time in hand, best guess is that the decision will be to see if his quarterback lead a game-winning drive with his arm instead of handing off.

It may not happen this Sunday. Brady is a career 4-0 vs. Bears, and if there is one constant it is that his opposite numbers play really bad football against him, or rather his coach’s defense. Bears quarterback passer ratings opposite Brady, even in years when the Bears were good: Jim Miller 51.2 in 2002, Rex Grossman 23.7 in 2006; Jay Cutler 32.9 and Cutler again in the 51-23 blowout in Foxboro. Cutler finished that game with a meaningless 108.6 rating, meaningless because Cutler put up big numbers beginning when his team was down 38-7 after he’d mucked about with a 61.7 rating, plus having a fumble returned for a TD, while the Bears were being humiliated.

A surprise would be if Trubisky bumbles around like his predecessors (New England allows an average opponent passer rating of 91.6), but whether he can produce a third straight 120-plus rating…. Then again, Pat Mahomes put a 110.0 on the Patriots last Sunday night, but Deshaun Watson managed only a 62.9 against New England in game one.

Trubisky will make the third of the three 2017 first-round QB’s to face the Patriots. The first two lost.

Brian Baldinger: 'I'm not so sure anybody could've seen the jump that Mitch Trubisky is making right now'

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Brian Baldinger: 'I'm not so sure anybody could've seen the jump that Mitch Trubisky is making right now'

On Thursday, Brian Baldinger released another video clip on Twitter for his #BaldysBreakdowns series, this one praising the recent play from Bears QB Mitch Trubisky.

Baldinger states that Trubisky is "making some kind of jump", referring to how impressed he was with Trubisky's play when compared to his rookie season. 

In the video Baldinger explains in the video how you expect franchise QBs to make a big leap from year one to year two, and a big part of that leap for Trubisky is being unafraid to make aggressive throws downfield.

Baldinger highlighted a play where Trubisky hit Taylor Gabriel 47-yards down the field, choosing to trust his wideout after he hit him with perfect ball placement despite tight coverage. He continued this theme later on in the video, showing Trubisky's TD strike to Allen Robinson, which was whipped right past a Dolphins defender. 

But Baldinger's video wasn't exclusively compliments for Trubisky. He discussed Tarik Cohen's effectiveness as a pass-catcher, saying that you "can't cover him" and comparing him to a Ferrari with his ability to go from first to fifth gear "about as fast as anybody."

He ended his video by showing Trubisky punishing the Dolphins for a blown coverage, hitting rookie Anthony Miller in stride for a 29-yard TD. Baldinger's point in including this clip was to show Trubisky's improved recognition, as he may not have spotted the blown coverage last year. Noticing when and how to take advantage of defensive sloppiness is one of the many things that seperate a "franchise QB" from a stopgap, and Trubisky is trending in the right direction. 

If Baldinger's breakdown is any indication, we should expect Trubisky to keep his incredible momentum rolling when the Bears take on the New England Patriots on Sunday. New England is 3rd worst in the league in passing TDs allowed, giving up 15 scores through the air in six games.