Bears

Bears Camp Shorts: A Jay Cutler interception; Charles Leno, blindside protector

Bears Camp Shorts: A Jay Cutler interception; Charles Leno, blindside protector

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The prime directive of the 2015 offseason was to reduce the interception and general turnover tendencies that had marred the career of Jay Cutler. The elimination of interceptions was immediately evident last year when Cutler went interception-free for the first 11 practices, an improvement that played out through the regular season.

The dream of another 11 pick-less practiced died on Monday when a Cutler pass went off the hands of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and was deflected by cornerback Kyle Fuller into the hands of safety Harold Jones-Quartey. A Cutler pass last weekend had been gathered in by cornerback Tracy Porter but it was a throwaway after a simulated sack of Cutler, and not even the defense considered it a takeaway.

But the 2015 defense had a historically poor year taking footballs away from opponents, ranking 30th in percentage of passes intercepted and with only one team (Baltimore) picking off fewer than the eight passes intercepted by the Bears.

[MORE: Zach Miller concussion opens opportunity at a position of need]

For coach John Fox, an inherent conflict exists: wanting his defense to take footballs away from his offense, which he dearly wants to hold onto the thing.

“That’s what we’re here to get better at,” Fox said. “We’re trying to possess it on offense and trying to take it away on defense. That’s simple, but not easy. I think today’s pick was a batted ball or a tipped ball and sometimes those happen. We need to try to make it happen more on defense and obviously our goal on offense is to protect the ball”….

…Pass protection is an emphasis for the Bears’ offensive line and the group had some very good and some very bad on Monday. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. continued having a superb camp with repeated “wins” in one-on-one’s against various edge rushers, highlighted by a stand-up of 2015 sack leader Lamarr Houston…Tight end Greg Scruggs thoroughly handled outside linebacker Sam Acho in their initial rep, but Acho and Christian Jones breezed past Scruggs for simulated sacks, as Scruggs continues working at a position change from defensive tackle…

…Diminutive wide receivers Daniel Braverman and Kieren Duncan have been among the early camp highlighters with max-efforts for spectacular catches. The concussion-protocol situation with Eddie Royal projects to give Braverman, Duncan and Marc Mariani added snaps in an intense competition for what could be a receiver group as small as five, depending on how many running backs the staff elects to keep on final cutdowns.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

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USA Today Sports Images

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 31 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.