Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: After Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, Bears 'O' need a security blanket

Bears Camping Out 2016: After Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, Bears 'O' need a security blanket

When John Fox was turning the Carolina Panthers into a Super Bowl team and respectable annual contender in the NFC South, he did it not only with a committee approach to his running backs, but also significantly changing them on a near-yearly basis. In his first four Carolina seasons, Fox had four different leading rushers, only one gaining more than 900 yards, for teams that reached a Super Bowl and NFC Championship game over those four years.

The Bears made annual pilgrimages into free agency and the draft looking for Matt Forte understudies, with only marginal success. Forte got his 1,000-or-so yards and the Bears missed the playoffs seven of his eight seasons.

The organization used fourth-round picks in 2014 (Ka’Deem Carey) and 2015 (Jeremy Langford) not only to staff the No. 2 position, but also in hopes of staffing for the future. The 2015 season was perhaps a preview, with Langford rushing for 537 yards and Carey 159, with the two combining for 10 touchdowns rushing and receiving. The Bears ran the ball on nearly 46 percent of their snaps and want to push that rate closer to 50-50 under coordinator Dowell Loggains.

If there is a concern, it is that Carey and Langford averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. The only teams reaching the 2015 playoffs with their top rushers averaging less than 4 yards per carry were Houston and Washington – both blown out at home by wild-card teams.

Offseason adjustments

The Bears stepped away from Forte, making no contract offer to a player who would have been asked to go from a featured back to being one of a committee. Forte said all the right things about not needing to play every play but accepting a reduced role is only occasionally a workable scenario for a running back at age 30 who has played in the range of 90 percent of snaps his entire career.

Accordingly, the organization continued to invest in running backs, investing a fifth-round pick this year in Jordan Howard out of Indiana, a 230-pound power back with some speed (4.59 in the 40) and about 20 pounds more mass than either Carey or Langford.

For his part, Langford made his pass-catching a focus this offseason after some extremely costly drops last year.

The Bears also re-signed diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers, who was lost to IR with an elbow injury in game five but provides an all-around back with roles on special teams.

Without depth at tight end, the offense may move toward a traditional fullback, with veteran Paul Lasike signed to a futures contract this offseason.

Depth-charting

RB   Jeremy Langford/Ka’Deem Carey

The Mix

Jordan Howard

Paul Lasike (FB)

Senories Perry

Jacquizz Rodgers

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…Do the Bears have a quality third-down back?

Howard gives the offense a short-yardage/goal-line hammer, but none of their current backs have distinguished themselves as a receiver, which was a given with Forte and axiomatic to a successful offense. Langford’s hands were shaky last year and having Jay Cutler’s confidence is critical.

…How safe is Jay Cutler against blitzes?

Carey has worked since his first training camp on pass protection, and Langford did not distinguish himself with consistency, which coaches are demanding in blitz pickup, particularly for whoever aspires to be the third-down back.

…Will the offense tilt back toward a fullback paired with a tailback?

Fullbacks provide a blocking force for tailbacks and allies for offensive linemen. Forte found his escort hammer in Tyler Clutts, now in Dallas and who has made a career of taking care of his ballcarriers. The Bears may want a more physical running game but fullback has been a declining position in the NFL and they are not especially easy to find.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

Seth Gruen, Chris Emma and Matt Zahn join Kap on the panel. Jon Lester pitches like Jon Lester again and the offense does just enough to win in Pittsburgh. Jim Deshaies joins the guys to talk about the Cubs.

 

Should Roquan Smith make his preseason debut in Denver? Plus the Ohio State controversy takes a salacious turn. Will Urban Meyer keep his job when the investigation wraps up Sunday?

 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

DENVER — Expect the Bears’ starters to play deeper into the first half on Saturday in Denver than they did last week in Cincinnati, but their time on the field will still be relatively brief. The real dress rehearsal for the Bears will be next weekend, when they gameplan for and host the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 25. 

But Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium still represents sort of a checkpoint in the buildup to Sept. 9’s season-opening tilt with the Green Bay Packers. It’ll be the last game of the installation phase of the offseason, with coaches turning their focus to gameplanning for the Chiefs next week and then the Packers afterwards. 

There’s still plenty to be learned on Saturday, though. A few things to watch:

1. Will the first-team offense actually produce?

Mitch Trubisky this week bristled at the notion preseason games didn’t matter — “They don’t matter?” he said. “Then why do you guys talk about them so much?” — which fits with the attitude of a guy who was fairly frustrated with his and his teammates’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Trubisky wasn’t happy with offense’s sloppy and ineffective play during the two drives he quarterbacked, and wasn’t willing to write it off as “just” a preseason game. 

“No matter what it is, if it’s on the practice field, if I’m in the backyard by myself, if it’s a preseason game, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to move the football,” Trubisky said. “That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams do. We’re trying to get some momentum and everybody do our job and execute the offense.”

Still, because the Bears aren’t doing much in the way of gameplanning for the Broncos, any production or lack thereof won’t tell us much about the direction in which this offense is headed. More important will be how successful this group is next week against the Chiefs. 

But Trubisky’s competitiveness means he’s not going to let a poor performance slide, even if it’s only for a few series in a game that doesn’t count. He and the Bears hope that translates into some first downs and points on Saturday. 

2. Some notable debuts

Helping Trubisky’s cause will be the 2018 preseason debuts of running back Jordan Howard and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as running back Tarik Cohen — who only played one snap against Cincinnati — perhaps being used more. 

The Bears’ offense will not be at full strength, with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) and tight end Dion Sims (concussion) still out. But for Trubisky, it’ll be a good opportunity for him to see how all the work he and Robinson put in to develop a chemistry in the last few weeks translates to the field.

“We continue to create that chemistry in practice and my job is just to get the ball to the playmakers,” Trubisky said. “The more playmakers we have on the field, just continue to get them the ball and let them do what they do and we just need to roll as an offense, be on the same page, everyone continue to do their job, lock in and go out there and have fun an execute. It’ll be nice to see those guys with the ball in their hands this weekend.”

3. What about Roquan?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith in full uniform going through pregame warmups, but it would qualify as a minor surprise if he actually played on Saturday. 

The benefit to Smith playing would be working to accelerate his development with an eye on Week 1, even if it’s only for a few snaps. But does the risk of him getting injured outweigh whatever benefit playing him would provide?

It’s a question the Bears surely are debating. But coaches and trainers made sure to not push Smith too hard in this week’s joint practices against the Broncos, and it would be risky to put him in Saturday but tell him to not play at full speed. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Smith to play on Saturday, but more likely would be No. 58 making his preseason debut against the Chiefs with another week of practice under his belt. 

4. Snap decisions

James Daniels felt like he was a little sloppy last week against the Bengals, specifically with his hand placement but more broadly because the intensity of things was increased. 

“I think that’s when my technique gets sloppy is when you’re out there and playing against somebody else, you’re really playing,” Daniels said. 

This week’s joint practices, then, were beneficial for Daniels to focus on keeping his technique sound in a more intense setting. And he had the opportunity to do that all while still playing center, not left guard, where he had been working up until last week. How Bears coaches evaluate Daniels' week of practice — which certainly wasn't perfect — will be important, especially in the context of...

... Cody Whitehair going through a snapping “slump” over the last week or so, starting with that preseason game in Cincinnati. If those low/high snaps crop up again Saturday, and Daniels is able to put in a solid day of work with the second-team offensive line, it may nudge the Bears toward moving Whitehair to guard and inserting the second-round Iowa product into the starting lineup. 

The Bears haven’t considered that move yet, though, and the plan all along has been to keep Whitehair at center. A lot has to happen for that plan to change: If Whitehair can’t consistently get snaps to Trubisky, if Daniels proves he’s one of the team’s best five offensive linemen, and then if Daniels proves he’s a better option at center than Whitehair. So far, the Bears haven’t arrived at any of those conclusions, but Saturday’s game could have a significant impact on what those conclusions wind up being. 

5. Down-the-depth-chart position battles

Plenty of players fighting for a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster will get an extended opportunity to put more good — or bad — things on film on Saturday. 

Near the top of the depth chart, Adam Shaheen will have another opportunity to keep his arrow pointing up at the “Y” tight end spot with Sims still out. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris will continue their competition for the final starting spot on the defensive line, with Bullard still likely the slight favorite. Nick Kwiatkoski can help his case to hold off Smith with another solid showing in what’s been a solid preseason. 

An all-hands-on-deck competition to be the Bears’ reserve outside corner is developing, and with Prince Amukamara (groin) not practicing this week, everyone from that group will get a chance to help their case of making the Week 1 roster. Marcus Cooper needs to have a better game than he did against Cincinnati, while 2017 practice squad’er Doran Grant should get plenty of opportunities, too. For undrafted rookies Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin III, it’s a big opportunity, too, to turn a longshot bid for a roster spot into something more realistic.